All Commentary
Friday, April 1, 1960

The Tricky Four Freedoms

Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wiscon­sin.

Logic, it has been said, not with­out point, is horse sense made asinine. Certain it is that many a man who never heard of it has done handsomely without it. Nevertheless it sometimes has its uses, and since any success achieved in the discussion to follow must depend above all on sound reasoning, I suggest that we pay a brief visit to a man who was both a writer on logic and on other grounds an outstanding thinker.

It happens that John Stuart Mill, the authority to whom I re­fer, has considered the subject of liberty at length, as everyone knows, and has arrived at very definite conclusions regarding its nature. We shall learn from him what these conclusions, in their essence, are. In his society, more­over, we can flex our intellectual muscles, and at the same time obtain from him criteria that will prove of value in our special under­taking. In examining his ideas it is well to bear in mind that they are (he tells us) “anything but new,” and that they were formu­lated a century ago, in a quieter time than ours—or so it seems—generations before the present whirlwinds of glib opinion had come to trouble and confuse us.

The “appropriate region of human liberty,” says Mill, com­prises, first, “liberty of thought,” including “the cognate liberty of speaking and of writing”; second, “liberty of tastes and pursuits”; third, “liberty… of combination among individuals”—freedom, that is, “to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others, the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.” “No society,” he con­tinues, “in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be the form of government; and none is com­pletely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”¹

To one eminent philosopher, then, the three freedoms differen­tiated, neither more nor fewer, are the great, the indispensable, human freedoms, and as such, one is safe in adding, constitute basic political objectives which he thinks proper to all mankind. What are the characteristics, one is curious to inquire, that distinguish them?

Fundamental Characteristics

Each of the three freedoms—and this is their first and most fundamental characteristic—rep­resents the absence of restraint in relation to a particular activity. It is a freedom to do something. In one case it is a freedom to think as one chooses; in another to like or dislike, and to select one’s course in life, as one chooses; in another to unite with one’s fellows as one chooses. Always, in one di­rection or another, it is an exhila­rating state of unshackledness, of freedom to go about, unhampered, the fulfillment of one’s desires.

Each, again, is essentially an immaterial benefit, involving, as it does, the human dignity and moral independence of the individual, to­gether with his inner peace and satisfaction. The first of them frees the workings of his mind, the second his tastes and pursuits, the third his choice of affiliations.

Each, again, is a benefit that the individual is incapable of achiev­ing by his own exertions, that is his only through an act, implied or actual, of the society in which he lives—an act, moreover, which it is easily within the power of any society, at any time, to give. It is society only which can inhibit his freedom of thought (including worship), his freedom of tastes and pursuits, including, neces­sarily, the ownership and control of property, and his freedom of entering into groups with others; consequently it is society only which in all these respects can leave him free.

And each, finally, is a benefit which, when granted, costs the in­dividual’s fellow citizens nothing. It requires only that in the re­spects in question they keep their hands off, let him alone, leave him to his own devices.

Mill’s essential human freedoms, then, are three—of thought, of taste, and of affiliation; and, let us fix firmly in mind, they have in common four characteristics: they are liberty to do something, they are of profound importance to the well-being of the inner man, they are benefits which an individual cannot by any act of his own con­fer upon himself, and they are benefits which, when conferred by society, cost it nothing whatso­ever.

Message to Congress

Opinions differ, even as to essen­tial human freedoms. On January 6, 1941, an American President, in the course of an address to Con­gress, began a memorable passage thus:

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

The exordium probably caused no general thrill of expectation, either in the auditorium proper or in the galleries. After all, freedoms are with us Americans an old, old story. The President went on:

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

Nothing here either to set the blood spinning, though perhaps on left or right a pre-Progressive pedagogue turned Congressman may have muttered to himself, ” ‘Speech and expression’: is speech, then, no longer expres­sion?” Or perhaps some not-yet­subdued isolationist may have gasped at the reckless terminal flourish. ” ‘Everywhere in the world,’ did he say? A big order! A big order indeed!”

