Rev. Charles Hoffacker: Now might be the time to dust off FDR’s economic bills of rights

Newspaper Articles
Portland Press Herald
About This Project

Now might be the time to dust off FDR’s economic bills of rights
America has the courage
and means to build on our
biggest dreams. Can we
revive the will?
The current
economic and political turmoil
in the United States invites us
to look back, not in a nostalgic
way, but to remember import-
ant moments in our nation’s
history and take inspiration
from the work of transforma-
tional leaders. Thus, the Pro-
gressive Era and the New Deal
are receiving fresh attention.
We can note as well how
voting rights expanded over
time to include women as well
as men, and blacks as well
as whites, and consider how
public education spread across
the land to include community
colleges and state universities
as well as elementary and
secondary schools.
Reflecting on our national
tory can stir up hope and
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
is an Episcopal priest and
a member of the board of
the Frances Perkins Center
in Newcastle.
courage, for we have often
shown ourselves to be a people
of great projects. Some past
projects may merit criticism,
light of current insights and
priorities. Yet, however flawed,
these projects, together with
those that are praiseworthy,
indicate that in generations
‘past, America was not afraid of
big dreams and acted on those
In contrast, America today
often sounds small-minded
and small-hearted. We need
dreams of a gracious society
that rival the best dreams of
the past so that we can act
bol upon them. We can even
bring back good dreams that
were not fulfilled in their time
but can be realized in ours.
World War II was still raging
when Franklin Delano Roo-
sevelt dispatched his 1944 Mes-
sage to Congress on the State
of the Union. This message
included eight points that he
identified as a “Second Bill of
Roosevelt told Congress that
the nation cannot rest content
if some fraction of Americans
are without the necessities
of life. As America began by
asserting inalienable political
rights, so with the growth of
the national economy, “these
political rights proved inade-
quate to assure equality in the
pursuit of happiness,” he said.
He claimed that certain
“The right to a useful and
remunerative job in the in-
dustries 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 business-
man, 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 medi-
cal care and the opportunity to
achieve and enjoy good health;
“The right to adequate
economic rights “have become ‘ protection from the economic
accepted as self-evident” and / fears of old age, sickness, acci-
that an economic bill of rights dent, and unemployment;
was necessary, expressing
“The right to a good educa-
these rights in simple, sårring tion.”
Subsequent gove
actions have helped Americans
to realize portions of these
rights, but the record is mixed
and remains always subject to
change for the worse, Our na-
tional record in some respects
compares poorly to those of
other nations.
While the American bill of
political rights is admired by
freedom-loving people around
the globe, the weakness of our
economic rights leaves many
of our international friends
puzzled and disappointed. The
need for improvement in these
areas is urgent. So, too, is the
need to secure these rights as
part of our Constitution.
In his 1944 Message to
Congress, Roosevelt noted
that “true individual freedom
cannot exist without economic
security and independence.
‘Necessitous men are not
free men.’ ” Keeping alive the
political principles contained in
the first Bill of Rights requires
supplementing them a
second Bill of Rights that ad-
dresses economic issues.
Legal scholar Cass R. Sun-
stein’s 2004 study, “The Second
Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfin-
ished Revolution and Why
We Need It More Than Ever,”
helped revive interest in what
he calls “the speech of the cen-
tury” and its implications.
Sunstein notes that FDR’s
economic rights proposal “was
a direct product of America’s
experience with the despera-
tion and misery of the Great
Depression.” A 21st-century
economic bill of rights can
also draw on the tragedy of
the Great Recession and the
inhumane economy that has
prevailed in America through-
out the last four decades.
Our nation made horrible mis-
takes. We can learn from them.
We can establish a far more g•a-
cious society than the one we
have endured in recent years.
Special to the Pressl rald