Giving thanks for ‘four freedoms’ and more

Nov 15 2012 - 4:01pm


Perhaps it's the humble, satisfied smile on the grey-haired woman's face, backed by her husband's equally content countenance that first captures the observer's eyes.

Or maybe it's the huge, golden-brown turkey on the platter in her hands. Or possibly the eager faces that ring the edges of the painting.

But celebrated painter Norman Rockwell's iconic Thanksgiving picture is bound to be part of most people's memories.

What most of us probably don't know is the rustic, peaceful picture, titled, "Freedom from Want," is one of a four-part series Rockwell painted during a time of horrific, globally divisive war. The story behind it seems appropriate, especially right now when our America is fractioned, not by external war, but by an internal election that left us bruised and uneasy.

It's never been more evident that Thanksgiving -- a totally American holiday that encourages us to pause, take a breath, and literally count our blessings -- comes just when we need it most.

The story from which we can draw some comfort and courage goes like this: The year was 1941. On Jan.6, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his annual message to Congress. The Nazis ruled Western Europe, and Americans were divided over what this nation's role should be in that looming situation.

In his speech, Roosevelt asked for American support of war efforts. He shared his belief that all people should have, at the very least, "four essential human freedoms": freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

His appeal revealed a global vision as he stated his belief that people "everywhere in the world" should have "freedom of speech and expression," freedom to "worship God in his own way," freedom from want which meant "economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants," and freedom from fear "that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor."

Roosevelt concluded his speech, delivered more than 70 years ago, by boldly stating, "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."

Fast forward two years. Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms in 1943. He used Vermont neighbors as models to depict freedom of religion -- several people in various acts of praying; freedom of speech -- an ordinary man standing to speak at a local town meeting as neighbors listen; freedom from fear -- a couple tucking their two children in bed as the headline of the newspaper in the dad's hand partially reveals, "Bombings Ki ... Horror Hit ...;" and of course, the enduring Thanksgiving dinner depiction of freedom from want.

Typical for the times, the pictures were published in four subsequent weeks on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Millions of readers wrote to request reprints. Eventually four million, four-poster sets were printed. Rockwell evidently struck a chord with his countrymen.

Even to this day. His gentle depiction of Thanksgiving dinner at the grandparents' home crops up every November one way or another. It's not difficult to understand why. Thanksgiving is a family-centered holiday that ideally beckons us all to go "home," wherever that may be, to gather with "family," whomever that may be, and take the time at some point for an introspective accounting of what we are and should be thankful for.

History tells us that Roosevelt's vision did not occur in his lifetime, nor in the 70-plus years since. But he, like other visionary leaders, inspired his countrymen to do the almost impossible to push toward a freer, more peaceful world.

Which, when you think about it, is what we still want today.

The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to get there. As complicated as we might want to make it, sometimes going back to the basics is still the best place to start. It might be wise for all of us -- especially those who lead us -- to pull out the Four Freedoms, take a good long look at them, and then proceed.

It sure couldn't hurt.

You can contact D. Louise Brown at

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