The Fourth of July is upon us, and with it, the following “self-evident” truths:
That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Since 1776, we’ve broadened the message to include groups that Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers overlooked—women and people of color, most notably. All, we now agree, enjoy the right to the “the pursuit of happiness.” But that only highlights the importance of knowing what the founders really meant by that curious phrase. The meaning, it turns out, is not as self-evident as it first might seem.
Let’s start by dispelling a myth. Many people will tell you that Jefferson, in penning the Declaration, made use of the old bait and switch, substituting the “pursuit of happiness” for what he really meant: the “pursuit of property.” The guy was a rich landlord, right? And the founders were wealthy men. Doesn’t it make sense that they should equate happiness with things you can get your hands on?
It is certainly true that the founders had nothing against property, but there is little evidence that this is what they meant. Jefferson was a wordsmith, above all, and the draft of the Declaration that he submitted to the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776 was carefully vetted by people trained in the law, who made it their business to puzzle over each word. Not one of them puzzled or stumbled over the use of the word “happiness.” Evidently it did not seem out of place to them.
And though there are places in 18th-century America where one can find the phrase “life, liberty and property,” we have to accept that if Jefferson had really meant property, he would have written it that way.
What he really meant
But was the word, then, just “a glittering generality,” as a skeptic once put it, an alluring phrase that meant different things to different people, but meant nothing in itself?
Jefferson, to be sure, aimed to be broad. As he explained in a letter later in his life, his aim in drafting the Declaration was to capture the “harmonizing sentiments” of the day, recording the different expressions of the “American mind.”
The “pursuit of happiness” was one of those harmonizing sentiments. And though it had more than a single meaning, it is important to appreciate that in the 18th century, the phrase also had a certain common sense. The use of the word itself was not revolutionary.
Jefferson and the Founding Fathers understood happiness in terms of pleasure and pain, and they freely granted that human beings ought to be at liberty to pursue the one and to flee the other however they best saw fit. They also shared the widespread sentiment that real happiness was to be captured not just by grasping after pleasant things.
Happiness can be found in virtue
Where then did they hope to find it? On this, the founders all agreed. “Happiness is the aim of life,” Jefferson declared, typically, “but virtue is the foundation of happiness.” Virtue and happiness are “mother and daughter,” Benjamin Franklin agreed. John Adams was equally clear. “All sober inquirers after truth,” he insisted, “ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue….”
Just what precisely the founders meant by virtue is complicated in its own right. To pursue happiness effectively meant cultivating character and “right conduct,” generosity and friendship, a sense of duty, purpose, and belonging (to one’s fellow human beings, to one’s community, to one’s God). The best way to pursue happiness was to find it within.
Jefferson and the founders understood that simple wisdom; we could stand to recall it. Too often, we set out, hoping to find our happiness beyond us—in other people, other places, other things. Instead we would be wise to look within.