Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech (1943)

Norman Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech (1943) after hearing a lone voice in the wilderness at town meeting in 1942. He had recently moved to Arlington, Vermont from his native New York, where he had spent the first half of his life and become one of the most renowned illustrators of the day. Wanting to escape the big city, he moved to the opposite: a small town where citizens directly governed themselves.

Rockwell had been searching for ideas to illustrate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” Roosevelt had laid out these freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear—in his 1941 State of the Union Address, as a means of rallying public support for U.S. involvement in the Second World War. Rockwell’s experience at town meeting would form the basis of one of his most powerful and enduring works.

Despite the war and its attendant deprivations, the people of Arlington had procured money to build a new public school. One resident opposed the project. When this naysayer stood to speak, he was afforded a level of attention and respect that strongly impressed Rockwell. Rockwell was inspired to paint Freedom of Speech by this expression of dissent and its tolerance in the context of small town governance.

After numerous attempts at composing the image, including drafts where the lone speaker is lost in the crowd, Rockwell isolated the naysayer by having him rise up from the crowd. The naysayer stands, his head and shoulders framed by the darkness of a chalkboard behind him. He looks not at his fellow citizens or toward the front of the room but up to the heavens, his face aglow and his eyes glazed as if lost in religious ecstasy. The pew-like benches where his fellow townsfolk sit add to the images sense of religious ardor and the equation that Rockwell draws between town meeting and a religious meeting.

Unlike the people surrounding him, the naysayer is dressed in simple workers’ clothes, adding to the sense that, like an early Christian penitent, he stands to preach the gospel however unfavorably it may be received. Rather than shout him down, Rockwell triangulates him with two smartly dressed townsmen, who smile as they look up admiringly however much they might disagree.

Never had town meeting been more romantically portrayed. Freedom of Speech caught my imagination when I first saw it many years ago and stuck with me when I was also living in the big city. It made me long for a town where I could get involved with local politics outside of the democratic machine that ran the places where I had lived. In Medford, the town outside of Boston where we lived before moving to Amherst, the mayor had been in office for decades. There seemed to be no point of entry for someone with no political experience who was interested in getting involved with local politics.

What’s both wonderful and horrible about Rockwell’s image is its idealization of local governance. That dissent can be heard, tolerated and even incorporated into policy is a necessary part of good democratic governance. From what I’ve seen so far, things don’t usually go this way at Amherst town meeting. Warrants are either uncontroversial and unanimously approved or people fight and don’t listen to one another.

Even more disturbing, in Rockwell’s image as well as Amherst’s town meeting is the age, race and gender bias that colors how decisions are made and who makes them. I can’t speak for the people who lived in Arlington in 1942, but Amherst is a town with many people of color, of all ages, and of a broad range of wealth distribution. There does seem to be a relatively even gender distribution in Amherst town meeting, but this deserves a second look historically and numerically.

Like Rockwell, I’m a noob to town meeting and have been just as moved by town meeting as he was. Unlike Rockwell, I don’t have such an idealized view of either freedom of speech or small town governance. While Freedom of Speech deserves to be a touchstone for how town meetings can work, it must also be viewed with the caution to remember that asking who gets to speak and why is always a necessary and on-going part of democratic governance.