“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”
– Declaration of Independence (1776).
Scholars have long sought to understand what Thomas Jefferson meant when he included the pursuit of happiness as one of man’s unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. The most prevalent accounts suggest that the pursuit of happiness was a direct and synonymous substitution for John Locke’s property, or that it was intended to be a glittering generality—it sounds pretty and appealing, but it has no substantive meaning. Yet, the pursuit of happiness was listed as a separate right—alongside property—in eighteenth-century legal writings, such as George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), which was one of the few documents Thomas Jefferson had with him while drafting the Declaration. And, far from being a glittering generality, the pursuit of happiness had a distinct—and legal—meaning in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal texts: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) and the Declaration of Independence (1776).
After creating the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson circulated that draft to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the two members of the five-person drafting committee whose opinions, Jefferson later wrote to James Madison, he most valued. After a series of edits, the document was submitted to the full drafting committee and then to the Continental Congress, where it encountered still more edits. Although the Founders made changes in punctuation, replaced specific words and phrases, and altered or removed entire passages, the pursuit of happiness remained untouched. Was the pursuit of happiness left untouched because the meaning of the phrase was so undefined as to be uncontroversial or was it left untouched because the phrase had a meaning that was both well-known and acceptable to the diverse group of individuals present within the drafting committee and the Continental Congress?
Statements by Jefferson and Adams suggest the latter. When later asked about the content of the Declaration, Adams claimed that the ideas it contained had been debated in the Continental Congress for years, while Jefferson claimed that he did not see it as part of his duty to include only ideas that had never before been uttered. An effort to understand the meaning of the pursuit of happiness in historical context, then, would include looking at the older ideas that might have influenced the Founders’ political thought. These ideas include the fundamental principles of English common law and legal theory; the history and philosophy of classical antiquity, including the classical definition of liberty and key tenets of Stoicism; Christianity’s emphasis on divine Providence and biblical morality; and the Scottish Enlightenment’s emphasis on the inductive methods of Newtonian science.
Founders like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams drew from these schools of thought—in varying ways and to varying degrees–in their natural, moral, and political philosophies. What is most fascinating about these four schools of thought is not the places where they diverge from one another—and there are many—but the place where they converge. Each school of thought held to an Enlightenment understanding of first principles of law by which the natural world is governed, the idea that those first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to live in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing.
The Founders were not alone in inhabiting an intellectual world that drew upon these four strands or in understanding the pursuit of happiness at their point of convergence. William Blackstone, the first Vinerian Chair in English law at Oxford University, had articulated this same understanding of the pursuit of happiness in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), which were the written compilation of lectures on English law Blackstone had been giving at Oxford since the 1750s. As historian Julius S. Waterman has demonstrated, the Commentaries were widely popular not only in England, but also in the British colonies in North America and the new United States.
The Commentaries contained Blackstone’s summary of the laws of England as well as an overview of his jurisprudence or philosophy of law. Within a lengthy passage outlining his legal philosophy, Blackstone writes, “For [the creator] has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence…[He] has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, ‘that man should ‘pursue his own happiness.’ This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.”
Blackstone included this definition of the pursuit of happiness in his Commentaries as the primary means by which his students could know, and then rightly apply, the first principles of law in their future work as lawyers, judges, magistrates, Members of Parliament, or jurors. Blackstone argued that the Scholastic method of deductive reasoning, which had prevailed in the English university system, was overly complicated and had failed to teach England’s lawyers, judges, and MPs how to discern and apply the first principles of the law in their legal work. As a result, English law had become corrupted over time. It no longer reflected the order, beauty, and harmony of the natural law.
Blackstone promoted the pursuit of happiness as a simpler science of jurisprudence, which the Creator had woven into the constitution of each man. With an ability to reason and to will that made him distinct among all creation, man was, by design, capable of first determining that which would make him happy and then engaging in its pursuit, whether in the governance of his private life or in governance in the public sphere, through the articulation and application of first principles of law in court cases or statutes.
Like Blackstone, the Founders viewed happiness as the proper end of man and the protection of the pursuit of happiness as a proper end of government. In discussing that end, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin frequently and overtly drew a connection between happiness and virtue. In his 1776 Thoughts on Government, John Adams wrote:
“Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of people, and in the greatest degree, is the best. All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.…”
In his 1728 Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion, Franklin stated, “I believe [God] is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he has created; and since without Virtue Man can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleas’d when he sees me Happy.” In his 1735 A Man of Sense, Franklin wrote, “the Science of Virtue is of more worth, and of more consequence to [man’s] Happiness than all the rest [of the sciences] put together.” Jefferson echoed these sentiments in an 1814 letter to José Corrêa da Serra, where Jefferson stated, “the order of nature to be that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue.” Two years later, Jefferson wrote to Amos J. Cook, claiming that, “Without virtue, happiness cannot be.”
In so defining the pursuit of happiness, Blackstone and the Founders were engaging in a larger conversation within eighteenth-century political and moral philosophy, which drew a distinction between fleeting and temporal happiness, and true and substantial happiness. The first is a happiness rooted in emotion, disposition, or circumstance. The second is happiness in the classical sense of eudaimonia – well-being or human flourishing that results from living a life of virtue. To pursue, in Blackstone’s words, “true and substantial happiness” was an endeavor that drew upon key tenets of eighteenth-century natural, moral, and political philosophy. It assumed human reason and free will, required a status of liberty to exercise that will, and relied on the inductive processes of observation and experimentation in order to identify those principles that would enable a human, or a government, to be truly happy. This understanding of the pursuit of happiness is reflected not only in the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right with which men were endowed by their Creator, but also within the Declaration’s chronological listing of three unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to life mirrors the first law of nature, which was self-preservation. The right to liberty indicated a status of liberty, from which men would then be able to exercise their reason and will. The free exercise of their reason and will were the preconditions that would then enable men to engage in the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. It is “[t]o secure these rights,” the Founders wrote in the Declaration, that “governments are instituted among men”.
For Blackstone and the Founders, the pursuit of happiness was both a public duty and a private right. For Blackstone, the pursuit of happiness was woven into the constitution of man, forming the basis of a simple science of jurisprudence by which his students could know, and then rightly apply, the first principles of law in their personal lives and their legal work. For the Founders, the pursuit of happiness was the individual and unalienable right to pursue a life lived in harmony with the “law of nature and of nature’s God” and the obligation of government to protect man’s right to engage in that pursuit. Both applications highlight not only a specific and distinct definition of the pursuit of happiness within these late-eighteenth century legal texts, but also the interdisciplinary breadth and depth of the Founders’ intellectual world and the complexity and coherency of their natural, political, legal, and moral philosophies. Both applications suggest we consider anew how the pursuit of happiness, and its underlying philosophies, were understood in the Founding Era.
Carli N. Conklin, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and Associate Professor of Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy. The ideas in this essay are explored in full in her recent work, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History (University of Missouri Press, 2019).