My new (as of Jan.) teaching gig is with Christopher Newport University. CNU itself is an interesting institution, one that provides hope that American academia won’t eventually split apart into a Red system and a Blue one, and that college costs can be kept under control. And it hosts, with outside donor help, the fine Center for American Studies, under whose auspices I am a visiting faculty post-doc, and which recently put on an excellent conference on FDR’s legacy.
Today we put up videos for most of the talks at the conference, and while the keynote by Stanford historian David M. Kennedy is excellent, the one you really want to check out is the brief lunch talk by UVA political scientist Sidney M. Milkis. Milkis is more well-known for his scholarship on the presidency, but he’s also done important work on the development of American liberalism in the 20th century, most notably by editing three books with Jerome Mileur on the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society respectively. The New Deal volume features his essay on FDR as attempting a “Second Founding” with his articulation of his Four Freedoms and his Second Bill of Rights; it is from this essay that his talk at CNU was adapted.
I agree with Milkis that the importance of FDR’s constitutional re-founding rhetoric, particularly as exemplified in his Second Bill of Rights (scroll down) cannot be underestimated. Some of those rights were rights to a decent job, housing, education etc. Indeed, if you watch Milkis’s talk, you’ll see that at the end he provides a lengthy answer to an inaudible question from a gentleman in the audience. The question had to do with whether it was appropriate to imply that the American people had “so to speak” adopted his Second Bill of Rights without having gone through the process of amendment, indeed, without FDR even calling for this process. (I know the content of the question because I was the gentleman who asked it!) Sid gives a good answer, but he’s ultimately not as critical of FDR’s constitutional rhetoric as I would have liked him to be…indeed, I interjected at one point that I would have been fine with the speech if FDR had merely said we had adopted a new set of values or goals.
Anyhow, check it out. Sid’s a lot of fun, and a great scholar.