This month marks the 75th anniversary of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedom paintings inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech two years earlier.
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure,” the president had said, “we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.”
With that, Roosevelt began bringing his address to a close. Today it’s remembered not as the 1941 State of the Union address, but as the Four Freedoms Speech.
The second was “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.” Again, a constitutional right guaranteed to Americans.
The third and fourth freedoms were not enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, however: Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. All four resonated well with citizens, who understood them as a compelling expression of American exceptionalism and of hope for a new and better world.
The four freedoms gained enormous emotive power later when popular artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) gave them visual expression in four successive covers of Saturday Evening Post in February and March 1943.
“Freedom of Speech” shows a blue-collar worker standing up in public, speaking while others listen intently. “Freedom of Worship” shows several figures praying or in a prayerful mood. “Freedom from Want” depicts an elderly woman placing a Thanksgiving turkey on a table around which a large family is happily conversing. And the fourth, “Freedom from Fear,” shows an adoring mother and father checking on their sleeping children as the man holds a newspaper headlining horrors of war.
Rockwell’s paintings for the Post captured the nation’s attention more than Roosevelt’s speech had two years earlier. Everywhere editorials, articles and advertisements for products utilized the themes of freedom, explored them anew and drew practical applications. Some credit is due the paintings for increased sales of war bonds and stamps.
The Post magazine covers appeared just as the Battle of Stalingrad had ended, and Germany’s invading army surrendered. Meanwhile, Munich and Vienna were being heavily bombed, and the Allies were fighting German Gen. Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps for control of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. In the Pacific, the U.S. Army forced the Japanese to withdraw from Guadalcanal.
In that context, Americans would continue a people’s war with “citizen soldiers,” while on the home front, ironically, people became less free. Though they internalized through Rockwell’s art an idealistic vision of why their nation had entered World War II, polls suggested that – given the draft, price controls, and rationing – revenge for Pearl Harbor was the dominant public mood.
To celebrate Rockwell and paintings, Smithsonian magazine this month features the posters and also asks four contemporary artists to illustrate their impressions of how the four freedoms might appear today. “Freedom from Want” graces the magazine’s cover, but whereas Rockwell had stressed togetherness, the modern family is free from economic want; seated around the dining room table, they appear not to be interacting with others but rather are individually focused on an assortment of tech gadgets. “Freedom of Speech” is represented not by a respectful group listening to a working man speak, but rather by a lone black female participant in the #MeToo Movement, claiming her rights to equal pay.
“Freedom of Worship” now features eight persons of diverse religious and ethnic affiliation; quite a contrast to Rockwell’s painting of white Christians celebrating Thanksgiving. The modern “Freedom from Fear” painting presents a distressing scene in which an immigrant family housed in a detention center is putting their children to bed, while the man holds a newspaper headlining that the border patrol has detained 300 immigrants.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, enhanced by Rockwell’s affectionate portraits, remains positive. The early years of the Cold War saw the establishment of the United Nations, which in short order passed the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose principles found their way into national constitutions and international treaties. By expanding beyond the U.S. Constitution to emphasize freedom “from” fear and want, as well as freedom “of” speech and religion, the document affirmed that it is in interest of nations to pursue policies that provide employment and guard against high levels of concentrated wealth.
Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic world is mostly gone – gone like the more slowly paced rural life I knew as a young boy. I too have a healthy dose of nostalgia, but for all of the inequalities of race, class, and gender in that older world, I would not choose to go back.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.