F.D.R. Proposes a Second Bill of Rights: A Decent Job, Education & Health Care Will Keep Us Free from Despotism (1944)

It’s difficult to appraise the complicated legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. His New Deal policies are credited for lifting millions out of destitution, and they created opportunities for struggling artists and writers, many of whom went on to become some of the country’s most celebrated. But Roosevelt also compromised with racist southern senators like Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, and underwrote housing segregation, job and pay discrimination, and exclusions in his economic recovery aimed most squarely at African-Americans. He is lauded as a wartime leader in the fight against Nazism. But he built concentration camps on U.S. soil when he interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. His commitment to isolationism before the war and his “moral failure—or indifference” to the plight of European Jews, thousands of whom were denied entry to the U.S., has come under justifiable scrutiny from historians.

Both blame and praise are well warranted, and not his alone to bear. Yet, for all his serious lapses and wartime crimes, FDR consistently had an astute and idealistic economic vision for the country. In his 1944 State of the Union address, he denounced war profiteers and “selfish and partisan interests,” saying, “if ever there was a time to subordinate individual or group selfishness to the national good, that time is now.”

He went on to enumerate a series of proposals “to maintain a fair and stable economy at home” while the war still raged abroad. These include taxing “all unreasonable profits, both individual and corporate” and enacting regulations on food prices. The speech is most extraordinary, however, for the turn it takes at the end, when the president proposes and clearly articulates a “second Bill of Rights,” arguing that the first one had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

Roosevelt did not take the value of equality for granted or merely invoke it as a slogan. Though its role in his early policies was sorely lacking, he showed in 1941 that he could be moved on civil rights issues when, in response to a march on Washington planned by Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and other activists, he desegregated federal hiring and the military. In his 1944 speech, Roosevelt strongly suggests that economic inequality is a precursor to Fascism, and he offers a progressive political theory as a hedge against Soviet Communism.

“We have come to a clear realization,” he says, “of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security. ‘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.” In the footage at the top of the post, you can see Roosevelt himself read his new Bill of Rights. Read the transcript yourself just below:

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.

Roosevelt died in office before the war ended. His successor tried to carry forward his economic and civil rights initiatives with the “Fair Deal,” but congress blocked nearly all of Truman’s proposed legislation. We might imagine an alternate history in which Roosevelt lived and found a way through force of will to enact his “second Bill of Rights,” honoring his promise to every “station, race” and “creed.” Yet in any case, his fourth term was nearly at an end, and he would hardly have been elected to a fifth.

But FDR’s progressive vision has endured. Many seeking to chart a course for the country that tacks away from political extremism and toward economic justice draw directly from Roosevelt’s vision of freedom and security. His new bill of rights is striking for its political boldness. Its proposals may have had their clearest articulation three years earlier in the famous “Four Freedoms” speech. In it he says, “the basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Guaranteeing jobs, if not income, for all and a “constantly rising standard of living” may be impossible in the face of automation and environmental degradation. Yet, most of Roosevelt’s principles may not only be realizable, but perhaps, as he argued, essential to preventing the rise of oppressive, authoritarian states.

Related Content:

Franklin D. Roosevelt Says to Moneyed Interests (EG Bankers) in 1936: “I Welcome Their Hatred!”

Rare Footage: Home Movie of FDR’s 1941 Inauguration

Striking Poster Collection from the Great Depression Shows That the US Government Once Supported the Arts in America


Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (27)
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  • harry waters says:

    this is what a real president does, acts like a Man !!!!

  • Carl Pietrantonio says:

    You write: “Yet in any case, his fourth term was nearly at an end…”

    Um, he was Inaugurated for his 4th term that very year, having been re-elected in 1944. His 4th term had just started and you are incorrect.

  • Ria Swift says:

    Only if you think REAL men are big, fat bullies. I don’t agree with you. He is a grifter and a bully. The men I know and love do not act like this. Sorry, that you have such a distorted view of men. Thankfully, most of us don’t.

  • Ria Swift says:

    Sorry, I lost my mind for a minute. Yes, I agree this is what real men should be like. I was referring to our current one. YIKES. Many apologies.

