Franklin D. Roosevelt and the meaning of freedom

President Franklin D. Roosevelt
In this Jan. 6, 1941 file photo President Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses a joint session of Congress, with World War II looming.
AP File 1941

75 years ago today President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave what came to be known as the "Four Freedoms" speech.

In his 1941 State of the Union address Roosevelt detailed the four things that people everywhere deserve: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

But the definition of freedom isn't always clear.

"When people praise freedom, they often mean different things," said historian Jeffrey Engel during a November 2016 speech at the Minnesota Historical Society's "History Forum," rebroadcast Friday by MPR News.

When President George W. Bush gave a speech in New York on Sept. 14 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks he used the word freedom 19 times, Engel said. A month later Osama bin Laden gave a taped speech where he called on his supporters to fight for freedom, calling the U.S. an oppressor of justice.

"Just because a politician, or activist, or a judge uses a word that is indisputably a good thing doesn't mean you're going to agree with it," Engel said.

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In 1940, Roosevelt began preparing for America's involvement in World War II, which he believed to be inevitable. As he ramped up military defenses and ally aid programs he stressed the importance of not being tied up "by the political shenanigans that prevented us from getting into the war effectively in World War I ... We need to do it right this time." And claimed he would take executive control in order to defend America's freedoms.

The notion was highly debated with opponents pointing out that "Roosevelt is essentially asking to create a superstate to defend our freedoms, but the superstate itself will erode our freedoms," Engel said.

It was in his "Four Freedoms" speech that Roosevelt attempted to give Americans the reason they needed to commit to the fight in WWII, Engel said. But those freedoms he described were made with the white Christian idea of what life should be like in mind.

"Roosevelt, in fact, when asked to describe his religious faith said the following, 'I am a Christian, and I am a Democrat,' and that's it, you don't need any more explanation than that," Engel said. "He offers a vision for Americans that Americans globbed on to whether or not it existed or not."

And the actual meaning of freedom is still being debated 75 years later.

"I think that what this tells us is the image of freedom is one that we are still grappling with today, and one in which people on both sides of the aisle are trying to harken back to and understand," Engel said.

To listen to the entire speech, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• Election 2016: Trump prepares inaugural address in the shadow of tradition

• History Forum: Was Theodore Roosevelt a radical?

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