On New Year's Day 1941, in his study at the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt was searching for the right words. He was at work on his State of the Union address, and he was thinking in epic terms. Much of the world was at war. Great Britain, under Winston Churchill, had held out against Hitler's Germany through the long months after the invasion of France in May 1940. America, however, remained largely isolationist. Roosevelt's re-election in November had been a reassuring suggestion that the United States understood the enormity of what was unfolding, but for now it was just that—a suggestion, nothing more.
A practical politician to his core, FDR knew where the public was, and he knew, too, that it was up to him to define the conflict for the country. The presidency, he had once said, was "pre-eminently a place of moral leadership," and such leadership had to be exercised by deed (hence his efforts to provide aid to Churchill's Britain) and by word.
Sitting with his aides Harry Hopkins and Samuel Rosenman on New Year's Day, FDR began dictating a passage for his State of the Union.
"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 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.
"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."
Listening as Rosenman took down the president's words on a yellow pad, Hopkins, the emaciated social worker from Iowa who had become a trusted Roosevelt adviser, offered a caveat, taking exception with the phrase "everywhere in the world."
"That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr. President," Hopkins said. "I don't know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java."
"I'm afraid they'll have to be someday, Harry," Roosevelt replied. "The world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now."
Before many others, Roosevelt saw that the world was now a neighborhood, and what happened in the councils of Europe or the caves of Afghanistan mattered—a lot. The creed FDR articulated was, in American terms, an ancient one that stretched back to our founding: that men were born in the image and likeness of God (or, to be precise in Jeffersonian terms, of their "Creator") and who therefore possessed innate rights that could not be abridged or abrogated by the hand of a monarch or the cries of a mob.
He saw, too, the imperfections of the Union. A nation founded on the proposition of the universality of human liberty defined "universal" quite narrowly, to white men; the Constitution of 1787 enshrined slavery, which had come to America in 1619, when 20 slaves arrived by sea at the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. To Roosevelt—and to us—the story of the country was the perennial expansion of what Jefferson meant by "men" when he sat down in his boardinghouse room in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776.
As Barack Obama begins his work as the 44th president of the United States, he is living testament to the possibilities and promise of an America founded in the 18th century, tested in the 19th, triumphant in the 20th and now finding its way in the 21st. Depending on your point of view, the following point is now clichéd or canonical (though, come to think of it, they are not mutually exclusive): the election of the son a Kenyan and a Kansan would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. One of the spectators on the inaugural stand in Washington was John Lewis, who bears the physical scars of the all-too-recent war to win the right to vote; in historical terms, Selma was only the day before yesterday, Sumter the day before that.
The theme that connects our triumphant and tragic past with the future now unfolding is at once the simplest and most complex of forces in human affairs: the freedom of the individual to decide his own destiny in a republic created by Madison but turned democratic by Jackson. Destiny in an Aristotelian polis, or city, is not only a private matter; one's values and hopes and fears are inextricably connected to the larger community. Hence liberty under law rather than liberty without constraint: that way lies madness.
Our collective sense of freedom, then, is fundamental to who we are but cannot be understood with the reassuring simplicity of fundamentalism. Put another way, freedom is not necessarily permanent; it is fluid, in constant need of redefinition and rethinking, and that work is never done. We are stewards of the revolutionary impulse toward what Washington called "the sacred fire of liberty," but freedom is not a buy-and-hold proposition. When we have been at our best, we have redefined and rethought what freedom means, and what it signifies to say something—or someone—is American.
In the beginning, the definition was clear enough: America was its own nation, master of its own fate, free from imperial rule. When the Declaration was signed—the Founding Fathers, as they were to become, were bedeviled by horseflies during the ceremony—the Virginia state convention in Williamsburg immediately voted to suppress the standard Anglican prayer for the king and the royal family, directing congregations instead to ask God to guide "the magistrates of the commonwealth." In Philadelphia itself, John Adams said, "the bells rung all day and all night." In New York, an ecstatic crowd tore down a statue of George III. General Washington, in command of the Continental Army, was not amused. "The general hopes and trusts," Washington told the troops, speaking in the third person, "that every officer and man will endeavor so to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country."
Among those dear rights and liberties was what FDR would later call the freedom to worship according to the dictates of one's own conscience. At this distance it can be difficult to explain the enormity of then-nascent American tradition of religious liberty, but the right of freedom of conscience—and the Constitution's prohibition against a religious test for federal office—was among the most revolutionary features of a revolutionary time.
To free the mind and the heart from compulsory religious confession and observance was good for all three interested parties: the state, the church and the people. For the state, the removal (mostly) of religious conflicts from the business of government freed the young nation's leaders to focus on other things without the distraction of matters spiritual. For the church, what Jefferson called the wall of separation between church and state in 1802 meant that religion stood a better chance of remaining chiefly concerned with its own affairs rather than becoming, as it so often had in the Old World, a tool of empires and politicians.
Suddenly religious devotion became a choice, not a chore; religion was more vibrant after Jefferson's wall (albeit a very short one) went up.
Slowly, ever slowly, Jefferson's definition of "men" grew. Through what Lincoln called the "fiery trial" of the Civil War, through the miseries of Jim Crow, through the women's suffrage movement, through nativist battles over immigration, we are now, 400 years after the founding of Jamestown, a bigger, freer and in many ways stronger country than we have ever been. That is true now, but may not be true tomorrow: to be repetitive, we require vigilance, redefinition and rethinking to preserve what Reagan used to call, in an evocation of Lincoln, the last, best hope of man on earth.
Such a sentiment may seem out of step with the hip global sensibility of the Age of Obama, but we should not shy away from noting what we have achieved any more than we ought to avoid the tasks of social and moral recovery ahead. As Patrick Henry said, "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past." The American record on freedom is neither perfect nor dismal: like human nature, it contains elements of both.
Let us end where we began, with Franklin Roosevelt. His last Inaugural Address was delivered from the South Portico of the White House in January 1945. He was tired and sick—he would be dead in a matter of months—and he knew he was speaking for history. Encapsulating his creed that politics is a human, not a clinical, enterprise and that America is an unfinished experiment, he said, in words drafted by Robert Sherwood: "Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy." A journey, always a journey; becoming, always becoming: that was the America of Jefferson and Jackson and the Roosevelts, the America of promise, of possibility. "We are not fighting for, and we shall not attain, a Utopia," FDR had said in his last campaign. "Indeed, in our land, the work to be done is never finished. We have yet to realize the full and equal enjoyment of our freedom … we have set ourselves a long and arduous task, a task which will challenge our patience, our intelligence, our imagination, as well as our faith." The task remains; the work is perpetual. And so it all begins again.