Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Radio Greats: We Hold These Truths

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is in a great measure the father of American thought about the Bill of Rights. Prior to Roosevelt, the ten amendments making up the Bill of Rights were only rarely thought of as a unit, although they were all ratified together on December 15, 1791, and although they were ratified in order to supply the lack of a constitutional bill of rights. But Roosevelt repeatedly used the Bill of Rights as a summary of the opposition in way of life between the United States and nations like Germany under Hitler. In light of this, it's unsurprising that the Roosevelt administration wanted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights in a big way. So they asked producer Norman Corwin to work out a major radio celebration for December 15, 1941.

Nobody knew how major it would be. On December 7, 1941, as Corwin was starting to pull together the threads for the December 15th broadcast, the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor; Germany declared war on December 11. When the program, "We Hold These Truths", aired live as planned on December 15, literally half the population of the United States tuned in -- over 60 million people, the single largest audience for any single dramatic performance in history. And that does not, of course, count any of the audience listening in later to recorded versions.

It is a star-studded hour-long program, with some of the most notable actors in the history of radio. Jimmy Stewart is the narrator; the cast includes Lionel Barrymore (best known today for his performance as Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life), Orson Welles, Walter Brennan, Marjorie Main, and Edward G. Robinson. Its orchestral score was composed by Bernard Herrman (one of the most successful writers for music for the movies) and provided by Leopold Stokowski (best known today for Disney's Fantasia) with the New York Philharmonic. And it ends with a live address from President Roosevelt himself.

One of the interesting things is the light it sheds on how American values were understood in the 40s, particularly when they start looking at the particular amendments. For instance, the interpretation given to the Second Amendment is that it guarantees that the government can't bully the people without a fight.

You can listen to "We Hold These Truths" online at the Internet Archive.

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