Remembering Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Second Bill of Rights

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This post originally appeared at The National Memo.

Seventy years ago, on January 11, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his 11th Annual Message on the State of the Union. The United States was at war. But the president spoke not only of the struggle and of what Americans had to do to hasten victory over the Axis Powers. He also spoke of what Americans needed to do to win the peace to come. Reaffirming his administration’s commitment to the vision he had articulated in his 1941 Annual Message – the vision of the Four Freedoms:  Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – Roosevelt now called for an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans.

As President Obama contemplates his second-term legacy, and with midterm elections on the near horizon, he would do well to attend to FDR’s 1944 message. Our own challenges are not those of 1944. But in the wake of the tragedies, crises, painful obstructions and compromises of the past 15 years and in the face of continuing right-wing and corporate class war against working people, they are no less daunting – and we are no less eager to start addressing them.

Our own challenges are not those of 1944. But in the wake of the tragedies, crises, painful obstructions and compromises of the past 15 years and in the face of continuing right-wing and corporate class war against working people, they are no less daunting – and we are no less eager to start addressing them.

By January 1944, the United States and its allies had turned the tide of war. The Normandy invasion was still months away, but Allied forces were clearly advancing both east and west. And yet Americans were anxious – anxious not only about the lives of their loved ones in uniform and how long it might take to defeat Germany and Japan, but also about what might actually follow the victory. Many worried that the end of the war effort would see the return of severe economic difficulties and high unemployment, if not a new depression.

Roosevelt was well aware of those anxieties. But he knew what Americans could accomplish and he intended to speak to them as he had in 1933 – when he invited them to beat the Great Depression taking up the labors and struggles of recovery, reconstruction and reform known as the New Deal — and again in 1941, when he mobilized them to go “All Out!” against fascism and imperialism in the name of the Four Freedoms. Now as before he would not ask them to lay aside or suspend their democratic ideals and hard-won achievements for the duration, but urge them to rescue the nation from destruction and tyranny by not only fighting and defeating their enemies, but also making America freer, more equal and more democratic in the very process of doing so.

Roosevelt also knew full well that Congress would never endorse an economic bill of rights. Dominated since 1938 by a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats, Congress had been doing everything it could to terminate the New Deal, limit the rights of workers and minorities and block new liberal initiatives. And yet he had good reason to believe that most of his fellow citizens would embrace the idea. Polls showed that the vast majority of Americans saw the war in terms of the Four Freedoms and understood the battles of not just the past three years, but the past 12 years, in terms of enhancing American democratic life. In fact, 94 percent of them endorsed old-age pensions; 84 percent, job insurance; 83 percent, national health insurance; 79 percent, aid for students; and 73 percent, work relief. Pollster Jerome Bruner would observe: “If a ‘plebiscite’ on Social Security were to be conducted tomorrow, America would make the plans of our Social Security prophets look niggardly. We want the whole works.”

After outlining a set of policies to speed up the war effort, the president looked ahead: “It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known.” And in favor of that he proposed the adoption of a Second Bill of Rights.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcasts his annual message to Congress, Jan. 11, 1944, in Washington. The president topped a five-point victory program with a recommendation for national service legislation to make all able-bodied adults available for the war effort. (AP Photo)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcasts his annual message to Congress on January 11, 1944 in Washington, DC. (AP Photo)

“This Republic,” he said, “had its beginning and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights… 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.” But, he continued: “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.’” And evoking Jefferson, the Founders and Lincoln, he contended that “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident” and “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.” This Second Bill of Rights included:

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.

In sum, he stated: “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.”

Roosevelt did not leave it there, however. Distinguishing “clear-thinking businessmen” from the rest, he alerted his fellow citizens to “the grave dangers of rightist reaction.” And he then put Congress itself on the spot: “I ask Congress to explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights – for it is definitely the responsibility of Congress to do so.” Finally, linking the question of addressing the needs of the war veterans to that of enacting the new bill of rights in a universal program of economic and social security, he declared: “Our fighting men abroad – and their families at home – expect such a program and have the right to insist upon it.”

The labor movement quickly mobilized around the president’s proposal. Liberal politicians, editors, academics and theologians enthusiastically joined in a newly created National Citizens Political Action Committee to bolster labor’s efforts. Civil rights organizations firmly embraced the promise they heard in FDR’s words. And Americans energetically rallied as workers, consumers and citizens.

