In January 1941, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address in which he outlined his idea of the Four Freedoms, which included freedom of speech, of worship, from fear, and from want. Defending his vision against charges of unrealistic idealism, FDR added,
“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.”
Two years later, over four consecutive issues, The Saturday Evening Post published essays on each of FDR’s Four Freedoms, each accompanied by a painting by Norman Rockwell.
To depict Freedom from Fear, Rockwell painted a mother and father tucking their children into bed to sleep the sleep of the blissfully innocent.
For Freedom of Worship, Rockwell collected together a wide array of faces each with hands clasped in prayer—a fascinating image of spiritual solidarity at a time when Jews were being annihilated across Europe for their faith.
In Freedom of Speech, Rockwell painted a single brave soul standing up at a meeting to speak his mind and bare his soul.
When it came time to symbolize Freedom from Want, Rockwell chose Thanksgiving as the perfect symbolic moment.
We all know Rockwell’s Freedom from Want by heart, even if we don’t know its title. Three generations circle the food - a nuclear family more rarely seen today, but still existing in some hearts and minds as an ideal. (If Rockwell were painting now, what might that modern American family look like racially or even in terms of sexual orientation?)
From the lower right corner, in the finest Renaissance tradition of painting, a man looks out at you directly—the classic challenge to the viewer. His smile asks you to join in with the wonder at the bounty set before them, but is that all it asks?
After more than a decade of overseas wars draining of us blood and treasure and an economic downturn further depleting our reserves of good will and thankfulness, that young man’s smile reminds us that the Thanksgiving thanks are not necessarily for abundant protein and four kinds of vegetables.
Instead, the thankfulness is for having each other and the enduring capacity of people to free one another from all kinds of want.