Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Franklin D. Roosevelt, “1941 State of the Union Address, The Four Freedoms” (6 January 1941)

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator.

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

  • This speech was given at a precarious time in United States History. The U.S. was divided over whether or not to enter World War II, and much of the world was anxious to hear Roosevelt’s plans for U.S. involvement. As such, FDR balanced the conflicting desires of a number of interested factions.
  • Roosevelt constructed his speech not solely as a pro-war message, but also as a message defining the essential human rights that the U.S. was dedicated to preserving. He did this by introducing the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  Although Roosevelt presented these as universal human values, he also positioned the U.S. as a moral agent responsible for upholding these ideals.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts


Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness, or beauty of the text.

  • FDR cast U.S. involvement in WWII not as a means to destroy something evil, but to preserve values and ideals. What was worth fighting for, according to FDR, were “the rights and the dignity of all of our fellow men,” which he laid out in the Four Freedoms. These Four Freedoms, he claimed, were fundamental to democracies around the world.


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.5 Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.

  • Roosevelt utilized a three-point structure to build a rescue narrative: 1) established the Axis Powers as the enemy, 2) depicted democracy as a victim, and 3) inserted the U.S. as the moral agent called upon to save democracy. As a result, the U.S. was cast not as a potential aggressor should it enter the war, but as a preserver of a noble way of life.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

    • Introduce students to the “Four Freedoms” before reading the speech. Teachers can show these Normal Rockwell paintings, inspired by FDR’s State of the Union Address. Have students reflect on the values depicted in each painting. Students can share their reactions to the art with the class. To conclude, notice themes and have students discuss whether these themes seem most consistent with a message of peace or war.
  • Provide historical context for the State of the Union Address by having students read the short background essay on the FDR Presidential Library site: http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/OD4FREED.HTML
  • Although Roosevelt’s immediate audience for this speech was a joint session of Congress, there were a number of other possible audiences for his speech, including people who would read the speech days or even weeks later. Consider other possible audiences: isolationists within the U.S., those who thought the U.S. should enter the war on the side of the Allies, those who were undecided about the right course of action, and foreign audiences on both sides of the war.  How might each group have responded to the speech differently?

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • “The four-year War Between the States” [para 3]: The Civil War
  • “The World War” [para 10]: World War I
  • “Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” [para 18]: Famous quotation from one of America’s founders, Benjamin Franklin.

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-reading, Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures, and Beginning the Speech

  • Students will complete pre-reading of teacher’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
  • Students will read paragraphs 1-31.
  • Students will consider how FDR constructed his speech not as only as a war message, but as a statement on democratic ideals.

Day 2: The Four Freedoms

  • Students will read paragraphs 32-62.
  • Students will analyze the speech’s structure and reflect on how the speech cast the U.S. in a heroic role as defender of the Four Freedoms.

Day 3: Finishing the Speech and Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Students will read paragraphs 63-91.
  • Students will complete post-reading activities chosen by the teacher.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraphs 1-4: Discuss the opening of FDR’s speech. Who did he identify as his audience? What did he say was unique about the historical context of this State of the Union Address? How, according to FDR, did this moment in history differ every other State of the Union addresses?
  • Paragraphs 5-10: How did FDR interpret America’s historical involvement in world affairs? Why do you think FDR talked so extensively about U.S. history in this section of the speech?  How did FDR’s speech respond to the isolationists?
  • Paragraphs 11: Although FDR used the word “threat” many times in the opening paragraphs, he defined the enemy as “the new order of tyranny that seeks to spread over every continent today.” Why do you think he defined the enemy in this way?  This new enemy was clearly the Axis powers that had already invaded and occupied several countries throughout Europe and Asia.  So why do you think FDR chose not to mention Hitler, the Nazis, or the Axis Powers by name?
  • Paragraphs 12-21: The Axis powers have been established as the enemy, and in this section, FDR identifies the victims of this enemy—“independent nations, great and small,” as well as democracy itself. Why does FDR identify the targets of the aggression in this way?  How does he link this attack on democracy to the Four Freedoms?
  • Paragraphs 22-28: FDR claimed that although the U.S. was not yet involved directly in the war, the country was still at risk. How did the President make the case that the U.S. was still in danger of “physical attack?” How did he raise concerns over German espionage, “treachery,” and a “surprise” attack?
  • Paragraphs 29-31: These paragraphs introduce the U.S. as the agent responsible for upholding the “justice of morality.” Why do you suppose he used that language?  How does the language of morality justify FDR’s call for resisting “foreign peril” the nation’s top priority?
  • Paragraphs 32-36: In this section of the speech FDR laid out the details of his policy. How did he present the principles as universal values?
  • Paragraphs 37-54: This part of the speech provided details on how FDR proposed to shift the “whole nation from a basis of peacetime production of implements of peace to a basis of wartime production of implements of war.”  How did FDR suggest this would be accomplished, and how did he propose to make armaments produced by the U.S. available to other nations?
  • Paragraphs 55-59: FDR discussed what was called his “Lend-Lease” program, in which the U.S. supplied arms to the Allied Forces. How did FDR address the urgency of the situation?
  • Paragraphs 60-81: FDR identified the domestic priorities, as the nation prepared for possible involvement in World War II. What were those priorities, and how did FDR link them to the universal principles of justice and morality?
  • Paragraphs 82-91: Why did FDR end the speech with the Four Freedoms? How did he present the Four Freedoms as a “definite basis” for peace? Do you feel he did a good job of presenting the Four Freedoms as a rationale for commitment and sacrifice by the American people?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Revisit the Norman Rockwell paintings of the Four Freedoms. Have students make their own art that reflects their views of this speech or that demonstrates a more modern reflection of the Four Freedoms.
  • Students can consider the following questions in small groups. FDR argued at several points in the address that democracy was under attack. How was democracy under attack? Why do you think FDR decided not to mention the enemy by name?
  • An article in the Quarterly Journal of Speech in February 1943 was entitled “What Speech Teachers May Do to Help Win the War.” Do you think that trying to help “win the war” was seen as a legitimate classroom exercise in 1943?  Would it still be acceptable today? How would you feel about a class on “How to Win the War on Terrorism?”  What , if anything, would make that different from a similar class during World War II?
  • Some scholars draw parallels between FDR’s Four Freedoms speech and George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address in 2005. Have students read this short article (https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/education/001/four_freedoms/5220.html) ,along with the full text of Bush’s speech (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/21st_century/gbush2.asp). Ask students to compare the two speeches, Which president do they feel did a better job giving expression to the fundamental values defining America, both domestically and in world affairs?
  • When President Roosevelt gave this speech, he had been paralyzed for more than a decade. He was able to move from place to place only in a wheelchair or by 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 a leader with the same physical challenges could be effective today? Why or why not? Try to identify a contemporary political figure who has been successful despite a physical or mental disability.