The labor movement quickly mobilized around President Roosevelt’s proposal. Liberal politicians, editors, academics and theologians enthusiastically joined in a newly created National Citizens Political Action Committee to bolster labor’s efforts.

Roosevelt himself did not retreat in the autumn presidential campaign. He not only reiterated his call for a new bill of rights. He also insisted that the “right to vote must be open to our citizens irrespective of race, color or creed – without tax or artificial restriction of any kind.” And that November, he won re-election to a fourth term with 53.5 percent of the vote and the Democratic Party, though it lost a seat in the Senate, gained 20 in the House.

Tragically, FDR was right about the dangers of rightist reaction. Americans’ hopes and aspirations were stymied by aggressive and well-funded conservative and corporate campaigns. Still, compelled by popular pressure, Congress did enact a “GI Bill of Rights,” an historic initiative that enabled 12,000,000 veterans ­– nearly 1 in 10 Americans – to radically transform themselves and their country for the better. And in years to come their generation would not only make America richer and stronger, but would act anew to progressively realize the vision that Roosevelt had projected.

We need to redeem that vision. President Obama has rightly warned that inequality seriously threatens America’s promise. He may not be able to enact any new grand initiatives before he leaves office. But remembering Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Message and speaking with confidence in and to his fellow citizens, he may not only get Americans to vote Democratic in November and set the agenda for 2016. He may also encourage us to go “All Out!” in the fight to renew America’s grand experiment in democracy. That would be a great second-term legacy.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.
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  • Christopher Michael Ripple

    I personally would consider almost exact plagiarism as a proud compliment to FDR and the American people. We put our trust in him and he has miserably failed us time after time although I admit against great odds. He needs to shed his walstreet alliances and be the mad black man we hoped and changed for. There is no compromise and they aren’t waiting for him, time to get large on the offensive and let them cry foul all they want, no time for debates… It is not like the MAJORITY of American citizenry are with you to make these changes. Tax corporations and the wealthy, close loopholes…. You said you would stand if we stood up…and we have, how can you deny Occupy and all the other movements, what is the magic threshold? Do something or you will be the president known for singlehandedly allowing the Democratic Party go down. Don’t kill the Santa. Make our regulators have big scary damn teeth, put people in the prisons they own.

  • Norman Morris

    The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was perhaps one of the greatest visions America ever put into reality? Sadly, today’s conservative would see such a helpful program as socialism or bigger government? What would be wrong with even a state relief program to fix roads, bridges and infrastructure, I will never know? Just the times we live in, I guess?

  • Anonymous

    FDR was and is exactly right. If we look at history, we see that rising inequality, monopoly and undo power to the wealthy resulted in collapses in the 1850’s, 1890’s, 1930’s and perhaps right around the corner. Unfortunately it took these collapses which threatened the foundations of our political/economic system and hurt virtually everyone to bring us to our senses. As always, the poorest among us to the brunt of the pain. In addition, the propensity for radicalism, demagoguery and war also followed these collapses.

    It is high time that we put in place a permanent federal plan to prevent future economies from falling into the inequality trap. Rather than employing the blunt instrument of unions to do the job, I propose that we pass a federal law which looks at the history of the payroll to profit ratio for each public corporation and sets a floor for that corporation’s ratio. In other words, once profits rise enough to reach the ratio floor, then all excess will either be paid to the federal government as a fine or shared proportionately between payroll and profits. A couple of other wrinkles I would add to make this work would be that for this calculation one would only consider the first $250,000 of remuneration for US employees as part of payroll. In addition, I would limit the sales of goods and services in the US to separately listed wholly US corporations who only sell in the US and are not allowed to move assets or profits outside the US.

    Implementing such a plan would fulfill the first five articles in the second bill of rights as well as provide for a healthy economy driven by strong wage-based demand. Everyone would win.

  • Anonymous

    We need to do what FDR called for in 1930: We need to make America “fairly radical for a generation” – and that includes renewing the Fight for the Four Freedoms and enacting a Second Bill of Rights – an Economic Bill of Rights!

  • Mike

    Unfortunately, anything that costs money to implement, a president cannot do on his own… except, military action(as long as it’s short of war). The 2010 elections are why Obama has been so weak – – the voters weakened him, when he most needed the power to do great deeds.

