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The Story Behind the 4 Freedoms

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

By Eileen Bluestone Sherman

The inaugural 4 Freedoms Festival SM was held in Southern Vermont in July 2018 in honor of the 75th anniversary of the publishing of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings. The festival included a wide-range of community events. Highlights of the festival included Ring 4 Freedom (a statewide bell-ringing); Tribute 4 Freedom (which honored those who fought for freedom and celebrated the next generation of leaders with the Create 4 Freedom contest); The Arlington Models Reunion; Challenges 4 Freedom (an exhibition at The Bennington Museum); and a new musical about Norman Rockwell and his quest to create the iconic Four Freedoms suite. Directed and choreographed by four-time Tony® Award nominee Randy Skinner and starring Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Lillias White, ROCKWELL enjoyed sold out performances, standing ovations, and truly brought Broadway to Vermont. The finale song, “Stand Up Proud”, was chosen as the official anthem of the 4 Freedoms Festival.

But why celebrate the

Four Freedoms

in Southern Vermont?

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared before Congress and offered his State of the Union Speech, which in years to come would be known as the “Four Freedoms” address. His personal mission was clear. President Roosevelt understood that the United States’ involvement in World War II was inevitable. Although the U.S.A. still remained on the sidelines that January, he endeavored to ready the country for war. His speech concluded with four universal truths. All human beings are entitled to these essential freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two, of course, were familiar phrases to all Americans and were protected rights, as described in the Constitution of the United States. The last two freedoms, however, purposely transcended U.S. doctrine. They described intrinsic rights due to all men and women everywhere. Of course, his speech was met with much debate and some resistance. Why join a war being fought an ocean away? Then came December 7th and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Norman Rockwell (pictured left) and his Arlington peers. Photo courtesy of Don Trachte, Jr.

Meanwhile, in the small New England town of Arlington, Vermont, the country’s most popular magazine illustrator of the day, Norman Rockwell, listened to President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address on the radio. Several months later, he read a proclamation, named The Atlantic Charter, co-written by Winston Churchill and Roosevelt. In it, the two great leaders of the Western world endeavored to explain the four basic freedoms entitled to every human being on earth. That December, the United States entered World War II. As he described in his autobiography, Norman was too old to enlist and his three sons were much too young. Still, he watched his neighbors’ boys march off to war. Norman Rockwell, like every American, wanted to do his part. He read and reread The Atlantic Charter. He wanted to show on canvas what those four freedoms meant, and why Americans felt compelled to send their brave, young men and women into harm’s way. However, the words were so eloquent that the artist struggled for weeks, suffering sleepless nights, trying to find the right visual concept.

Con O’Shea Creel, Danny Gardner, Jeremy Benton in the new musical ROCKWELL. Photo by Hubert Schriebl

Then, one evening, he attended an Arlington town meeting, His friend and neighbor, a local “no nonsense” farmer, stood up and spoke. As the artist explained it, “No one agreed with Jim; everyone wanted him to sit down. But, we knew Jim was entitled to have his say.” At that very moment, Rockwell realized he was watching freedom of speech in “real time”. Suddenly, he knew what to do; he would paint everyday scenes that people easily recognized and ask his Vermont neighbors to be his models. In 1942, Norman Rockwell enjoyed what today we call “rock-star status.” His paintings appeared regularly on the cover of the nation’s leading magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. Indeed, Norman was one of the kings of American pop culture. So, when he headed down to Washington, DC to volunteer his services, doors opened wide. They told him, “In the last war, we used illustrators, guys like you, but this time around, we’re using fine arts men… you know, real artists.” Rockwell left the nation’s capital thoroughly dejected. After all, not only did they not like his idea, but the Washington bureaucrats didn’t even consider him a real artist. When Norman shared the humiliating episode with his editor at The Saturday Evening Post, Ben Hibbs immediately realized the idea’s brilliant potential. On the spot, he commissioned Norman to create the Four Freedoms, not as Post covers, but as features inside the magazine. Each representation of freedom would accompany an essay about why it was worth the fight.

Jamar Beauford, Winner of the Create 4 Freedom Poetry contest.

In 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published the depictions. Four distinguished writers of the day (Stephen Vincent Benet, Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, and Carlos Bulosan) all composed essays. The public went wild! The images were hailed around the nation (and the globe) at a time when the war was going against the Allied Troops. It just so happens that at the same time, the U.S. Treasury was broke! Well-aware of the public’s admiration for these four images, The Treasury Department asked the artist to tour the country with his original Four Freedoms paintings to sell war bonds. Those paintings, that no one in Washington originally wanted, raised almost $133,000,000 (the equivalent of $1.7 billion today). And it was that infusion of funds (at such a critical moment) that changed the course of events and helped the United States win the war.

Poetry & Democracy

“The first thing democracy requires is also the first thing poetry

requires, namely, imagination. Without it, it’s impossible to

envision either memorable speech or a State where the genius

of its people thrives in both personal and political freedom. Like

democracy, poetry is an ongoing experiment that tests its

readers’ ability to get the meanings of poems which convey ‘the main

things’ (Walt Whitman) in every new age . . .

. . . Thomas Jefferson proclaimed human equality as a

‘self-evident’ truth in The Declaration of Independence.

Inherent in this truth is the secular belief in the citizenry’s collective

capacity to wed their imaginations to reason as both a political

ideal and spiritual safeguard against tyranny. However, this

intellectual marriage is always only the start of democracy.

Democracy’s maintenance is the hard part, requiring continuous

political balance on a high demotic wire in which citizens, despite

their party affiliations, strive to sustain their vision of themselves in

others, despite their ethnic, philosophical, and political differences,

and in so doing expand themselves within the matrix of diversity into

larger selves that, as Walt Whitman claimed, ‘contain multitudes’” .

- Chard deNiord

Poet Laureate of Vermont

at The 4 Freedoms Festival, July 2018

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