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The Second Bill of Rights: How FDR envisioned social and economic rights as human rights

Rembrandt Brown

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The Second Bill of Rights
How Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned social and economic rights as human rights.
By Jill Priluck
Lapham’s Quarterly
JUNE 11, 2018

A few days after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union address on January 11, 1944, New York Herald Tribune columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that an unnamed Republican congressman had dismissed the president’s message as “a campaign document.” He was referring specifically to the president’s recommendations for stabilizing the economy: a new tax bill, a price-control law for food, currency stabilization measures, and a national service law.

If the congressman is right…he ought then ask himself whether perchance it may not be a good campaign document. It would not be the first time in this war that a program of victory by blood, sweat, and tears has proved to be a better way of retaining the people’s confidence than a menu of pap, applesauce, and eyewash.

Lippmann seems to have had a hunch that Roosevelt would defeat Thomas Dewey and win a fourth presidential term on this platform. But he didn’t immediately predict that what Roosevelt presented in his State of the Union would launch a global movement of social and economic rights arguably as influential as his New Deal legacy and certainly more enduring than his wartime effort to end unemployment and price increases. There are eight tenets of the Second Bill of Rights Roosevelt proposed in his speech:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education.
During the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders called FDR’s 1944 State of the Union speech “one of the most important speeches ever made by a president.” The tragedy is that these rights proliferated nearly everywhere but at home—and, aside from some bright spots, any that did exist in the U.S. now are eroding. The Bill was truly radical both then and now—almost as radical as the original Bill of Rights ratified in 1789. And the radical promise of the Second Bill of Rights goes unfulfilled to this day.


Some of FDR’s own policies failed to live up to his ideals. His administration’s commitment to unemployment insurance meant that universal health coverage was sidelined. He never provided economic relief to victims of lynching or to Japanese Americans whose property was lost, stolen, or seized. But Roosevelt’s New Deal programs pushed the Supreme Court to establish a new rubric for economic security in an era of fascism and authoritarianism, even if some Americans were excluded from the benefits.

The Second Bill of Rights was both a sleeper and a hit. The day after Roosevelt’s speech, the Wall Street Journal wrote that “we hope—indeed we assume—that the new bill would be in addition to and not a replacement of the existing one.” Hardly a ringing endorsement, but still surprising for a pro-business publication. On February 26, 1944, the New York Amsterdam News called it “the greatest and most realistic of the Bills of Rights. Hence the loud silence that greeted it.” For labor groups, it became not just a platform but a cri de coeur. It even became a platform during Truman’s 1948 campaign, though the Daily Worker was skeptical of his commitment: “In the mouth of FDR, this ‘Second Bill of Rights’ had a splendid ring, because people knew he meant it and was fighting for it. In the mouth of President Truman, it sounded stuffy and dead.”

Even though the president urged Congress to consider vesting citizens with eight new rights, a Second Bill of Rights was never formally introduced in Congress and never was interpreted by the Supreme Court. Promises of basic human dignities—such as guaranteeing the right to housing or to be free from monopoly power, for example—historically have not blended well with capitalist economies. Elite American political culture traditionally has favored a form of Adam Smith individualism in which the pursuit of self-interest, the sanctity of private property, and the right to be left alone are paramount. The state existed to protect these rights, not to create new ones—a delineation between negative and positive liberties that Isaiah Berlin explored in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” a 1958 lecture he delivered at the University of Oxford and later published as a pamphlet.

Well before Berlin—whose work did not focus on the United States—the Civil War changed the perception that the country would not be especially receptive to positive rights. During Reconstruction, economic rights involving labor and trade were established under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process clause. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guaranteed to “citizens of every race and color…the same right…as is enjoyed by white citizens…to make and enforce contracts, to sue…purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property.” While these economic rights were established to protect individuals, corporations sought to claim them. In the backlash following Reconstruction, African Americans were banned from working in textile mills and Jim Crow laws expanded. Meanwhile, workers demanded better conditions and wages as labor unions proliferated or consolidated. Yet many of these rights languished until the progressive movement in the U.S. when President Woodrow Wilson passed a series of social and economic reforms: the creation of the Federal Reserve Board, the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act, the establishment of workers’ compensation, and improved credit for farmers. These created a powerful precedent via the New Deal, which solidified some basic guarantees for American citizens, such as the right to unionize and bargain collectively. That effort paved the way for Roosevelt’s crystallization of the principles of economic justice that made up the Second Bill of Rights.


