Today the United States celebrates its 245th birthday. Many eyes will once again read and many minds will again ponder over Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence. We are no exception. Before we immerse ourselves in the parades, parties, and pyrotechnic pandemonium of the day, we wanted to reflect on a particular phrase in that, as Calvin Coolidge put it, “most important civil document in the world.”
The Declaration famously advocates for the protection of natural rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There’s valuable wisdom behind the latter phrase: the pursuit of happiness. The rights to life and liberty must both be clearly defined for our republic to be healthy. There is no room to ‘agree to disagree’ on the meaning of life and liberty. However, the founders recognized that all Americans need not agree on the definition of happiness. They believed that each citizen should be free to pursue his or her own version of happiness. The founders intended to prevent the state from playing the role of a parent, molding the livelihoods of its citizens to fit the governing class’s understanding of happiness. The founders recognized that, in order to allow liberty to flourish, the government must give individuals room to pursue their own, personalized, definition of happiness.
It is common for the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to be attributed solely to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration’s other contributors. However, the phrase is strikingly similar to the words of John Locke, “life, liberty, and property”, words Jefferson no doubt had read. The right to ownership over oneself and the tools used to accomplish their goals seems like a good thing to protect, but as the change indicates, it is far broader than just property. So why the change between Locke’s natural rights and Jefferson’s?
The pursuit of happiness is an intentionally subjective phrase. The pursuit refers to any avenues necessarily taken in order to find a fulfilling life. Americans have taken this to mean a myriad of different ideas. The pursuit of happiness is a right to not have your journey infringed upon by others, whether that be individuals, groups, or the government itself. Americans can take that protection to apply to whatever it is that gives their life a purpose.
It is this subjective pursuit of happiness that can be called the American Dream. The recognition and protection of man’s right to life and other liberties give him the ability to freely choose how he will worship his god, provide and care for his family, take whatever path he thinks best to find fulfillment and joy in life, and ultimately pursue his happiness. As C. Bradley Thompson explains in his excellent book, America’s Revolutionary Mind, the founders saw allowing this pursuit of happiness as one of the chief ends of government, and they succeeded in framing a government that gives Americans the ability to do so.
Yet as we rightly celebrate Jefferson’s words and the rights we as Americans have, it is necessary to remember the responsibility that comes with it. John Adams understood that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” because he knew that “Happiness can never be found without virtue.” None have the right to happiness, merely the right to pursue it. Though each American certainly has their own subjective happiness, as a free people, it is the individual duty of us all to pursue truth and virtue rather than sin and licentiousness if we are to each find true happiness.
American independence was brought about by people who patiently pursued all viable means of prying their rights held captive in the tyrannical hands of the king. When that failed, they were courageous enough to maintain them by severing all ties, risking death if they lost the ensuing war. May their bravery be always remembered.
Happy Independence Day.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.