From Political Liberty to Social Freedom

Bill of Rights by Howard Chandler Christy, 1942

The key word in the original conversation over the adoption of the Bill of Rights was liberty. And the most important measure of the condition of “the blessings of liberty” was the effectiveness of the restraints on the federal government. Thus the original Bill of Rights contain 26 restraints on the federal government. Liberty, in short, is a political term, and an important portrayal of that can be found in the various Christy paintings including the Signing of the Constitution. Another Christy manifestation is the symbol of Lady Liberty who is present in the draft version of the Signing of the Constitution and the portrayal of the Bill of Rights.

There was widespread concern at the founding that the general welfare clause, the common defense clause, the interstate commerce clause, the necessary and proper clause, all located in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, and the supremacy clause, located in Article VI, had the potentiality to empower the federal government to do pretty much what it wanted to do. What doesn’t fit under the general welfare clause asked the Antifederalist Brutus? Thus the need for a bill of rights to restrain the reach of political power.

Madison, in the First Congress, persuaded his fellow representatives to adopt a bill of rights that would articulate the sense of America concerning the reach of the federal government. He wanted one that would be harmonious with the original Constitution and still capture what he called in Federalist 63: “the cool and deliberate sense of the community.” To that end, Jefferson received the following letter from Madison on June 30, 1789: “Enclosed is a copy of sundry amendments to the Constitution lately proposed in the House of Representatives. Every thing of a controvertible nature that might endanger the concurrence of two-thirds of each House and three-fourths of the States was studiously avoided. This will account for the omission of several amendments which occur as proper.”

So Madison is suggesting that there are other restraints that might have been included but, for prudential purposes, were not because of the political arithmetic associated with amendments to the Constitution. Thus the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution which is a Madisonian invention! Jefferson, for his part, wanted constraints on the habeas corpus provisions, the ability of Congress to create monopolies, and the control of the military in peace time. These were in addition to the three essential rights that Madison and Jefferson agreed must be in the Bill of Rights: religion, press, and juries. Madison left out the Jeffersonian additions because he thought that they would not pass the political arithmetic test. As it turned out, 2 of the 12 amendments agreed to by Congress were rejected by the state legislatures leaving us with 10 amendments also known as the U. S. Bill of Rights!

There are 26 rights included in the Bill of Rights ranging from the American contribution of religious liberty, the liberty of the press, and due process rights. There is no mention of the right to food, shelter, clothing, etc. We suggest that the Great Depression and the New Deal had much to do with the adaptation of the old Bill of Rights as a document of individual liberty in a political context to a new Bill of Rights as a document of a friendly federal government, “the people’s Government,” fighting to free “we the people” from fear and want. The context has shifted from political to social and thus the economic well-being of the population is a legitimate concern of the federal government. “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people… Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in the crusade to restore America to its own people.” Thus spoke Franklin D. Roosevelt in his Presidential Nomination Address on July 2, 1932.

FDR with an adapted Howard Chandler Christy poster

FDR builds on his transformative theme in his Commonwealth Club Address on September 23, 1932. The Great Depression “calls for a re-appraisal of values.” What does this mean? We must secure through a New Deal program “an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order.” FDR mentions in his State of the Union Address of January 4, 1935 that “we have undertaken a new order of things.” And at the core of this new order is “(1) the security of a livelihood through the better use of the national resources of the land in which we live; (2) The security against the major hazards and vicissitudes of life; (3) The security of decent homes.” We must conquer fear itself said Roosevelt in his First Inaugural Address.

Roosevelt introduces the term “freedom” to center stage in his Presidential Re-Nomination Address of June 27, 1936. And it is associated with “the people” over against liberty which seems to be more associated with “the individual.” In 1776, according to FDR, “we sought freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy” and we secured victory on July 4. Today, we seek freedom from the tyranny of economic autocracy. “The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.” And in his Dignity of Labor Speech on September 6, 1936, the words political “liberty” have been virtually replaced in center stage by social “freedom” in FDR’s explanation of American life: “The Fourth of July commemorates our political freedom — a freedom which without economic freedom is meaningless indeed. Labor day symbolizes our determination to achieve an economic freedom for the average man which will give the political freedom reality.” In short, we need to provide substance to the old Bill of Rights.

Looking back over his first four years in office, FDR, in his Second Inaugural Address of January 20, 1937, says he is proud that we introduced “a new order of things,” one based on “social justice.” But we have not yet “found our happy valley.” FDR notes that “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” Thus “Everyman,” or “the Forgotten Man,” replaces “the Rugged Individual” as the unit of analysis. Government, especially the federal government, does not need to be constrained politically; rather it needs to be empowered to do the social good. Norman Rockwell’s paintings (see below), capture this shift from securing individual liberty to securing social justice.

The Four Freedoms Speech is officially FDR’s State of the Union Address to Congress on January 6, 1941. The four freedoms are: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. He has already stated that the last two goals are at the heart of the domestic agenda of the New Deal. Here, he announces these four freedoms as goals for people “everywhere in the world.”

Contents

Introduction

Introductions, the documentary history of each amendment, and major themes about the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

From Political Liberty to Social Freedom

Using artwork, see how the idea of rights has changed throughout American history.

View Feature

Documentary Origins and Politics of the Bill of Rights

Interactive chart showing the origins of each of the rights in the Bill of Rights.

View Interactive

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org