The voice from the rostrum con­tinued:

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

If any auditor had previously taken to the edge of his chair in the hope of novelty, he was ready by now to slide back to somnolence. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship: both were etched deep in the mind of half a continent. Both had been included a century ago in Mill’s first freedom. Both were assured us all by the very first amendment to our once-reverenced Constitution. Freedom “to worship God in his own way” had been the cry that made many a colonist brave the dangers of the sea, the unknown perils of the New England forest, and the specter of possible starvation. Both freedoms were freedoms close to men’s hearts; the second, at least, many a man had been ready to suffer for, to fight for, and, if need were, to die for. But listen:

The third is freedom from want…

Then it was, on the instant, while the speaker read on unheard, that extraordinary things began to happen. Men stared at each other astonished, incredulous. What was this? What was this? Could they have heard correctly? How could freedom from want get admittance to this sacrosanct fel­lowship? One man, a former diplo­mat, shouted in bad French, “What the devil’s that doing in this galley?” A murmur of shocked disagreement arose in a remote corner of the chamber, spread rapidly in all directions, and grew momently louder and more resent­ful. Finally, a dozen of the more agitated got straight up on their feet and exclaimed “No, no!”…

And now I too must exclaim “No, no!” No: things did not happen as I have described them—or, if they did, the news never reached me. Yet I cannot but wish that something of the sort had happened, contrary as it would have been to our traditional man­ners (I have gathered that abroad audiences are sometimes more pub­licly demonstrative: if that is the case, may it not be, in part at least, because they take ideas more seriously?)—and if it had hap­pened I could now offer for the un­precedented reaction two very definice reasons.

The first is that when the speaker proceeded to add his third essential freedom to his first and second he made a logical jump so enormous as probably to be un­precedented in the annals of re­sponsible statesmanship, and to constitute, however void of injuri­ous intent, an affront to the intel­ligence of everyone within hearing—a logical jump which, by analogy, would make a nonstop leap from the pinnacle of the Em­pire State Building to the pinnacle of the Eiffel Tower seem the merest bagatelle. One’s sense for logic is pained by its extravagance, instinctively, before analysis has had time to begin. But let analysis once have its turn, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third free­dom is seen clearly for what it is.²

It does not possess a single one of the four characteristics which Mill’s three freedoms have in com­mon. It is not a freedom to do any­thing: on the contrary, as it might in practice often work out, it is rather a freedom not to do any­thing. Again, it is not of profound importance to the well-being of the inner man: its enjoyment guaran­tees no such well-being, and such well-being is quite possible in its absence—as the history of saints unquestionably proves. St. Francis of Assisi, probably one of the most inwardly happy men who ever lived, made Lady Poverty, not Lady Bountiful, his bride. Again, instead of being a good which man cannot secure by his own exertions, it is normally by his own exertions that he secures it; while at the same time it is a good which so­ciety may or may not be able to confer upon him, since the sources in nature of man’s necessities are not inexhaustible, and such as they are they are only partially under his control. And, finally, instead of being a good which costs society nothing whatsoever, its possession, if it is to be constantly and uni­versally obtained, must often in greater or less degree be at so­ciety’s expense. Clearly there is nothing important in common be­tween the strange intruder “free­dom from want” and the three essential freedoms of John Stuart Mill—and Mill’s freedoms, it is time to assert, are by no means personal or peculiar to their for­mulator, but on the contrary are substantially identical with the freedoms that freedom-loving men everywhere have always struggled to attain. Indeed, what others are there?

“Freedom from want,” then, is not properly a political freedom at all. That is one fact that would forever justify its sharp exclusion from the august company into which it was so illogically and so arbitrarily thrust. But there is a second reason why such exclusion is of the greatest practical impor­tance.

Which is that this miscalled freedom, once accepted as of the same order as the immemorial freedoms, contains within itself the potentiality of incalculable evil. It is as rights that we think of the other, genuine freedoms; freedom of speech, freedom of worship, are guaranteed in our Constitution as a part of what we call our bill of—rights. They are things we re­gard as our inalienable posses­sions. Whatever they may have cost our ancestors to obtain, they cost us nothing. They are already ours. Suppose now that in a nation where universal suffrage prevails a distinct majority should become firmly convinced that the good news is indeed true, that freedom from want—a concept subject to easy abuse—is a freedom like freedom of speech and freedom of worship, and, independently of any great effort on their part, a vested right: what then? Would not their first step be to demand that their enjoyment of that right be real­ized in fact?3 And to whom or what ‘would they address that demand but to their government, and how is that government to obtain the means to satisfy it, in so far as it can satisfy it at all, save by taxing, and ever more taxing, all those who might be able, for a time at least, to pay whatever sum was levied? Down such a vista, ob­viously, lies confiscation almost without limit.