After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, his ideas informed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A UNESCO Philosophers’ Committee began drafting it in 1946, and then the UN Commission on Human Rights took over. According to Gordon Brown’s The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 21st Century, it was decided before it was passed in 1948—shortly after the establishment of the United Nations—that the document would be a declaration rather than a treaty with both civil and political rights and social, economic, and cultural rights. Drafted as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations,” the declaration provides the earliest modern legal authority for social and economic rights globally. It was the foundation for two covenants adopted by the UN General Assembly: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, along with the declaration, are known as the International Bill of Rights. The two covenants are binding in countries that have ratified them. Treaties, such as the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, round out international human rights jurisprudence. Some instruments, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are “soft law”—not strictly binding, but respected as norms in international law.

Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the committee that made the United States among the first countries to commit to protecting such rights. The leading role the U.S. took here is especially notable, given its reluctance to ratify other global agreements, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 1961 the Council of Europe, an international organization dedicated to promoting human rights, adopted the European Social Charter. Forty-three governments have ratified either this charter or the revision adopted in 1996. The treaty protects the right to work; the right to organize; the right to bargain collectively; the right to social security; the right to social and medical assistance; the right to social, legal, and economic protection of the family; and the right to protection and assistance for migrant workers and their families. Ultimately, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was ratified by 167 countries—but not by the United States. That the covenant did not establish a functioning complaint mechanism until 2012 demonstrates the problems with enforcing these global agreements, which are meaningfully distinct from formal adoptions of such rights or pledges to protect citizens.


Many constitutions outside the U.S. recognize aspects of Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights. As Cass Sunstein notes in The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, the South African and Iraqi constitutions guarantee a right to education, health care, social security, and housing. Finland’s establishes that everyone has “the right to basic sustenance.” Norway’s requires the state “to create conditions enabling every person capable of work to earn a living by his work.” In Spain’s constitution, ratified thirteen years before Roosevelt’s speech, the nation “shall assure to every worker the conditions necessary for a fitting existence,” including “economic sufficiency through adequate and periodically updated pensions” to citizens in old age. Constitutions in Portugal, Brazil, Poland, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Peru, and Egypt all recognize some form of Roosevelt’s economic rights. Mexico’s 1917 constitution included social-welfare provisions years before the Second Bill of Rights was proposed. U.S. state constitutions recognize aspects of the bill, such as the right to education.

The ground rules vary on enforcement. Some countries classify these rights as mere principles that are not legally enforceable. Violations of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights are tracked by the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, but courts do not play a role. As Sunstein explains, Roosevelt created the Second Bill of Rights as a document to be protected politically, not judicially, yet nations that embrace its tenets benefit from judicial enforcement. South African courts protect these rights as necessary without requiring protection for each person who suffers (to the chagrin of some). In India the rights are constitutional tenets with legislative enforcement. Article 21 of India’s constitution is a catchall right-to-life or personal-liberty clause that includes the right to work, health, education, and privacy and against public hanging and solitary confinement. It even protects the right to write and publish a book while in jail. In the U.S., states such as New York balance commitment to the rights with both judicial intervention and legislative policy.


Still, going through the courts to enforce these constitutional provisions can take years to get practical results, if at all. In 2000 the South African Constitutional Court recognized that the social and economic rights of about nine hundred plaintiffs living in a squatter settlement outside Cape Town had been violated because there was no plan to offer “temporary relief” to those without shelter. The decision was rooted in two sections of the South African Constitution: Section 26, which asserts that “everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing,” and Section 28, which protects a child’s right to basic shelter. Unfortunately, Irene Grootboom, the activist who brought the case, died before moving into adequate housing, and it took years after the ruling for the government to house her community.

