In 1923 Los Angeles police arrested the American author, socialist Upton Sinclair, for publicly reading the Bill of Rights, which they deemed radical. Four decades later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a Second Bill of Rights that to many today would seem far more so.
In The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, law professor Cass Sunstein calls FDR’s last State of the Union address the most important political speech of the 20th century. It also is one of the least known.
In that visionary declaration of interdependence, presented on January 11, 1944 during the height of WWII, Roosevelt laid out an economic bill of rights he felt was needed to ensure not only the propagation of greater freedom but to abort future wars, declaring, “Unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”
Sunstein methodically lays out the evolution of Roosevelt’s thinking as well as the arguments for the constitutionality and implementation of the Second Bill of Rights. Central to Roosevelt’s reasoning was the necessity of economic security for all since, he insisted, “necessitous men are not free men.” Only an activist democratic government could insure freedom from fear, which FDR famously proclaimed at his 1933 inauguration.
Sunstein explains Eleanor Roosevelt’s importance in the formulation of the Second Bill of Rights and how after her husband’s sudden death the following year, she made sure that much of the speech was embedded in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both documents are included in the appendix, as well as excerpts from various national constitutions that used them as a template. Sunstein also explains how and why the U.S. did not get the Second Bill of Rights.
Today, in a time permeated with fear and economic uncertainty for many — the opposite of the security Roosevelt sought — FDR’s prescription for expanded freedom deserves a reading. You can have no better guide than Cass Sunstein’s book.
Reviewed by Gray Brechin