Surely such a possible develop­ment was latent in “freedom from want.” Apropos of it there is much more to be said—but that must wait, for already we have too long left President Roosevelt suspended in the midst of his speech. Let us now hear the whole of the inter­rupted sentence, and along with it the proclamation of the fourth freedom:

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 world­wide 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.

Freedom from Fear

It will be noticed that the pre­viously unquoted part of the first of the above sentences in no way alters the meaning of the expres­sion “freedom from want.” Was the corresponding part of the second sentence—”which, trans­lated..”—intended to define and restrict the meaning of “freedom from fear”? For a good while I assumed that it was so intended, and considered that to interpret the phrase without reference to its context was to do injustice to Roosevelt‘s good sense. I am now in doubt—or rather, I am suffi­ciently convinced that “freedom from fear,” probably never sub­jected by its author to careful scrutiny or analysis, is just as much to be taken by itself as is “freedom from want.” Undoubt­edly it has been so taken, and in­deed that is probably how it has been generally understood—”everywhere in the world.”4

But, so taken, so understood, what rational meaning can be at­tached to it? Freedom from fear? How is such a thing conceivable, in a world where the everyday greeting “How are you?” betrays a long-established conviction of uncertainty and peril; where the objects of fear, physical and men­tal, are infinite in number and in­finite in kind, darkening all the long trail from yawning earth­quakes and fierce lady-hurricanes (what misogynist ever thought up that one!), through flood, accident, disease—through frightful deeds of wicked men, and nameless hor­rors of disordered dreams—to the ultimate terrors of old age and death? And the fear of God, once inculcated as a thing pre-eminently to be fostered—are we to be freed from that, too?

Multiplication of Wants

It would be as tedious as un­necessary to show in detail that anything so hopelessly vague and uncircumscribed as freedom from fear, and so largely unrelated to the problems of government, cannot properly be considered a political freedom—let alone an essential freedom. As a matter of fact, apart perhaps from some association with freedom from want—with the meaning of freedom from fear of destitution—it has had, so far as I have learned, no significant history.

But not so, it seems, with free­dom from want—to which I now return. For this, according to the useful study by Felix Morley al­ready cited, has been, either alone or with the aid of freedom from fear, a potent influence.

An “Economic Bill of Rights” announced by President Roosevelt in his Message to Congress of January 11, 1944, was “squarely based” upon it. It was the “start­ing point” for highly significant elements in the Charter of the United Nations, ratified by the United States Senate on July 18, 1945. Its philosophy continued to operate in the United States, in­dependently of the party in power, after President Roosevelt’s death.5

The “Economic Bill of Rights” referred to deserves examination. “We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights,” declared the President, “under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regard­less of station, race or creed.”6 Among these, he said, are the fol­lowing:

– The right to a useful and re­munerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

– The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

– The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a re­turn which will give him and his family a decent living;

– The right of every business man, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

– The right of every family to a decent home;

– The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

– The right to adequate protec­tion from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and un­employment;

– The right to a good education.


Several comments suggest them­selves. First, the list is character­ized by the President as “so to speak, a second Bill of Rights”—as egregious a violation of sense and logic as was his formulation of the Four Freedoms. What, pray, have rights to do with the pleasant and gratuitous assurances with which it abounds? Second, it is an­noyingly diffuse and repetitious, by no means the product of keen, clear, organizing thought. Third—and it is this which is definitely relevant to our immediate topic—they can obviously be summed up, with two exceptions, as the small change of the President’s third freedom, assuming that “want” is understood in a generally charit­able fashion. The two exceptions are the provision for “a good edu­cation” and the provision for rec­reation. I confess I should find it difficult to think of the absence of a good education (whatever that may be) as the presence, in any reasonable sense, of “want,” and still more difficult to think of the absence of recreation—or shall we say freedom from boredom (it being surely no less a “freedom” than a “right”)—in a similar manner.

The “Economic Bill of Rights” was designed, primarily at least, for America. It was “definitely the responsibility of the Congress,” said President Roosevelt, “to ex­plore the means” for its implemen­tation. Article 55 of the United Nations charter proposed objec­tives for all the world in part highly similar to those of the “Eco­nomic Bill of Rights.” The United Nations “shall promote: (a) higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development; (b) solutions of in­ternational economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educa­tional co-operation; and (c) uni­versal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinc­tion as to race, sex, language or religion.” Article 56 pledges the members of the United Nations “to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organiza­tion for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.”

