The Second Bill of Rights

On January 11th of 1944, in his State of the Union Message to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” which would guarantee economic security for all Americans. Sixty-eight years later, we’re still arguing about whether or not people ought by birth to have the right to these basic necessities of life. The right to work at a living wage, the right to education, the right to decent housing, the right to adequate medical care, the right to security in old age – all of these rights that FDR saw as “self-evident” in 1944 have yet to be ensured, and are, in fact, increasingly under attack in our society today.

I wonder what might happen if President Obama were to make these rights the foundation of his bid for re-election. Would the American people rally to such a program? Would we recognize that political rights alone cannot ensure liberty and justice for all? Would we recognize that today our freedom is most threatened, not by the government, but by the tyranny of the marketplace? Would we recognize, at long last, that there is no democracy without economic democracy?

Some, I’m sure, would be quick to shout “Socialist!” Many did during FDR’s day as well. The fact is that we have made little progress toward securing these rights over the course of time. Today we have a President (elected on promises of “hope” and “change”) who has run about as far away from such modest social goals as he can. We have a Congress that has done all that is within its power to block progress and to roll back whatever meager gains have been made. We have one major political party with designs on dismantling Medicare and Social Security, and another that has shown great eagerness to capitulate to such demands. There is little danger that President Obama, or any other candidate with good prospects for his office, would openly embrace such a “radical” platform today.

FDR warned against the dangers of “rightist reaction” to progress under the New Deal. It seems that we have allowed those reactionary forces to become the main stream of American political discourse in this new century.

I commend Roosevelt’s words to your attention and consideration. Hurry the day that at least these fundamental economic rights are assured – not just for all Americans, but for all of humankind.

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

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 businessman, 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.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

One of the great American industrialists of our day – a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis – recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop – if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called “normalcy” of the 1920′s – then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.

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Read the full text of FDR’s 1944 State of the Union Speech from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

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