The evolution of Roosevelt's rhetorical legacy: presidential rhetoric about rights in domestic and foreign affairs, 1933-2011.

Author:Rhodes, Jesse H.
Position:Franklin D. Roosevelt - Report

In a series of major addresses and communications between 1932 and 1944--the 1932 Commonwealth Club Address (Roosevelt 1932), the 1941 "Four Freedoms" Speech (Roosevelt 1941) and "Atlantic Charter" agreement (Roosevelt and Churchill 1941), and the "Second Bill of Rights" Address of 1944 (Roosevelt 1944)--Franklin Roosevelt called for the recognition of a new suite of "rights" and "freedoms" that would update both the U.S. Constitution and the international order for the modern world, a world characterized by corporate-style industrial capitalism and threatened by fascism and international disorder (Sunstein 2004). In the domestic realm, though Roosevelt acknowledged the continuing importance of the traditional rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, he argued that changing economic and social conditions required the recognition of new rights--in particular, Economic Rights guaranteeing citizens the right to secure remunerative employment, form unions, bargain collectively, acquire earnings adequate to provide a "decent living," and more generally to achieve "freedom from want"; and Social Welfare Rights guaranteeing citizens protection from the vicissitudes of capitalism through adequate medical care, a satisfactory education, access to unemployment and accident insurance, and a secure retirement (Milkis 1993, 38-43; Milkis 1999, 80-84). In short, the major programs of the New Deal sought to advance the principle "that all Americans had rights to decent work and livelihoods, social provision, and a measure of economic democracy, including rights on the part of wage-earning Americans to organize and bargain collectively with employers" (Forbath 2001, 166).

Turning to a consideration of world affairs, Roosevelt looked forward to a transformed international order grounded in Human Rights--or, as he put it, a "world founded upon ... essential human freedoms" (1941). Central to Roosevelt's vision of Human Rights were the "Four Freedoms" to be enjoyed "everywhere in the world": freedom of speech and expression; freedom of religion; "freedom from want," meaning "economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants"; and "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" (1941). In effect, this vision entailed internationalizing central features of the United States' Bill of Rights as well as the new Economic Rights and Social Welfare Rights Roosevelt advocated (Borgwardt 2005).

More generally, the Four Freedoms speech and the Atlantic Charter were intended to plot the course, through pragmatic international institutions, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, to a world in which the Four Freedoms were universally recognized, and interstate conflicts were managed through negotiation, compromise, and adjudication, with the most powerful nations--especially the United States--providing leadership and stability (see also Ikenberry 2009; Johnson 1987; Shulman 2009).

This expanded conception of rights had far-reaching implications for the development of domestic and international commitments. To be sure, Roosevelt's sweeping vision of Economic Rights and Social Welfare Rights was never fully enacted; but his understanding of rights animated the flurry of revolutionary economic and social welfare policy reforms in domestic affairs during the New Deal (Landy and Milkis 2000, chap. 6), and inspired subsequent Democratic leaders to further expand economic regulations and social welfare protections in subsequent decades by dealing with problems left unresolved in the New Deal era such as health care and aid to education and addressing new challenges such as environmental degradation, consumer protection, and urban redevelopment (Milkis 2005; Skowronek 1997, chap. 7, pt. 2). From Social Security to Medicare, the National Labor Relations Act to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, federal programs would advance citizens' social and economic rights by sheltering them from the excesses of industrial capitalism (Milkis 1999, chaps. 4-5). Meanwhile, though Roosevelt's vision seemed to emphasize multilateral cooperation, Human Rights--under intense pressure from the Cold War--evolved into a rationale for unilateral American intervention in world affairs following World War II in order to defend democracy and check communism (Holsti 2011). While there is little doubt that the United States' postwar engagement in international affairs often failed to advance Human Rights, the ideas of Economic, Social, and Human Rights associated with the New Deal helped inform the construction of the major institutions of the postwar international order, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and influenced postwar constitutions and public policies in nations around the world (Epp 1998; Borgwardt 2005; Felice 2010; Sunstein 2004; Whelan and Donnelly 2007).

