One of the most profound sentences in the Declaration of American Independence is “We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This sentence concisely announced the arrival of the Sovereign Individual on the world political stage.
However, the inclusion of the words “the pursuit of happiness” in this grand pronouncement was quite unusual.
Why were these few words unusual? Because the Declaration was primarily a political document. It reflected much of the general political debate in pamphlets, letters, speeches, sermons, newspapers, and other publications that percolated in America during the decade leading up to 1776. Very few of those public discussions and documents considered the importance of pursuing happiness. In the common political parlance of the day, the ending to the phrase “life, liberty, and…” would have almost always been “property” not “happiness”.
Being a political document, the Declaration addressed practical and theoretical civic matters. The “pursuit of happiness” is an ethereal metaphysical precept that seems out of place in a dissertation about a revolt against the British Empire and the formation of a new nation.
So why did Jefferson insert this unusual phrase into the most important sentence of the Declaration, and why did the signatories ratify it? The answer is the key to a full understanding of the moral and philosophical revolution the Declaration signified.
Let’s examine some important aspects of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”.
Jefferson included it with the other “unalienable rights”. Therefore, it was clear that he considered it essential for all of humanity. But he characterized it in terms of freedom of action, not as a right to an outcome. We do not have a right to “happiness”. The universe recognizes no obligation to make us happy, and we cannot demand that others make us happy, because that would violate every tenet of freedom and individual sovereignty in the Declaration. Instead, we each have the right to pursue happiness. This distinction is vital to understanding the genesis of America.
Jefferson did not define what constitutes “happiness”. Consistent with his vision of individual liberty, he purposefully left this as the responsibility of each person. Individual happiness is not a political matter. It is not something that governments should prescribe, nor is it something that others should define for us. It is a matter of personal conscience and mission. It is precisely the kind of matter that our other social institutions, such as families and churches, should aid each of us in defining without leaning on any political mandate.
Yet despite not defining happiness, and despite excluding it from the domain of government to prescribe or to provide, Jefferson included “the pursuit of happiness” as a linchpin in our national vision. This implies that it has tremendous significance.
It does. Life requires meaning and motivation to serve as a frame of reference for all action, or else there would be no action. Why would anyone do anything at all if there is no purpose? Jefferson knew that dissertations about revolutions, rights, and constitutions are pointless if life itself has no meaning. The Declaration would have been just airy poetry if it wasn’t anchored to something transcendent.
Jefferson did not define what happiness should be for each person, because defining meaning for others is an impossible task and trying to do so violates the very essence of freedom. But his inclusion of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” with the other unalienable rights is a clear assertion that pursuing meaning is as fundamental to humanity as is life and liberty.
Why did Jefferson refer to the meaning of life as “happiness”? This definition was likely derived from his study of John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”, which inspired much of what went into the Declaration. Locke’s view of this was best summarized many years later by Ludwig von Mises in his masterwork “Human Action.” Mises argued that all sane human action is motivated by a desire to choose better rather than worse from among available options.
According to Mises, we prefer ease over discomfort. We prefer food over starvation and drink over thirst. We prefer the roof to be sound rather than to leak. We prefer the carnivore to stay outside the walls rather than to burst through the door. We prefer accomplishment over failure. We prefer safety over danger. We prefer companionship over loneliness. We prefer belonging rather than alienation. We prefer good things to happen to our loved ones rather than bad things. “Happiness” is the general term for the emotional state of satisfaction that is our desired result of the millions of choices during our lives. “Sadness” is the emotional state that results if we make the wrong choices. This preference for happiness, derived from constantly desiring better rather than worse, is intrinsic to all sane people everywhere.
The founders believed that a lifetime of happiness must necessarily include a hierarchy of values and a virtuous character to guide our millions of choices toward good rather than bad. They were students of moralists like John Locke and Adam Smith who professed a Karmic view of happiness. In their view, Karma was the law of cause-and-effect in the context of human interaction. Good choices led to good results and relationships, and bad choices led to bad results and relationships. They believed that natural laws, wisely chosen values, and character-driven rational behavior were the cornerstones of successful human interaction, and thus of happiness.
Everyone prefers being treated better rather than worse. Everyone also prefers positive feedback rather than negative feedback. These preferences distinguish good behavior from bad behavior. Everyone participates in this karmic synchrony. We are continually judging and being judged. The hormonal biochemistry of our bodies evolved to prefer the positive karmic feedback of smiles and laughter, and to abhor the negative karmic feedback of shaming and shunning.
The founders believed that these universal laws of Karmic judgment and cause-and-effect affected happiness on three levels of human relationships:
Personal Karma. We are each the sum of all of our decisions. Future Self is constantly being constructed by the decisions of Present Self. Present Self knows that it will someday become Future Self, not only in this life, but perhaps afterward. Therefore, each person is motivated to make decisions that will not only contribute to the happiness of Present Self, they will also contribute to the happiness of Future Self.
