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FDR’s vision of freedom celebrated in Thanksgiving

Next Thursday is the day Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. It is the one federal holiday never on a Monday, and one meant to be celebrated as a family meal, showing love, abundance and generosity.

Its history is short compared to world celebrations, but long on traditions in this country. The 32nd president helped to promote an idea of freedoms in 1941 that two years later were illustrated by Norman Rockwell during the second World War.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented the following speech on Jan. 6, 1941, to the 77th U.S. Congress:

“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 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 — 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. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

The somewhat-maligned regional artist/Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Rockwell was so moved by the speech that he painted a quartet of works depicting the freedoms that FDR outlined.

The “Freedom from Want” painting has become iconic in America for Thanksgiving Day. It shows family, foods and some luxury, which some people in other countries see as being “gluttonous, waste” and plain old “showing off.”

Few Americans during the second World War would have viewed the painting as a braggadocio’s version of life at the American dinner table. It was seen as a view of what our lives could be in this young country: if we worked hard enough, and saved, our table at Thanksgiving could also have a big turkey on a platter, silver spoons, porcelain serving bowls, fresh vegetables in November and glasses filled with something besides water. It didn’t inspire jealousy. It inspired hope for America’s future.

Before Rockwell’s magazine covers, there was no widespread, idealized vision of “what could be.” The country had been forced to protect its lands and its ideals following World War I and the Great Depression. It fought hard for its freedoms and to maintain that hope.

“Freedom from Want” spoke the proverbial 1,000 words in such modest eloquence, it changed ordinary expectations, as well as what would soon be available in meat cases at the market.

The turkey became a commodity that advanced agricultural economy and gave a unified expectation for the American dinner table, during the American holiday, soon dedicated to that big American bird. Soldiers returning from abroad became a feature at the table and implied generosity and national loyalty. Good health and longevity were implied by the age ranges surrounding Rockwell’s iconographic table.

It was a hopeful image strived for by ordinary people.

Whether the first table in Plymouth had any luxuries is indeed doubtful. But it too was laid to provide hope. I’m sure the Pilgrims’ story will be told at dinner tables next Thursday around the USA, and maybe there will be a child’s paper cutouts complete with crudely-drawn turkey heads, placed “just so” on the table. And maybe there will be silverware from generations past, laid at each plate. And maybe there will be a roasted turkey on the table.

But even if it isn’t grand, if there is a meal with nourishment on a plate, it is something to be thankful for. We do live in a country where those four freedoms, among many others, are the envy of the world. We are blessed beyond words. We are blessed and should always be thankful for those freedoms on which this country was founded.

FDR said it well. Rockwell illustrated it in a humble, loving manner. Hope exists … and for the freedoms that give us that hope, we need always to be thankful. Amen.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.