The Second Bill of Rights

If Franklin Roosevelt had lived longer, the United States might have a Second Bill of Rights. We might have had more amendments to the Constitution, or simply a collection of new laws, but in either form we would have established a set of economic rights to go along with the political rights already stated in the Constitution.

This was news to me until recently. Here’s what President Roosevelt said in his State of the Union address on January 11, 1944, as the war continued in Europe and the Pacific:

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….

I ask the Congress to explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights… Many of these problems are already before committees of the Congress in the form of proposed legislation. I shall from time to time communicate with the Congress with respect to these and further proposals. In the event that no adequate program of progress is evolved, I am certain that the Nation will be conscious of the fact.

The President began his fourth term one year later, on January 20, 1945, but he didn’t live past April. President Truman took over and didn’t pursue the idea of an economic Bill of Rights.

There’s more about the speech, including the full text, here. Roosevelt would have delivered the State of the Union to Congress, but he didn’t feel well that night. Instead, he gave the speech over the radio from the White House (Congress received a printed copy). But he also had parts of the speech filmed by newsreel companies so it could be shown in movie theaters. Here’s some of that footage:

Roosevelt said a lot else that night. For example, he criticized what we now call “special interests”, calling attention to the millions of people with “few or no high pressure representatives at the Capitol”:

The overwhelming majority of our people have met the demands of this war with magnificent courage and understanding…. However, while the majority goes on about its great work without complaint, a noisy minority maintains an uproar of demands for special favors for special groups. There are pests who swarm through the lobbies of the Congress and the cocktail bars of Washington, representing these special groups as opposed to the basic interests of the Nation as a whole. They have come to look upon the war primarily as a chance to make profits for themselves at the expense of their neighbors – profits in money or in terms of political or social preferment.

Well, that situation has only gotten worse since 1944.

Roosevelt also warned against right-wing reactionaries trying to turn back the clock:

One of the great American industrialists of our day … 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.

Even if Roosevelt wasn’t feeling well that night, I bet he would have had a good laugh if someone had suggested that a certain 32-year old actor, then making Army Air Force training films in California, would one day lead just such a right-wing reaction.