It took seven drafts for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers to get it just right.
It was perhaps his most important State of the Union address, delivered to Congress on Jan. 6, 1941, on the heels of his re-election to an unprecedented third term. Most of Europe had fallen to Germany’s Nazi troops and FDR hoped to convince Americans to support Britain’s fight against Adolf Hitler.
In 22 typewritten pages, double-spaced, Roosevelt recounted much of America’s war history, described the growing threat of fascism in the world and called for a stronger U.S. military defense, according to a transcript from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
He also sought attention to economic and social problems that might undermine American democracy, advancing novel concepts such as equal job opportunity, social security for seniors, unemployment insurance and greater access to medical care.
He called on every able American to make personal sacrifices and pay higher taxes, describing potential dissenters as “slackers or trouble makers.” If Congress backed his ideas, he said, “the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause.”
The four freedoms that came to define the speech were added in the fourth draft, according to the FDR library. The president and his advisers were working late in his White House study when Roosevelt announced that he had an idea for a closing section.
“We waited as he leaned far back in his swivel chair with his gaze on the ceiling,” recalled Samuel Rosenman, one of FDR’s speechwriters. “It was a long pause – so long that it began to become uncomfortable.”
Then, the president leaned forward and carefully dictated the Four Freedoms section of the speech.
“He dictated the words so slowly that, on the yellow pad I had in my lap, I was able to take them down myself in longhand as he spoke,” Rosenman recounted.
As FDR described each freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear – he emphasized their importance “everywhere in the world.”
Two years later, Norman Rockwell painted four enduring images of the Four Freedoms to illustrate a series of essays in The Saturday Evening Post.