Relationship Karma. We are all aware of how our actions affect those who are dear to us. Our loved ones care how we treat them, and we care that they care. This emotional feedback loop is the essence of all real relationships. We are motivated to make decisions that will not only contribute to our own happiness, but also to the happiness of our dear ones. This is the Karmic basis of the moral, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Transactional Karma. There are seven billion other people on the planet, most of whom are strangers to us. Yet we must often interact successfully with strangers to pursue our own happiness, usually in the form of infrequent, arms-length transactions. Since we each have inherent preferences for freedom rather than coercion, peace rather than conflict, and fairness rather than injustice, we prefer interactions with strangers that involve either reciprocal generosity or freely exchanging value-for-value. This was the genesis of the concept of free markets, which eventually gave rise to the collaborative wealth-generating power of America’s capitalist culture.
Happiness is not guaranteed, because we are imperfect, and fate is often unkind. Happiness is certainly impossible without values and virtues, which are incentivized by the three levels of Karma. As John Adams put it, “Happiness can never be found without virtue.” Achieving sustainable happiness requires rational thought, moral action, strength of character, and collaborative relationship skills. The pursuit of happiness is a lifelong process with the goal of a lifetime of emotional rewards, not a momentary exercise in fulfilling transitory lust or fleeting euphoria with uncontrolled passions.
Jefferson inserted the “happiness” phrase into the Declaration precisely because it framed the deepest motives of sovereign individuals. Happiness is the intended result of people wisely pursuing their own interests, in the full context of their personal futures, their loved ones, and their communities.
We do not exist for the sake of elites, governments, rulers, or ideologies. Happiness is an individual characteristic, not a collective one. To try to force it into a collective concern is to chain some individuals to the ambitions of others, thus diminishing the happiness of some for the benefit of others. We are naturally collaborative beings because individual survival, which is the most selfish of interests, is ironically optimized through collaboration with others. But the extent of that volitional collaboration is driven by our innate urge for personal happiness, however we choose to define it. The essence of the Declaration is that we each have an equal and unalienable right to pursue our own happiness, and that this right precedes all governments and should not be diminished by coercion.
Jefferson and the founders were keenly aware of the rising collectivist ideologies in Western civilization, particularly in Europe. They saw these ideologies as destructive forces that conflict with human nature. America had its own experiment with collectivism in Jamestown in the early 1600’s which ended in a disaster that included starvation and cannibalism. The founders believed that collectivism breeds entire societies of alienated people who have nothing to gain or lose through their own actions, and therefore no control over their own happiness. The founders had an uncanny prescience about the future collectivist disasters to come in the form of totalitarianism and socialism.
The Declaration of American Independence, by virtue of its title and its content, is an anti-collectivist manifesto entirely grounded in the concepts of individual sovereignty and the individual pursuit of happiness. The two are inextricably linked. An individual is not sovereign if they are not allowed to pursue their own happiness, and an individual will not be happy if they are merely the tools of collectivist elites and ideologies. If man is reduced to toiling for the benefit of others rather than for the benefit of himself, the likelihood of achieving personal happiness drops to nearly zero, as does the likelihood of society achieving general prosperity. There is never joy or real productivity in the gulag or the work camp. There is only submission and fear.
Everyone experiences and defines happiness differently, which is one of many reasons why individual liberty is essential for a peaceful and content society. No government can define happiness for you or prescribe your behaviors to successfully achieve it. Governments that overreach into this domain can only ruin happiness for everyone, except perhaps for the elites who comprise the government. The founders did not think that the coercive force of government should be used to define, dictate, maximize, satisfy, or guarantee individual happiness. Every person is the best guardian of their own interest.
The Declaration hinges on the few words that describe the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. So does humanity’s political destiny. As Jefferson put it, “Freedom and happiness are the sole objects of government.” Unless people are free to pursue their own paths in life free of the coercive might of the state, there will never be happiness, and there will never be peace. Our spiritual, intellectual, and transcendental pursuits belong to each of us alone. The most fundamental political truth is that I am not you, and you are not me, and we each have equal right to live our lives as we choose. That is the deepest meaning of the Declaration.
Jefferson rightly understood that the political and the metaphysical must at some point intersect, because the meaning of life and the proper structure of government are necessarily entangled. That is why the unusual phrase “the pursuit of happiness” is the Rosetta Stone of the Declaration and the foundation of the concept of America.
The Declaration is not a metaphysical document, except for that one phrase, but that one phrase is more than sufficient to establish the basis for an enduring politics of peace and non-coercion. The phrase does not express a religious truth, but it grants freedom for all spiritual pursuits. It does not express a psychological truth, but it grants freedom for all intellectual pursuits. It does not express a transcendent truth, but it grants freedom for the pursuit of meaning and purpose.