But what exactly did Jefferson mean by pursuit of happiness?

— Timothy J. Shannon (link)

Perhaps the answer lies in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights gave tangible form to the natural rights of life and liberty. The right to life is expressed in prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment and unlawful imprisonment. The right to liberty is laid out in freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly.

But the framers never attempted to define happiness in the Bill of Rights, nor did they guarantee it to anyone elsewhere in the Constitution.

Is it possible that Jefferson’s “pursuit of Happiness” was just a rhetorical flourish, a bit of purposefully vague window dressing inserted to give universal appeal to the colonists’ cause against King George III?

If that was Jefferson’s intent, he certainly succeeded – we are far more likely to quote Jefferson’s distillation of Lockean principles in the Declaration’s second paragraph than anything contained in the long list of grievances that makes up the rest of the document.

However, Jefferson was not alone when he wrote about happiness. Many of his contemporaries pondered the same issue: What is happiness and what is the best way for individuals and societies to pursue it?

The short answer that Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers came up with was that happiness had its roots in humankind’s inherent capacity for reason and desire for material security. Reason was the faculty that enabled humans to manipulate and control their environment. It was the means by which they pursued individual and collective improvement. The “Creator” gave humans reason because he wanted them to be happy. (All those T-shirts to the contrary, Benjamin Franklin never said that beer was the divine gift intended to make us happy, but he did write, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.”)

In Jefferson’s world, reasonable people pursued happiness by migrating from poverty and deprivation in the Old World to the natural bounty of the New. They pursued happiness by adopting new techniques that improved crop yields and livestock breeding. They built ships, roads, and canals that opened new markets and sped commerce.

Happiness meant being able to provide for your family without fear of famine, incessant warfare, or an exploitive aristocracy. In his essay “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” Franklin called this condition a “general happy mediocrity.” Today, we call it a stable, middle-class society, where people who work hard can reasonably expect freedom and prosperity for themselves and their children.

With that context in mind, Jefferson’s “pursuit of Happiness” becomes much more than a pleasing turn of phrase. It was a remarkably succinct expression of the American dream, a confident look to the future rather than a backward nod to Locke. As such, it remains foundational to how we define ourselves as a nation.

Pursuing happiness doesn’t mean we get it, but abandoning the pursuit seems a much worse alternative.”


Leave a Reply