Every Fourth of July, America’s “first lady of the world,” Eleanor Roosevelt, followed a ritual of reading aloud the Declaration of Independence to guests at her annual Hyde Park picnic. America’s founding document meant so much to her that she devoted her syndicated newspaper column every July to contextualizing the Declaration vis-à-vis events occurring at home and abroad.
As the United States lurched toward entering World War II, already under way in Europe and the Pacific, with democracies attempting to counter the Axis Powers’ spread of fascism, the first lady’s July 4, 1940, op-ed reminded Americans, “We will have to be very sure what we want for ourselves and our fellow citizens in order really to organize our strength and live or die for the things in which we believe.” She was indeed very sure what the Declaration and subsequent founding documents — the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and additional amendments — represented to her. To meet 20th century domestic and foreign challenges, she was determined to go beyond parchment parameters set by white, male aristocrats (including slave owners).
Mrs. Roosevelt highlighted — as did her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, in his “Four Freedoms” speech that same year — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. She specified, “I want the right to work, and I want that opportunity to be extended to all my fellow citizens. I want them to have an equal opportunity for educational development, for health and for recreation, which is all part of the building of a human being capable of coping with the modern world.”
Thus, Mrs. Roosevelt, an unwavering civil libertarian and evolving proponent of equality for minorities and women, perpetuated another American tradition: applying the revolutionary spirit of 1776 to reinvent our regime “when … the course of human events” calls for it. The colonies had to separate from Great Britain’s despotism and tyranny because the mother country violated “self-evident truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Governments, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” should secure these rights, and, when they destroy them, must be altered or abolished, according to the Declaration’s signatories.