  • Jim Washington says:

    By 1944 Roosevelt could see the war would be won – so he reverted to the anit-business anti-Free Market guy he was through the 1930s. He put that aside in 1940 when he realized that he needed the power and creativity of American business to win the war. The military procurement system was stripped of almost all rules and an advisory council of major manufacturers etc. organized the war effort. By taking away all the BS this council was able to provide US Armed Forces (and most of the rest of the Allies) with so much equipment and supplies that both Germany and Japan, for all practical purposes, were doomed well before we formally entered the war in December 1941.

    Some of the numbers are amazing: Here is the lead to a PBS documentary:
    American industry provided almost two-thirds of all the Allied military equipment produced during the war: 297,000 aircraft, 193,000 artillery pieces, 86,000 tanks and two million army trucks.

    So even with all that evidence to what US industry can do when not micro managed – he reverted when it was obviously won. His speech is back demonizing War Profiteers. The amount of so-called profiteering by US manufacturers during the war was infinitesimal. But they replaced his industrial whipping boy of the Electrical Power Companies which were his major target in his first 2 terms.

  • Shaun Herndon says:

    This is essentially Bernie Sander’s Policy platform, and yet he’s labeled as being “too-far to the Left”. All that Bernie Sanders wants is human dignity to be restored to the rest of American society, not just the very top %1 percentage of people.
    It’s amazing how far to the right the political spectrum has strayed from the days after FDR & Eisenhower, especially with Reagan.
    After that, Democrats were bullied into placating extreme right wing talking points and policy…
    It was during the Clinton years that the Glass-steagle act was repealed, a measure that put into place back during the FDR days, which kept Commercial banking merging with Investment banking and Insurance companies; the repeal of the Glass-steagle act precipitated the 2008 financial collapse, where Goldman Sachs, Lehman brothers and the rest were knowingly selling junk sub-prime derivatives and swapping them to different banks to then handle these toxic assets.
    Us, the public taxpayers were the ones who were to bail the banks out with little or no prosecution of anyone responsible during the Obama years. Coupled with a growing Military spending budget ( now at %57 of the Federal budget ) to fund these regime change wars, we are asked “how are we supposed to pay for Medicare for all ?”
    It’s time that we looked back to the FDR years in the respect of what had happened before the years of FDR and what events knocked down the dominoes that led to the Great depression and the measures ( not all perfect ) that the Government took to keep from happening again.

  • Phoebe Collins says:

    The US Japanese internment camps were not “concentration camps.” Unfair and wrong, yes, but concentration camps were built specifically for human extermination.

  • Jim Washington says:

    Yes they were concentration camps. The term originated in South Africa during the Boer War – the British gathered the Boer (Dutch) farmers and moved them into camps under guard to prevent their moving freely about the countryside to attack British troops. They did the same thing in their anti-guerrilla campaign in Malaya a half century later. The term has nothing to do with extermination although the Germans did use the same techniques in gathering people to be exterminated in WWII.

  • Tom De Luca says:

    The military was ordered integrated by executive order by President Truman, not Roosevelt. We fought the NAZI’s in WW II with a segregated military.

  • Gabriel Pinzón says:

    The version of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights sppech from this video differs from both the radio version and a text version of that 1944 State of the Union speech I have fonund in some sites; in this video, FDR talked about “certain economic truths” instead of the “these economic truths” version of the complete speech. And even the spoken and text versions of that SOTU speech differ a little: the spoken version skips two parts from the text version: 1: (after “…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”. 2: (after “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”.

  • Todd Iguchi says:

    Do you have first hand knowledge of the conditions in the concentration camps? Your marginalization of what Japanese Americans endured as the result of the FDR E.O. 9066 is a bit disconcerting. E.O. 9066 was a smoke screen to take away the freedoms and property of American citizens. FDR essentially ethnically cleansed the entire West Coast of the United States and set in motion decades of government sanctioned ethnic discrimination against Asian Americans. Note my last name doesn’t make me an impartial observer to what happened. I’m living the results of what FDR did.

    Look up the term “concentration camp.”

  • Robert Lemmon says:

    The problem with Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights is twofold. First off it necessitates the destruction of the First Bill of Rights. Secondly it codifies a new form of Slavery. If you are a Doctor or a Nurse for example then all of your work is someone else’s Right. That is the definition of Slavery.

  • Gerald Edgar says:

    The article is full of factual errors such as FDR desegregating the military in 1941. This was NOT done until 1948 by then Pres. Truman, who, unlike FDR, was a Veteran (WWI).

