Thursday, June 15, 2023

Franklin D. Roosevelt... Norman Rockwell... and "The Four Freedoms"

 By Mary Dodge Allen

President Roosevelt giving 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress 
(Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum)

On January 6, 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his State of the Union Address to Congress. This speech is often referred to as “The Four Freedoms” speech.

WWII was raging in Europe, North Africa and Asia, waged primarily by the dictators of the three aggressive Axis countries: Germany, Italy and Japan. Italy had invaded North Africa, and Japan had invaded China, while setting its sights on other areas of the Pacific. German forces occupied and controlled much of continental Europe and Norway, and Britain was involved in a desperate air and sea war with Germany. 

At this time, the United States was technically a neutral country. In this speech, President Roosevelt described the perilous situation in the world, and he eloquently spoke about the role and responsibility of the United States in supporting democracy and freedom.

Excerpts from this State of the Union Address:

"During sixteen long months this assault has blotted out the whole pattern of democratic life in an appalling number of independent nations, great and small. And the assailants are still on the march, threatening other nations, great and small.

Let us say to the democracies: “We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. This is our purpose and our pledge.”

(Three months later, on March 11, 1941, the Lend-Lease Act was passed by Congress, authorizing the U.S. to deliver needed weaponry to the countries under attack by the Axis powers.)

Later in his State of the Union Address, President Roosevelt set forth the "Four Freedoms" - the basic freedoms we hold dear - the 
principles of democracy worth fighting for:

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world."

This State of the Union Address was broadcast on radio, and it touched a chord throughout the nation. 
Then, eleven months later, on December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, propelling the U.S. directly into the war.

U.S.S. Arizona battleship bombed at Pearl Harbor (Public Domain)

Artist Norman Rockwell wanted to contribute to the war effort, but at the age of 48, he was too old to serve in the military. So he used his artistic talent. In the Spring of 1942, he created a painting, commissioned by the U.S. Army Ordnance Department, to be displayed as a poster encouraging production at ordnance factories. Rockwell’s painting portrayed a machine gunner in need of ammunition, with the caption: “Let’s Give Him Enough and On Time.” 

Poster Rockwell made for the U.S. Army Ordnance Department (Public Domain)

Rockwell was always searching for subject ideas for his paintings, and he remembered the electrifying State of the Union Address the President had given the previous year. He decided to illustrate the Four Freedoms. 

At first, he wasn’t sure how to go about it. Then inspiration struck during a meeting he attended in his small town, Arlington, Vermont. A neighbor stood up and spoke out, voicing his opposition to a proposal. Even though this man was alone in dissenting, the others listened respectfully to what he had to say. This gave Rockwell the idea for “Freedom of Speech.” He decided to illustrate all of these freedoms using his neighbors as models – regular citizens, involved in everyday situations. 

After much thought, he created four rough sketches. Then he traveled to Washington D.C. to show these sketches to his contacts at the Army’s Ordnance Department. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the resources for another commission, so they turned him down. 

Norman Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait (Norman Rockwell Museum)

Rockwell had been creating magazine covers for the popular national magazine The Saturday Evening Post for over twenty years. On his way home to Vermont, Rockwell stopped in Philadelphia and made an appointment to show his sketches to the Post’s editor, Ben Hibbs. The editor liked Rockwell’s sketches of the four freedoms and decided to use them as future magazine covers, accompanied by essays in each magazine on that particular freedom topic.

Ben Hibbs gave Rockwell three months to complete the paintings. But as he began working, Rockwell got cold feet, wondering if this project might be too much for him. It took him seven months to complete all four paintings, and he lost nearly fifteen pounds in the process. Years later, Rockwell stated in a New Yorker Magazine interview, “It was a job that should have been tackled by Michelangelo.”

Interesting note: Shortly after Rockwell delivered his completed “Four Freedoms” paintings to The Saturday Evening Post, a fire broke out in his Vermont studio. The original sketches and artwork related to this project were destroyed in the fire. 

"Freedom of Speech" published February 20, 1943

"Freedom of Worship" published February 27, 1943

"Freedom from Want" published March 6, 1943

"Freedom from Fear" published March 13, 1943

The “Four Freedoms” paintings were a great success. The Saturday Evening Post received 25,000 requests for reprints. The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced a joint campaign with Curtis Publishing (publishers of the Post) to sell war bonds and stamps - giving out prints of the four paintings to every buyer. In April 1943 they began a sixteen-city nationwide tour called the “Four Freedoms War Bond Show.” 

Rockwell received thousands of letters and postcards from citizens, offering thanks for the creation of these paintings.

Perhaps the most memorable was the letter Rockwell received from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wrote:

“I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms... I congratulate you not alone on the execution but also for the spirit which impelled you to make this contribution to the common cause of a freer, happier world."

For the complete transcript of President Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, click on this link:


Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting today. Norman Rockwell is one of my favorite artists. I loved finding out how these paintings came to be.

    1. Hi Connie, I thought it was interesting that Rockwell delivered the finished paintings to the magazine only days before his studio caught fire.