  • Christopher Michael Ripple

    Sorry, I feel that is an excuse. The right has unapologetically tried to move entire picture to the right which they largely have, driving where I really feel the true majority of people really are further away, democrats, progressives to even Socialists. Slash and burn politics can only be fought with the President having an FDR moment, the people have already proved would support them. He needs to move away from his Deep State acknowledgement to having a completely open attack on it, same with corporate stranglehold, firstly by busting up the banks, I fear them our greatest concern right now, almost tied with overturning citizens united. One thing President can d with a signature, make voting days a national holiday. There ARE things he can do.

  • Christopher Michael Ripple

    One of the VERY best explanations I have read has been Thom Hartmanns Crash of 2016, something all educated people should add to there memory and use it as a great tool.

  • Christopher Michael Ripple

    Here here, definitely needs to include repatriating off shored monies illegally put there to date. A small mixture of consumption tax but higher taxed companies, completely do away with taxes on homes and incomes, I have seen and experiencing crippling tax rates for people that worked whole life by the rules only to have their taxes drive them out, let’s go closer to Alaskas model and it be a business expense. It would allow us to streamline and almost do away with the IRS. Business are the engines, that’s where the payments should come from.

  • Christopher Michael Ripple

    Sorry, forgot to add, stripping media back to a base function and nationalize the internet as a human rights issue and expand to every corner of every state. All commodities taken from under the ground of the US be taxed Heavily to cover all schools

  • NotARedneck

    “Here here, definitely needs to include repatriating off shored monies illegally put there to date.”

    I’m with you. It is not only the $33 trillion currently squirrelled away by tax evaders, big time organized criminal gangs and 3rd World despots. It is also the links that these banks and their secret operations have to dummy corporations and other “investment vehicles” these scum have, in the advances western countries. As an accountant, I am well aware how properties are often sold with a large gain and by the time the tax authorities get a whiff of it, 2 years have passed and the only “contact” left is a lawyer who wasn’t paid either!

    After all, there is no reasonable return provided on deposits by these tax havens – this is why they all have very high standards of living for those few who are lucky enough to live there – they profit on the large differential from loaning out these “free” funds. Therefore, the $33 billion is merely the tip of the iceberg as most (except the worst of the criminal depositors) quickly launder their money into investment vehicles giving high returns and an opportunity to evade more tax, if at all possible. The money AND the records in these tax havens need to be seized, NOW.

  • paulscha

    We have a party of regress, and a party of retreat. For a party of progress, we voters must turn to each other.
    Polls show we already agree on enough to transform this country for the better: hiring back our teachers and first responders, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, raising the minimum wage.
    In most polls, these are steps a majority of Republicans, as well as Democrats, support.

  • patti livernash

    My Uncle Jacob got a year 2013 Audi TT RS
    Coupe by working part time online. imp source J­u­m­p­9­9­9­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Mike

    A president can’t overturn a Supreme Court ruling with a signature, unless that signature is signing an amendment passed by congress (not THIS congress, for sure). He also can’t, single-handed, “bust up the banks” – – he’s a president, not a king. FDR didn’t do actions like that by himself – – he did a lot, but not on that level, because that’s not in a president’s power.

  • Anonymous

    During Bush II, I think many began to dream more forcefully of American renewal and reformation, a New Deal 2.0, and yes, another FDR. And then came Obama, packaged and produced as some sort of MLK, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt all rolled into one. “Hope and Change.” I believed, I really did. However, if you look closely where Obama actually came from on his rise from obscure State Senator to President – who supported and opened the doors for him – you realize this is not MLK/FDR all rolled into one. This is something very different, perhaps at best another Bill Clinton. As a former student of American history, I admire FDR deeply, as well as America’s prior ability to renew itself until it became the great, shining hope of the world. I fear Obama – Wall Street’s choice for President in 2008 – is not someone who will lead for reformation other than in occasional words and gestures. In contrast, the legacy of FDR shines ever brighter, although most no longer even study history or the incredible story of that man’s journey. In the end FDR’s Four Freedoms remain relegated to an island memorial off of Manhattan and the history books, some incredible thing that brave working class GIs were told as they fought and died for freedom, to be brushed aside as soon as the war was won and fortunes were made for others in the process. The truth is FDR brought a form of socialism (whatever that is) to America and the result was the greatest nation on Earth. And since then, well, look around.

  • Underdog

    This Marxist-Progessive vision for the nation continues to haunt us, through the Great Society that is bankrupting us with nothing to show for it, to the modern Obama-Hillary progressive that seeks to complete FDR’s vision with a stagnant economy and 92m Americans not working. Progressivism is a cancer that needs to be placed in a museum somewhere to be mocked and shamed, with is leaders run out of office.