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Timely Words from FDR

On January 11, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual state of the union address as a “fireside chat,” one of the hallmarks of his presidency. He was nearing the end of his third term and seeking re-election to a fourth. (He is the only president to have been elected to serve four terms. In 1947, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidential terms to two.) World War II was raging, and the Allies were making plans for the invasion of Normandy, an event that would help turn the tide of the war.

National Archives and Records Administration, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLFDR), 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY, 12538-1999.

Roosevelt had entered office in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, inheriting one of the the greatest economic disasters in the nation’s short history. Many viewed his New Deal proposals as radical because they reshaped the relationship between government and the American public. In a nation still struggling with segregation and lynching, the president who authorized the internment of Japanese Americans also undertook to redefine what government “of the people, by the people, for the people” meant. What obligation did government have to its citizens? That’s a question we still squabble over today as our communities struggle with the same inequities that have troubled this nation since (and before) its inception.

And so, these few words from Roosevelt seem timely even today. Like most leaders in our history, those recognized and those obscured, he was not perfect; however, he was onto something with this statement:

In this war, we have been compelled to learn how interdependent upon each other are all groups and sections of the population of America. … This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty. As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are: The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; The right to a good education. All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

You can substitute just about any crisis, including the present pandemic, for war in the first and final lines. The fundamental truth of our interdependence holds. It is that interdependence that should incline us toward reconsidering the true meaning of phrases like social welfare and common good. Your neighbor’s health is your own. Your neighbor’s liberty is your own. Your neighbor’s security is your own. So, too, your neighbor’s hardship, repression and persecution can become yours.

We can, and must, do better by everyone for everyone.

(from May 15, 2020)

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