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Wittman's Weekly: Thanksgiving Reflections
Washington, November 26, 2020
Norman Rockwell is considered to be one of the greatest American painters of all time. Not only do his paintings embody “Americana” in the early-to-mid Twentieth Century, they capture the positive spirit of the American people – a people facing hardships, adversities, wars, landmark change, and the day-to-day challenges of a well-lived life. Rockwell also managed to capture something bigger, something better, about the nation staring back at the subjects in his paintings, something deeply rooted in what it means to be American: freedom, hope, and thanks.
Many will remember the Saturday Evening Post’s covers featuring Rockwell’s paintings. Even those who grew up after Rockwell finished painting can recall the image of the two teenagers at the soda fountain after prom, the barbershop quartet breaking out in song, the little boy at the lunch counter talking with the policeman. Rockwell also managed to capture grander moments as well, not just those that made it to the cover of the Post: Rosie the Riveter on her lunchbreak, the soldier returned home from war peeling potatoes with his mother, and the timeless depiction of the Golden rule.
This week in particular, I have been reflecting on four of his most famous paintings, one of which is timelessly linked to Thanksgiving in America: The Four Freedoms.
In January of 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union Address to Congress. At that time, all of Europe was engaged in the throes of World War II. Roosevelt knew that the United States would eventually have to get involved or else the basic freedoms of Democracy-loving people the world over would be in jeopardy. Roosevelt, rather than dwell on the difficulties that lay ahead, chose instead to focus on his hopes for a post-war world, one grounded in four basic human freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
A little over a year later, America was fully involved in WWII. Rockwell was painting for both the Post and for the US Government for war effort-related posters. Thinking back on Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, Rockwell was inspired to illustrate those ideals as well. He knew that it would be a great task, but found inspiration in one of the most basic examples of democratic involvement: his local town meeting where a resident stood and expressed an unpopular opinion. After finding this inspiration he needed by happenstance, he began his work.
“Freedom of Speech” shows a man in a worn brown jacket, standing up in the middle of a town hall meeting, expressing his viewpoint while his neighbors look on.
“Freedom of Worship” depicts several people of various or no faiths engaged in prayer or quiet reflection, with the phrase “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience” along the top.
“Freedom from Want” depicts a woman placing down a large turkey at the head of a beautifully laid out table, filled with smiling family, while her husband stands by ready to carve.
And “Freedom from Fear” shows a mother tucking in her two children while the father stands nearby with a newspaper folded in half in one hand with the headline: “Bombing ki… horror hit….”
These paintings were displayed across the nation in 1943 and were seen by more than a million people. They raised more than $133 million in war bonds and stamps. After their publication, the Post received 25,000 requests for reprints.
These paintings and the incredible response to them demonstrate that intangibility of what it means to be an American: freedom and hope. “Freedom from Want” in particular has become forever linked with the holiday we celebrate today. Thanksgiving is a time that we come together to give thanks for the family and friends in our lives. But it should also be a time of reflection, and of gratitude, for the incredible freedoms we enjoy in our nation.
This year has been one of the most difficult years that our nation, and indeed our world, has gone through in recent memory. Yet, through the hardships, adversities, conflicts, landmark change, and the day-to-day challenges of a well-lived life, we find ourselves again at another Thanksgiving enjoying our Freedom from Want, expressing our Freedom of Worship, sharing in our Freedom of Speech, and praying for continued Freedom from Fear.
Today, I hope you also reflect on those throughout our world who do not have the luxury and the blessing of those four freedoms we enjoy today. As we move towards the hope of 2021, may you reflect on ways you can help to ensure those four freedoms are preserved for your fellow neighbor. Take the time to listen this Thanksgiving, and take the time to give thanks.
God bless you, and Happy Thanksgiving.