In the United States, social and economic rights have experienced historical failures. Following the progressive era (1890–1920) and the New Deal, rights waned until the 1950s and 1960s, when a series of cases upheld equal justice for the poor. In 1956 the Supreme Court ruled that states were required to provide poor appellants trial transcripts for free. Seven years later, the court held that the Constitution requires the state to pay for defense attorneys in criminal cases. The same year, the court again ruled that the poor be offered an attorney for their first appeal involving a criminal conviction. These rights endure. When President Richard Nixon was elected, the justices he appointed slowed down progress on social and economic rights once again. In one ruling, the court asserted that education was not a fundamental constitutional right, even though this conflicts with some state constitutions.

Before President Trump was elected, a movement had begun to emerge that favored social and economic rights grounded in state and local politics. Beginning with the financial crisis of 2008 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, legal and political discourse shifted for the first time since the 1960s from questions of civil liberties toward social and economic rights. The Supreme Court twice affirmed the ACA. In 2017 New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that offered students from families with incomes of up to $125,000 a tuition-free education at public colleges and universities if they live in the state for the same number of years they participate in the program. The minimum wage is the latest salvo in the battle over economic rights, as illustrated in the Fight for $15 campaign.

This movement has increased urgency in the Trump era. Labor laws are poorly enforced, especially in southern states, and “right to work” laws—which ensure employees cannot be forced to join a union—proliferate. In a case before the Supreme Court this term, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the court may find that a requirement for a government employee to pay union dues is a violation of his or her free-speech rights. These developments have spurred a fight for the robust social and economic safety net that Roosevelt envisioned.

In his column on Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union, Lippmann wrote, “We all know that Mr. Roosevelt is just about the shrewdest and most successful practical politician of our time. Nobody has ever doubted that.”

Roosevelt’s astuteness was on display when he proposed the Second Bill of Rights, even if Lippmann didn’t devote a sentence to it and Roosevelt would never see these rights formally adopted. It was a gesture directed at dictators and bullies, authoritarians and tyrants who have been thwarted from exploiting the weakest citizens because the law preserved fundamental human dignities—at least in the best cases. Yet human frailty and callousness, bureaucracies, and lack of resources continue to mitigate the practical effect of these rights. But then Roosevelt was not one to surrender. If he were, he would not have campaigned so passionately for the cause.
 

Rembrandt Brown

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That fool wouldn't sign that Anti-Lynching Bill....
He definitely was a product of his time and far from perfect, but he was the most productive president of the past century. All presidents did terrible things but there is no better model for doing good with the presidency than FDR. His positives are worth knowing and we should push for future presidents to replicate them for the modern era.
 

World B Free

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He definitely was a product of his time and far from perfect, but he was the most productive president of the past century. All presidents did terrible things but there is no better model for doing good with the presidency than FDR. His positives are worth knowing and we should push for future presidents to replicate them for the modern era.
I know his positives, the new deal and all that; I'm pointing out how not lynching Black people was important to the Black community and to human decency/human rights.
 

Rembrandt Brown

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I know his positives, the new deal and all that; I'm pointing out how not lynching Black people was important to the Black community and to human decency/human rights.
It's important context. There's a lot more, like black people being excluded from the New Deal.

The general principles regarding economic rights were still revolutionary and extremely relevant to today's politics.
 

World B Free

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It's important context. There's a lot more, like black people being excluded from the New Deal.

The general principles regarding economic rights were still revolutionary and extremely relevant to today's politics.
How can I completely praise a man when he didn't care about Black people being lynched? huh? First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was for the legislation, however her husband wouldn't budge.
 

Rembrandt Brown

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How can I completely praise a man when he didn't care about Black people being lynched? huh? First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was for the legislation, however her husband wouldn't budge.
:confused: Nobody is saying complete praise must be lavished upon FDR.

Did you even read the article? It talks about some of his problem areas:

Some of FDR’s own policies failed to live up to his ideals. His administration’s commitment to unemployment insurance meant that universal health coverage was sidelined. He never provided economic relief to victims of lynching or to Japanese Americans whose property was lost, stolen, or seized. But Roosevelt’s New Deal programs pushed the Supreme Court to establish a new rubric for economic security in an era of fascism and authoritarianism, even if some Americans were excluded from the benefits.​

Anti-lynching laws aren't controversial today but there is still no right to health care, housing or many other economic rights FDR sought to validate. You're missing the forest for the trees. There's a valuable lesson here. Your point is a valid one-- as I acknowledged in my previous reply, "It's important context [and] there's a lot more [bad stuff about FDR]"-- but it doesn't wipe out everything else.
 