Furthermore, as perceptive scholars have argued, Roosevelt's expanded understanding of rights encouraged his Democratic heirs to push on to "new political fronts" (Plotke 1996)--in particular, in the realm of Civil Rights for historically disadvantaged groups (e.g., Forbath 2002; Gerring 1997, 238-45; McMahon 2004; Schickler and Feinstein 2008). Indeed, postwar Democratic presidents, such as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, as well as liberal Democrats in Congress, were deeply concerned with extending more of the benefits of the "new economic constitution" trumpeted in Roosevelt's Commonwealth Club Address to African Americans and other disadvantaged groups. Truman suggested the continuity of Civil Rights with the new rights previously articulated by Roosevelt in his 1948 "Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights," when he indicated that Civil Rights entailed the extension of Economic Rights and Social Welfare Rights to African Americans: "We cannot be satisfied until all our people have equal opportunities for jobs, for homes, for education, for health, and for political expression, and until all our people have equal protection under the law" (Truman 1948; emphasis added). Achieving this objective entailed legislative and administrative efforts to eliminate discrimination and provide additional opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups. Ultimately, this push--what scholars have dubbed a "rights revolution" (Epp 1998; Skrentny 2002; Sunstein 1990)--was embodied in major statutes such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Pierson 2007, 27), which collectively expanded opportunities for historically excluded groups.

Admittedly, the march of rights and freedoms associated with the New Deal and Great Society has always been unsteady in domestic affairs (Klinkner and Smith 1999), buffeted by hostility toward federal governmental power, jealousy of "states' rights," and the desire of some citizens to protect economic and racial advantages (e.g., Critchlow 2007; Hacker 2004; King and Smith 2005; Mettler and Milstein 2007). Meanwhile, the United States has often declined to ratify international human rights declarations, even as it has asserted its prerogative to engage in unilateral international actions to promote its own vision of Human Rights (Holsti 2011).

Even so, scholars generally view Roosevelt's rhetoric as inaugurating a veritable constitutional revolution in the nation's understanding of rights--albeit without formal amendment to the text of the Constitution--leading to major shifts in domestic and international governing arrangements (Landy and Milkis 2000, chap. 6; Sunstein 1990, 2004; Tushnet 2003). However, if the commitments of the New Deal/Great Society order are often understood by scholars as advancing (or at least aspiring to) new, quasi-constitutional rights and freedoms, there have been few scholarly efforts to determine whether presidents since Roosevelt have encouraged citizens to think of them in this way (I use the term "quasi-constitutional" since these rights were never formally joined to the Constitution and thus are more tentative and susceptible to revision than are formal amendments). Given the ambiguous constitutional status of the rights articulated by Roosevelt (Ackerman 1998), this oversight is surprising. A rich tradition in political science and legal scholarship suggests that political commitments and public policies can ascend to the status of rights in the popular understanding of the constitution (i.e., the "constitutional culture"), even in the absence of formal constitutional amendments; that achieving such status in the public mind can help ensure long-term political support and institutional stability for such commitments; and that how presidents talk about their commitments can play a critical role in determining whether or not this happens (Ackerman 1991, 1998; Eskridge 2007; Eskridge and Ferejohn 2001; Landy and Milkis 2000; Siegel 2001, 2004, 2006; Young 2007). At the same time, however, this research also emphasizes that we cannot take for granted that novel rights claims made by presidents (or other actors), once articulated, will inevitably remain a part of the constitutional culture. Because constitutional meaning is constantly being contested and renegotiated (Devins 1996), proponents (presidential or otherwise) of a particular constitutional understanding must continually explain and reaffirm their preferred constructions if they have any hope these interpretations will endure.

Investigating presidents' invocation in their public rhetoric of the novel rights frequently associated with the...

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