And now, in America, after President Roosevelt’s death? “In farming,” says Mr. Morley, “hous­ing, health, education, road con­struction, old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, to men­tion only the more important serv­ices, centralized ‘aid’… is now an established principle.”7

The Formula Publicized

For some time after their an­nouncement the Four Freedoms received considerable attention. Among entries in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature for the period July 1941 to April 1945 are the following (they will repay close scrutiny), some of which, judged by their titles, are ob­viously friendly and co-operative, none of them obviously the reverse—needless to say, I have not read them: “Cultivating the Four Free­doms,” F. Kingdon, Parents’ Magazine (“Children must learn their meaning and value at home”); “Four Freedoms for Which We Fight,” with paintings by N. Rock­well, Saturday Evening Post; “Free World; Requirements for the Four Freedoms,” S. Welles, Vital Speeches; “Toward the Four Freedoms,” H. Kallen, Saturday Review of Literature; “United States Peace Aims: Summary of the Four Freedoms,” Catholic World; “Contributions of English to the Four Freedoms,” C. F. Stecher, Education; “Democracy and the Four Freedoms” (“panels painted by B. R. Woodworth for the children’s room, Ohio Uni­versity Library”); “Four Free­doms Are an Ideal,” Saturday Evening Post; “What Does Free­dom Mean? American Conception,” N. M. Butler, Vital Speeches; “Ed­ucation and the Two New Free­doms; Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear,” W. C. Bagley, Education.

The Four Freedoms, as evi­denced above, have been the sub­ject of at least two series of paintings. They were celebrated in a special United States postage stamp—and in this way promul­gated, one may suppose, through­out the civilized world.

In the publicity accorded the Roosevelt formula was there no discordant note, no protest lodged against the travesty it represented upon the immemorial freedoms? Not so far as I happen to know; and Felix Morley (quoted above), who has called the Four Freedoms “an inharmonious quartette” and a “monstrosity,” and in so doing become the first person I have known to characterize them (as I think) properly, appears to have encountered little or nothing of the kind. Few if any “political scientists,” he says, “have ever closely examined the monstrosity”; and one naturally infers that he has not found it closely examined by others.8 Indeed, his remark ap­pears to me to imply that logical analysis of the formula by other than professionals, say by mere average citizens, was something it had not occurred to him to expect.

However that may be, there was a time, if we are to believe James M. Beck, when such a logical “monstrosity” would have been likely to prove, by general con­demnation—I adapt some terse phrasing of James Madison’s—short in its life and violent in its death. In his book on the Constitu­tion, published in 1924, Beck observes that a candidate for President—this was before 1900—”defeated himself by the chance expression that ‘the tariff was a local issue,’ which covered him with ridicule and blasted his political hopes.” “A generation ago,” says the former Solicitor General of the United States, “men spoke rarely and only after the most careful deliberation, and their words were examined with micro­scopic nicety.” But by Beck’s day things had changed. “In recent years this meticulous attention to declarations of policies has largely passed away. Leaders of public thought have given utterance to beliefs and policies which would have damned any public man a generation ago.”9

Thus matters stood, according to Beck, in 1924. In the seventeen-year interval between then and Roosevelt’s announcement of his Four Freedoms, had the composite American mind become sharper, more alert, more impatient of in­tellectual monstrosities? It would seem not. Is it so today?

If it is not, if the Golden Age of American politics, when for a statesman to say an absurd thing would be to end his career, lies generations away, in an ever-re­ceding past, two problems present themselves that are great in in­terest and greater still in impor­tance: What has happened to the American Mind? and What can be done to restore it to its original state?

But all that is another story.

In order here is a final word regarding the Four Freedoms, or rather regarding the third free­dom—freedom from want.