World B Free

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:confused: Nobody is saying complete praise must be lavished upon FDR.

Did you even read the article? It talks about some of his problem areas:

Some of FDR’s own policies failed to live up to his ideals. His administration’s commitment to unemployment insurance meant that universal health coverage was sidelined. He never provided economic relief to victims of lynching or to Japanese Americans whose property was lost, stolen, or seized. But Roosevelt’s New Deal programs pushed the Supreme Court to establish a new rubric for economic security in an era of fascism and authoritarianism, even if some Americans were excluded from the benefits.​

Anti-lynching laws aren't controversial today but there is still no right to health care, housing or many other economic rights FDR sought to validate. You're missing the forest for the trees. There's a valuable lesson here. Your point is a valid one-- as I acknowledged in my previous reply, "It's important context [and] there's a lot more [bad stuff about FDR]"-- but it doesn't wipe out everything else.
I hear you, but it's been a long time in coming....

Senate passes anti-lynching bill in renewed effort to make it a federal hate crime
By Eli Watkins and Ted Barrett, CNN

Updated 3:57 PM ET, Thu February 14, 2019








See Harris speech on anti-lynching legislation

Washington (CNN)Two competitors for the 2020 Democratic nomination joined forces Thursday in a renewed effort to pass their anti-lynching legislation.

The Senate passed the legislation from California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott last year, but the House never took up the measure. On Thursday, the Senate again passed the bill via unanimous consent.
If signed into law, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act would outline the specific killing of lynching, noting its violent and racist legacy, and add it to the federal list of hate crimes. As Booker's office noted Thursday, the vote followed more than a century of efforts to outlaw lynching that have failed to pass.
Following Thursday's unanimous vote in the Senate, the bill would then go to the House before President Donald Trump can sign it into law.
Thursday's vote was also notable also due to the nascent political rivalry between the bill's sponsors. Harris and Booker each recently announced they would seek their party's nomination next year to challenge Trump for the White House, and they showed no ill will during Thursday's vote, even wishing each other a "Happy Valentine's Day."
Asked about Booker being an opponent in the primary, Harris said the two were friends with "a great deal of affection and respect for each other."
"We've worked together on many issues over a long time, over many years, frankly, even before I got to the Senate," Harris said. "This is an historic day. We're both very proud of the work that we've done together."
Booker said they had been working on the bill "quite a bit," and when asked if he felt dynamics had changed in the Senate with himself and other Democrats running against each other, Booker said his colleagues were "sisters and brothers."
"There have always been sibling rivalries throughout history, but at the end of the day, there is still family," Booker said.
 

jremi

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Why did you post this? If you wanted to start a conversation about the New Deal, OK, but why try to promote FDR on a board for black folks?

First off FDR was a piece of shit. Not only did he not support anti lynching legislation, but he was a self avowed white supremacist. He was quoted as saying that white supremacy was inevitable and would spread from the US through Central and South America, then to Africa and Asia because of the inferiority of the people who lived there. He then engaged in foreign policy measures to make it happen.

This is one of the problems with the "Great Man Theory" (look it up) that is taught as history in the US and in the west. FDR was not some benevolent king looking out for the best interests of his people. He was a politician frantically trying to solve the greatest problem America had faced since the civil war. The Great Depression was no joke. The capitalist system was on verge of collapse, people were starving, unemployed and homeless, the economy was in a tailspin, banks were going bankrupt, people were committing suicide, etc. etc.

What FDR and Congress did with the New Deal is what people on the left were agitating for since the late eighteen hundreds. Not just agitating for but losing their lives for when strikes turned ugly and the police and hired goons killed folks trying to get a fair shake.

But this is what the american great man version of history does. It whitewashes and paints a picture of leaders trying to help the average person because of love? Concern? Care? Give it enough time and they will try to convince us that this current president cared about black folk because of low unemployment through an abundance of low paying jobs and the passage of an incarceration reform bill.

