The Best State of the Union of All Time

The Fix is counting down what we think are the five most important of these annual presidential talk-a-thons.  They're ranked in order of their relative importance and lasting historical resonance. Woodrow Wilson's 1913 address came in at #5, and George W. Bush's first State of the Union after September 11, 2001, was #4. Bill Clinton's 1996 address stating locked in at #3. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union was #2. and today, we finish up with FDR's 1941 speech, which outlines the "four freedoms."


FILE - In this March 4, 1943 file photo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt poses for photographers with a cigarette in his mouth as he started his 11th year in the White House. He said, "Let's make one this way, boys." On Jan. 11, 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released an emphatic and authoritative report that said smoking causes illness and death - and the government should do something about it. (AP Photo)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was especially gifted at burning phrases into the public's memory when giving a speech, whether from a podium at the Capitol or next to a fire at the White House. He gave us "a day that will live in infamy" and "there is nothing to fear but fear itself" and the New Deal. The speech he gave on January 6, 1941 -- where he detailed the "four freedoms" -- has perhaps had an even bigger impact on American history than any of his more memorable lines, which is why The Fix is calling his 1941 State of the Union the most important one ever delivered.

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.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.

Norman Rockwell transposed the speech into a drawing for The Saturday Evening Post, further immortalizing the speech. The federal government sold posters of the images as part of a war-bond campaign that raised $132 million during World War II. In a 1993 book about Rockwell's work, "Four Freedoms," the authors catalog the speech's reception at the time: "A newspaper editor in Kansas, hearing the Four Freedoms speech in January, 1941, declared that 'the people of the United States through their president have given the world a new Magna Carta of democracy.' 'The Four Freedoms,' said William Allen White, 'mark the opening of a new era for the world. A great occasion, a great cause and a great man have been united.'"

The ideas underpinning the "four freedoms" were featured in the U.N. charter, the Atlantic Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When a memorial for our longest serving president was built on Roosevelt Island in New York City, it was named "Four Freedoms Park."
Despite its longevity, the "four freedoms" paragraph almost didn't make it into the message to Congress -- it wasn't added into the speech until the fourth draft. FDR's adviser described the moment when the president dictated those lines thusly:  “We waited as he leaned far back in his swivel chair with his gaze on the ceiling. It was a long pause—so long that it began to become uncomfortable. Then he leaned forward again in his chair. 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.”
The most immediate goal of FDR's State of the Union was pushing Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act, which it did two months later. "The specific purpose of the speech," says historian Michael Beschloss, "was to differentiate the Axis dictatorships from free governments and prepare public opinion for rearmament and possible entry into World War II."
Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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