Lincoln vs. Roosevelt

I will begin by reporting a strik­ing compliment to their inventor. In a fairly recent book called Free­dom: A New Analysis, the author, Maurice Cranston, after quoting Abraham Lincoln, continues thus: “Another, no less thoughtful Presi­dent, Franklin D. Roosevelt…” Let us stop there. Franklin D. Roosevelt as thoughtful a Presi­dent as Abraham Lincoln? Extra­ordinary judgment! Suppose now we apply the test of political wis­dom ready to hand. What Roosevelt thought of his offspring “freedom from want” we need not ask. What would Lincoln think? There would be no use thumbing through his collected works, or their indexes, in search of specific statements on the subject, since in his more primitive time the idea that free­dom from want, however much to be desired, was either a “freedom” or a “right,” had not yet been dreamed of. As a substitute I offer a letter which Lincoln wrote in December 1848 to his stepbrother John D. Johnston. Its substance, our main concern, I am happy to leave, unremarked on, to the reader: let him make his own in­ferences on the point in question, undisturbed. But perhaps I may be permitted to call his attention to what is scarcely separable from the substance of the letter—namely, its excellent style: simple, easy, direct, exact, orderly, and completely lucid. Salt of the earth, one reflects, that has not lost its savor. With almost no benefit of public schools, and none of federal scholarships, Lincoln had somehow managed (the Bible, Shakespeare, and Euclid by his side) to train his intellect—an achievement which does not require display in a great speech to make its presence felt. And now the letter—it is somewhat long, but I cannot bring myself to omit anything from it:¹º

Dear Johnston: Your request for eighty dollars I do not think it best to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me, “We can get along very well now,” but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this can only happen by some de­fect in your conduct. What that defect is, I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler.

“The text is that of the original manu­script, with some corrections in details of form. The changes made do not touch the essence of the style.

I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work, in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work; and still you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of needlessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break this habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it, easier than they can get out after they are in.

You are now in need of some money; and what I propose is, that =you, =shall go to work, “tooth and nails,” for somebody who will give you money for it. Let father and your boys take charge of things at home—prepare for a crop, and make the crop; and you go to work for the best money wages, or in discharge of any debt you owe, that you can get. And to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you that for every dollar you will, between this and the first of next May, get for your own labor, either in money, or on your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar. By this, if you hire yourself at ten dollarsa month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month for your work. In this, I do not mean you shall go off to St. Louis, or the lead mines, or the gold mines in California, but I [mean for you to go at it for the best wages you] can get close to home in Coles County. Now if you will do this, you will be soon out of debt, and what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again. But if I should now clear you out, next year you would be just as deep in as ever. You say you would almost give your place in Heaven for $70 or $80. Then you value your place in Heaven very cheaply, for I am sure you can with the offer I make you get the seventy or eighty dol­lars for four or five months work. You say if I furnish you the money you will deed me the land, and, if you don’t pay the money back, you will deliver possession. Nonsense! If you can’t now live with the land, how will you then live without it? You have always been [kind] to me, and I do not now mean to be unkind to you. On the contrary, if you will but follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.

Affectionately your brother,

A. Lincoln


¹On Liberty, introductory chapter.

²The shift in phrasing from “of” to “from” is in itself a kind of warning—though it must be admitted that so flex­ible and resourceful is our marvelous language that even a legitimate freedom might, however awkwardly, employ the same introductory word, as, for example, in the case of Mill’s first freedom, “free­dom from control of thought.”

‘Cf. Felix Morley, Freedom and Feder­alism (Chicago, Henry Regnery Com­pany, 1959), pp. 135f.

‘Even if the intention was to restrict freedom from fear to mean freedom from the fear of international aggression, the restriction would scarcely reach the popu­lar mind and imagination. Only the con­cise. compact formula would be likely to go far, and, in that, fear is flatly co­ordinated with want.

5Morley, op. cit., pp. 133-138. Strictly speaking, Morley attributes the influ­ence specified, directly or indirectly, to the Four Freedoms, but my interpreta­tion of his meaning, ignoring the two traditional freedoms and stressing free­dom from want, is doubtless correct. Articles 55 and 56 of the Charter of the United Nations, partly quoted below, are quoted in full by Morley.

°The text of the preceding sentence, and of the “rights” that follow shortly, is that of The Roosevelt Reader, edited and with an introduction by Basil Rauch (New York, Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1957).

‘Morley, op. cit., p. 136.

8lbid., p. 130.‘The Constitution of the United States, revised and with additional material by James Truslow Adams (Garden City, New York, Doubleday, Doran & Com­pany, Inc., 1941), p. 243.


  • Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.