FDR couldn't give a fuck. He was trying to stop the system from toppling over. He especially didn't give a fuck about black folks. Black people rarely if ever benefitted directly from the onset of the new deal programs. Its one of the reasons why america is still so segregated today (especially housing). During this time in US history, affirmative action was white!

But in short, fuck FDR and fuck anyone trying to whitewash his image and trying to promote him as someone he wasn't.
 

HellBoy

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Why did you post this? If you wanted to start a conversation about the New Deal, OK, but why try to promote FDR on a board for black folks?

First off FDR was a piece of shit. Not only did he not support anti lynching legislation, but he was a self avowed white supremacist. He was quoted as saying that white supremacy was inevitable and would spread from the US through Central and South America, then to Africa and Asia because of the inferiority of the people who lived there. He then engaged in foreign policy measures to make it happen.

This is one of the problems with the "Great Man Theory" (look it up) that is taught as history in the US and in the west. FDR was not some benevolent king looking out for the best interests of his people. He was a politician frantically trying to solve the greatest problem America had faced since the civil war. The Great Depression was no joke. The capitalist system was on verge of collapse, people were starving, unemployed and homeless, the economy was in a tailspin, banks were going bankrupt, people were committing suicide, etc. etc.

What FDR and Congress did with the New Deal is what people on the left were agitating for since the late eighteen hundreds. Not just agitating for but losing their lives for when strikes turned ugly and the police and hired goons killed folks trying to get a fair shake.

But this is what the american great man version of history does. It whitewashes and paints a picture of leaders trying to help the average person because of love? Concern? Care? Give it enough time and they will try to convince us that this current president cared about black folk because of low unemployment through an abundance of low paying jobs and the passage of an incarceration reform bill.

FDR couldn't give a fuck. He was trying to stop the system from toppling over. He especially didn't give a fuck about black folks. Black people rarely if ever benefitted directly from the onset of the new deal programs. Its one of the reasons why america is still so segregated today (especially housing). During this time in US history, affirmative action was white!

But in short, fuck FDR and fuck anyone trying to whitewash his image and trying to promote him as someone he wasn't.
Props.
 

Rembrandt Brown

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Why did you post this? If you wanted to start a conversation about the New Deal, OK, but why try to promote FDR on a board for black folks?

First off FDR was a piece of shit. Not only did he not support anti lynching legislation, but he was a self avowed white supremacist. He was quoted as saying that white supremacy was inevitable and would spread from the US through Central and South America, then to Africa and Asia because of the inferiority of the people who lived there. He then engaged in foreign policy measures to make it happen.

This is one of the problems with the "Great Man Theory" (look it up) that is taught as history in the US and in the west. FDR was not some benevolent king looking out for the best interests of his people. He was a politician frantically trying to solve the greatest problem America had faced since the civil war. The Great Depression was no joke. The capitalist system was on verge of collapse, people were starving, unemployed and homeless, the economy was in a tailspin, banks were going bankrupt, people were committing suicide, etc. etc.

What FDR and Congress did with the New Deal is what people on the left were agitating for since the late eighteen hundreds. Not just agitating for but losing their lives for when strikes turned ugly and the police and hired goons killed folks trying to get a fair shake.

But this is what the american great man version of history does. It whitewashes and paints a picture of leaders trying to help the average person because of love? Concern? Care? Give it enough time and they will try to convince us that this current president cared about black folk because of low unemployment through an abundance of low paying jobs and the passage of an incarceration reform bill.

FDR couldn't give a fuck. He was trying to stop the system from toppling over. He especially didn't give a fuck about black folks. Black people rarely if ever benefitted directly from the onset of the new deal programs. Its one of the reasons why america is still so segregated today (especially housing). During this time in US history, affirmative action was white!

But in short, fuck FDR and fuck anyone trying to whitewash his image and trying to promote him as someone he wasn't.
I don't subscribe to the great man theory of history.

The article is titled "The Second Bill of Rights." It's a historic platform that most people don't know about. FDR introduced it.

But I guess you can't talk about a man's proposal without endorsing the man-- at least with some people. I've made it very clear that my point here was not to cheerlead FDR. Regardless of his motive, the idea that an American president advocated rights such as universal housing is significant. It's something that can be built on. This was meant as a policy discussion but some people want to discuss everything but. :smh:
 
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