Five Great American Paintings (Part V: Freedom of Speech)

This installment discusses the last in the series of five paintings that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

Freedom of Speech (1943)


In 1943, as America fought a desperate struggle against tyranny in a worldwide war, artist Norman Rockwell sought to depict the essence and value of America with his brush. Inspired by the “Four Freedoms” that Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined in his January 6, 1941 address to Congress, Rockwell produced four canvases, each reflecting an aspect of the freedom that America sought to define and defend. And while there is much to be desired in Roosevelt’s formulation of the “Four Freedoms” (I argue that Roosevelt is woefully imprecise, creating illegitimate entitlements instead of advancing a proper view of freedom of action), my focus here is not on Roosevelt’s errors, but instead upon what he got right and what inspired the most important work in Norman Rockwell’s entire artistic career. I hold that Rockwell’sFreedom of Speech is the single greatest painted expression of America’s single greatest constitutionally enumerated freedom: the freedom to speak one’s mind in peaceful assembly without fear of physical force or coercion.

In his painting, Rockwell depicts a standing man as he makes a statement at a public meeting. The man is adorned in the attire of an everyday workman; he wears a well-worn jacket and underneath it, a common plaid shirt. Hanging out of his jacket pocket is a folded document that is indicated in the foreground as some sort of report; the man’s coat is not designed for this kind of use and his public speaking is not part of his typical domain. Both of the man’s hands grasp the back of bench in front of him; these strong, muscular and tanned hands use the bench to give the man’s body support as he tilts his frame back ever so slightly to allow his voice greater projection. Nevertheless, the man does not appear to scream or yell; his mouth and eyes reveal not rage or bombast, but instead depict an earnest man speaking his heartfelt truth before his fellow citizens.

And his truth is unexpected. Others in the painting have to twist themselves to hear what the man has to say, one middle-aged man turning his head over his shoulder and tipping it back in order to see and hear the speaker, another wrinkled and white-haired man turning sideways as he looks at the speaker with earnest attentiveness, his own hands gripping his copy of the blue report in a gesture of passionate solidarity, while a boy, who is only partially revealed, simply turns his eyes sideways as the man speaks. No one interferes with the speaker or prevents his address; he is one individual, offering his ideas for all to hear and take as they see fit (as indicated by the subtle foreground depiction of the head of a man who does not turn around to listen). The freedom concretized in Rockwell’s work is nothing less that the subordination of physical might to individual right, of coercive force to reason and persuasion.

As today marks the seventh anniversary of the horror of the September 11th attacks, I cannot help but note that this freedom is under attack yet again. While I recognize that it has become passé in some circles to claim that America’s enemies hate America for its freedom, it is precisely America’s freedom that they hate. If the man depicted in Rockwell’s painting were to blaspheme Islam, if he were to utter a defense of why politics and faith are incompatible, if he were to say that religion is and must be strictly a matter of private conscience and that reason alone must guide man’s life, America’s enemies would have this man silenced and crushed, his mind utterly subordinated to the dictates of their mystic creed, his life but a plaything for their caprice.

To borrow from Jefferson, the proper response to those who design to shackle the mind of man in such a fashion is eternal hostility. In the era when this painting was created, such hostility was the given response, that is, until the advocates of tyranny were compelled to surrender and the peace that they had broken was restored.

Yet in the seven years after our own generation’s Pearl Harbor, we have not fared as well. Our nation fights what can only be described as a compassionate war and not a war of righteous self-defense. We sacrifice life and treasure to bring freedom to a foreign people who do not want it, and all the while ignoring the larger threat that the imposition of political Islam places upon our lives and security. Some now even claim that America itself is to blame for the atrocities committed that day and that if we only withdrew from the world, our enemies would not detest us.

In this light, can a 65 year-old painting help inspire us in our ongoing struggle today? Can it help set the terms of the debate? I believe that it can. Rockwell’s goal may have been to depict an American freedom, but I think he achieved far more through his creation. He created an artistic representation that shows the world a fundamental human truth; that man deserves freedom of conscience and expression and by implication, those who would deny it to him are mankind’s proper enemy.

And thus, the man in Rockwell’s painting could be any of us living today. Can we now afford to tolerate those who seek to silence us? Can we build a wall strong enough to repel them should they attempt to attack us with more ruthless weapons than box-cutters and jetliners? Can we live in a world where their might is considered right and where our rights are considered nothing? Our enemies have made their intentions crystalline clear. They seek our complete compliance with the terms of their creed, the reestablishment of their caliphate, and barring that, they seek our deaths. Their own lives are not even a value to them; they chant “God is Great” as they impale themselves in order to kill us. Can we afford to leave such an enemy unchecked?

I hold that we cannot. And thus, we must choose, deliberately and purposefully, to rededicate ourselves and our nation to the moral message of “Freedom of Speech.” May this artwork give you that inspiration. It has given it to me.

This article was originally published September 11, 2008.

Part I: The Scoutmaster
Part II:
The Homecoming Marine
Part III:
Lincoln the Railsplitter
Part IV:
The Problem We All Live With
Part V:
Freedom of Speech


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