FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, “1941 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS, THE FOUR FREEDOMS” (6 JANUARY 1941)

Classroom Activities

  1. Roosevelt’s speech is generally remembered as an example of great political oratory.  Why do we remember the address this way?  Are there any parts of the speech text that you can find that seem particularly eloquent, or inspiring, or persuasive?
  2. One of the most famous parts of this address is its description of the Four Freedoms.  In the years after the speech, hundreds of artists tried to express these freedoms in paintings, drawings, sculpture, and other forms of art.  Select one of the freedoms and try your hand at expressing it in the artistic medium of your choice. Roosevelt suggests that the “dictator nations” are acting in immoral ways.  What kind of evidence does he present to support this claim?
  3. Although the president spends a lot of time characterizing the “dictator nations,” he never mentions them by name.  Is there any significance to this choice?  Would the speech have had a different effect if he had named Germany, Italy, or Japan as enemies in the speech?
  4. The isolationists in Roosevelt’s audience were strongly opposed to allowing the United States to get involved in the war.  Many of them were fearful that FDR’s intention was to get the country into the war as soon as possible.  Do you think the speech was successful at allaying the fears of the isolationists?  Why or why not?
  5. FDR argues at several points in the address that democracy is under attack.  Since democracy is not an actual nation or country, how is it possible for it to be under attack?  Is it possible to defend or rescue such an abstract concept?  If so, is it the same or different from the way that one might defend or rescue an actual nation?
  6. The lend-lease bill that the Roosevelt administration introduced into Congress following this speech asked for permission to send weapons and other munitions to the Allies, such as Great Britain.  A great number of Americans were opposed to this idea.  The proposal was debated in Congress as House Bill 1776.  What is the significance of this number?  Why might it have been used to label this bill?

Student Research

  1. Although Roosevelt’s primary audience as he gave this address was the members of Congress (that is, they were there in the room with him), there were a number of other possible audiences for his speech (including people who would read the speech text days or weeks later).  Compile a list of at least four different audiences to whom Roosevelt’s speech would have been important.  What were their attitudes toward the speaker or toward the war? Provide evidence to support your position.
  2. Using a newspaper database, locate news stories that report on Roosevelt’s address in the days after it was delivered.  Are the reports generally favorable?  Do they offer a balance of supportive and critical commentary about the speech?
  3. What was Fascism? What was Nazism?  Today, we often lump these two ideas together, but in the 1930s and 1940s people could differentiate between them.  Find out how the two were similar, and how they were different. Why do you think we’ve forgotten, for the most part, the distinction between the two?
  4. Roosevelt’s address mentions “Munich” in his eleventh paragraph.  What was the Munich Conference?  When did it take place?  What role did it play in the beginning of World War II in Europe?
  5. Imagine that you are a newspaper journalist reporting on FDR’s speech for your local paper in 1941.  Write the story of the speech (don’t forget the headline).  How does your version of the story compare with those of your classmates?

Citizenship Resources

  1. The Four Freedoms became an important part of the charter of the United Nations, which was founded just four years after this speech.  Find the U.N. charter documents and find the sections that refer to the freedoms mentioned by Roosevelt.  Are they listed as “the four freedoms”?  Why do you think they ended up in their current form? Are such freedoms visible in contemporary discourse? If so, identify two contemporary speeches that reflect similar conceptions of freedom.
  2. President Roosevelt prepared for his political career by studying such skills as writing, speaking, and debating.  Do you think these skills are still important in political discourse today?  Are there any ways that you could improve on these skills in your school or local community? Identify specific ways in which local schools work to develop such skills today.
  3. An article in the Quarterly Journal of Speech in February, 1943 (about two years after Roosevelt’s speech) was entitled “What Speech Teachers May Do to Help Win the War.”  Do you think that trying to help “win the war” was a legitimate activity for the classroom in 1943?  Would it be today? If no, explain why not. If yes, identify specific ways in which students and teachers could help win a contemporary war.
  4. When President Roosevelt gave this speech, his legs had been paralyzed for over a decade.  He was able to move from place to place only in a wheelchair or using leg braces.  Do you think this physical challenge made a difference in Roosevelt’s ability to lead the nation through the Great Depression and World War II?  Do you think Roosevelt could have been a leader with the same physical challenges in the twenty-first century?  Why or why not? Try to identify a contemporary political figure that is successful in spite of a disability.
  5. One possible influence on the rhetoric in Roosevelt’s address was a sermon (often called the “City on a Hill” sermon) given in 1630 by John Winthrop, a Puritan preacher.  Try to find out more about Winthrop and this speech.  Keeping in mind that this sermon took place long before the United States came into being, do you see in it any signs of the political rhetoric that we hear today, nearly four centuries later? Identify two contemporary speeches that reflect the same themes.
  6. Some of Roosevelt’s contemporaries felt that his speech justified the idea of going to war against the “dictator” nations.  In recent years, other U.S. presidents have made similar justifications for going to war.  Locate two more contemporary war speeches to compare to FDR’s. What do you think about such rhetoric?  Do you feel that it’s inherently good or bad?  If you feel that some war rhetoric is good and some is not, what accounts for the difference?

Last updated May 16, 2016