  • Roger Plassmann says:

    God knows it’s funny that with all FDR’s progressive programs, it was Adolf Hitler who saved the world from the great depression .. much to the misfortune of his constituancy .. heh heh.
    Also funny that conspiracy theories didn’t begin with George W. Bush: some people accused FDR of collusion with his Harvard poker buddy Yamamoto to scrap the outdated battleships of the Pacific Fleet .. where were the Carriers?
    What the hell, we won .. and what if a hurricane blew the damaged World Trade Center into other buildings causing a domino effect? Many more than 3,000 would have died.
    Not to denigrate FDR, or discount human suffering, or even advocate conspiracy theories – God knows what anyone was thinking. Consider that the fossil record speaks of the complete dominance of the Velociraptors to the point where their ability to kill and eat everything from moths to Brontosauruses manifested a pre-extinction, interrupted only by the meteorite collision at the Yucatan, giving rise to mammals.
    Mysterious are the ways of the Lord – his wonders to perform.
    -in praise-

  • Barbara R Saunders says:

    What is the point of a guaranteed job without income?

  • Ralph FucetolaJD says:

    FDR did not understand the concept of a “Right” — which is a freedom of action that never depends on forcing someone else to pay. FDR was outlining a political program for the post-war period, where government would guarantee certain entitlements. We all know how that worked out.

  • Kathy Niblack says:

    I don’t understand how Hitler saved the world from a great depression? Can someone explain that to me?
    Thank you in advance.

  • Bryant says:

    FDR was just beginning his fourth term. He would have served until ‘49. If he hadn’t switched VPs there may have been a greater chance of this happening.

  • Scott says:

    He meant that the Great Depression ended with the beginning of WWII, because of the artificial boost it gave to economic activity, especially manufacturing. No other government action up to that point had much of an effect, including the New Deal. But the coming of war essentially ended the Depression very quickly. Hitler certainly wasn’t trying to save the world of course, just Germany. Ending the global depression was an unintended consequence.

  • Mike Sabat says:

    Very well done. Great job to the writers.
    For FDR you were ahead of your time. Thank you.
    Brother Mike

  • Scott Larsen says:

    ‘Wartime crimes’? I see you slipped this in when it could have been addressed in another piece. Remember most in the nation, from local, state, national politicians – Republican and Democratic – as well as the US Supreme Court backed Executive Order 9066 of Feb, 1942 to round up and detained Japanese, Japanese-Americans during WWII. Also, did you know Canada did the same thing on its west coast, a fact most Americans are sadly ignorant about. Feel it is semantics between whether they should be called ‘internment’ or ‘concentration’ camps. Both were wrong.

  • Ben says:

    The real Bill of Rights is all about things the government can’t do. This is all about things you are owed, and someone has to pay for those things, so it’s really all about what the government has the right to take from some to give to others. It’s a list of legalized thefts.

  • Jeff Blanks says:

    Conservative rhetoric has convinced people that the whole world was languishing in the Great Depression until WWII suddenly pulled it out. This is quite simply wrong–the economy took until about ’38 to get back to normal, at least, but no war was required. (Or else how do you explain FDR’s landslide re-election in ’36, with everything headed at least in the right direction?) Now AIUI, the Dow didn’t recover until after the war, but that’s kind of different.

    As for the wartime spending: On what planet is making war materiel to the government’s orders an example of “what US industry can do when not micro managed”? That was stimulus spending, pure and simple, and if it works for war, it can work for tree-hugging hippie cr*p.

  • Aleck Janoulis says:

    We need a Bill of Responsibilities more than additional rights.

  • Bridget Ripberger says:

    It saddens that we blocked the fleeing Jews entry to our country. It was a huge mistake. What saddens me even more is that we can not learn from that mistake at our borders now These people are fleeing for their lives and have suffered unimaginable horrors

  • Marti Gutierrez says:

    In spite of all these disputes the US government still has detaining camps (concentration camps?) existing today all over this country. This needs to be addressed immediately. These camps are largely near the Mexican border. The conditions are deplorable. People escaping horrific unbearable situations in their countries. Families, children removed from there parents during the detaining process. Not to mention all the crimes they are subjected to. People turning to the land of the free only to suffer even more. We the people of this country are allowing it. We are all guilty and responsible. Do we speak up?

  • Laura says:

    I don’t know what post you are referring to, but FDR died in April 1945, so his term was almost at an end, even though he had just been reelected.

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