Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

7/4/2014 (2 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

What, however, did Jefferson whose words started this historical course of America mean by the term 'pursuit of happiness'?

The concept of "happiness" held by Jefferson (and the overwhelming majority of all Americans) and contained in the Declaration of Independence was one that recognized the importance of virtue and recognized, moreover, the existence of an objective natural moral law, one found in our nature and one supplied to us by the "Nature and Nature's God."

Highlights

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

7/4/2014 (2 months ago)

Published in Politics & Policy

Keywords: Independence Day, 4th of July, July Fourth, declaration, happiness, virtue, Independence, founders, Andrew Greenwell


CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The Declaration of Independence, the ever astute G. K. Chesterton noted in his book What I Saw in America, is "perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature."  It is a foundational document for Americans, and indeed may be said to have near dogmatic status in what Robert Bellah called the America "civil religion." 

G. K. Chesterton saw the same phenomenon that did Bellah and so he called the Declaration of Independence America's creed: "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence."

Within America's creed is found perhaps its central kernel, its "incarnatus est," the central theme of the American political credo, at which all American knees genuflect:

"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."

A central feature of the heart of the political creed is the "pursuit of happiness," that "glittering and sounding generality of natural right," as Rufus Choate put it, that gushed forth from the fertile mind of Jefferson, steeped as it was in the writings of the Greek and Roman classics, the writings of the Commonwealthmen, the French philosophes and the Scottish enlightenment. 

From Jefferson's fertile mind, that phrase was scratched on paper by nib dipped into the crystal inkpot atop Jefferson's "plain, neat, convenient" desk in Mr. Graff's "new brick house three stories high" in Philadelphia's Market Street. 

From that paper, that felicitous word was "fairly engrossed on parchment" made of lamb's hide by the practiced hand of the scrivener Timothy Matlack by order of the Second Continental Congress, only then to be graced by the signatures of fifty-six eminent representatives from the infant "thirteen united States of America"--including the Catholic Charles Carrol of Carrollton--who may as well have been signing their own death warrants.

From there it was proclaimed in public squares across the land by voices full of ebullient confidence, and, when heard by the American army in New York, incited an angry mob to destroy King George III's equestrian statue which was at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green in that city, the metal of which was molten into 42,088 bullets later aimed at the bodies of the King's redcoats, how many found their rest in the bodies and brains of those redcoats God only knows.

In an apocryphal story which still makes the rounds, King George III allegedly wrote in his diary on July 4, 1776, "Nothing of importance this day."  Si non vero ben trovato, since those fictional words express the benign neglect, the regal insouciance, nay, perhaps even the kingly opposition to to the rights of the colonists as Englishmen.  When those words of Jefferson's eventually made it across the sea to the burning ears of George III--his regal blood unused to opposition set to boiling--naturally found them insubordinate and treasonous, a happiness to be opposed by the might of his army backed by the supposed divine right of Kings.

What, however, did Jefferson whose words started this historical course of America mean by the term "pursuit of happiness"?

That's a hard mystery of Jefferson's
What did he mean? . . . .
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.


(Robert Frost, "The Black Cottage")

It is that "hard mystery" of "happiness"--the word as sacred to Americans as the tetragrammaton was to the Jew--that will the subject of the next several articles.  In exploring the mystery of Jefferson's happiness in the Declaration of Independence, we will take the clues imparted to us by Thomas Jefferson himself.

In his letter to his fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson confessed that the Declaration "neither aim[ed] at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing."  "It was," the Sage of Monticello recalled in his waning years, "intended to be an expression of the American mind."  Its intention: "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject." 

This, then, seems to be the opposite of Robert Frost's mystery: we have to look for something unoriginal, something everybody then believed, something built upon common sense.

So what was the unoriginal principle or sentiment, the expression of the American mind, the common sense of the subject when it came to happiness? 

As Americans, we have lost our hold on the concept of happiness held so close by our colonial forefathers.  "Sometimes," as Professor Howard Mumford Jones stated in his lectures on the Declaration of Independence, In Pursuit of Happiness, "we do not see a continuing idea . . . because of the transmogrifications it undergoes."

The concept of "happiness" has gone such a transmogrification.  We shall see that the notion as held by Jefferson (and the overwhelming majority of all Americans) was one that recognized the importance of virtue and recognized, moreover, the existence of an objective natural moral law, one found in our nature and one supplied to us by the "Nature and Nature's God."

The modern notion of a happiness purely subjective and libertine, unattached and ungoverned by virtue or any objective moral code--an autonomous, self-defined happiness--was an entirely foreign notion. 

This has some importance in understanding the role of government: "When Jefferson spoke of pursuit of happiness," as Garry Wills reminds us in his book Inventing America, "he had nothing vague or private in mind. He meant public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed the test and justification of any government." 

If "happiness" is defined as something subjective, government will mean one thing.  If "happiness" is defined as something objective, government means something else entirely.

If we are going to have any hope of drawing forth the notion of "happiness" contained in our foundational document, we are going to have to "reassemble a world around that text" and "resurrect beliefs now discarded," and we are going to have to hear the word "happiness" as it was intended, "ungarbled by intervening quarrels of sons with their fathers' language," as Garry Wills advises.

Thankfully, we have a clue to what that language meant.  It is a clue given by Jefferson himself and found in another letter to another fellow Virginian, this time Richard Henry Lee.

In that letter of May 8, 1825, Thomas Jefferson informed Lee that "All [of the Declaration of Independence's] authority rests then on harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc."

If we focus on what these "elementary books of public right" tell us about "happiness," we quickly learn what Jefferson and our Founding Fathers had in mind.  A review of all these sources which informed Jefferson's notion of happiness--an amalgam of classical, ecclesiastical, republican, Enlightenment, and legal sources--easily show that the notion of happiness envisioned in our Declaration of Independence was one which incorporated the notion of virtue and the existence of a natural moral law, a natural law that revealed, through the natural light of reason, objective norms of right and wrong.  This was a natural law that participated in God's eternal law, the same God who created the natural order, and who had revealed himself in the fullness of time in Christ.

-----

Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

---


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'


2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for September 2014
Mentally disabled:
That the mentally disabled may receive the love and help they need for a dignified life.
Service to the poor: That Christians, inspired by the Word of God, may serve the poor and suffering.



Comments


More Politics & Policy

Supreme Court justice Sotomayor warns about drones encroaching on American way of life Watch

Image of Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that she's particularly troubled by the potential for commercial and government drones to compromise personal privacy.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Unmanned surveillance planes called drones pose a threat to the privacy of American citizens, warns Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. Speaking to students at Oklahoma City University's law school, Sotomayor says that frightening changes in technology ... continue reading


Obama says Islamic State 'is not Islamic' - what are they, then? Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

President Obama vowed to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq and Syria, He intends to do so with airstrikes and a minimal military presence on the ground. The president also declared that the Islamic State terrorists "are not Islamic." ... continue reading


Obama vows to attack Islamic State militants 'wherever they exist' Watch

Image of There has been some progress made against the group. After more than 150 U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in the past month, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have halted the Islamic State advance.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

President Barack Obama has vowed to attack Islamic State militants "wherever they exist." Obama will be sending a limited U.S. military presence of 475 personnel. The president also declared that the United States will act in concert with a broad coalition ... continue reading


Opinion: We Need a Blue Collar Conservative like Rick Santorum in the 2016 Presidential Campaign Watch

Image of Rick Santorum is not an establishment candidate. He threatens establishment leaders in both major political parties. he has always played the role of the underdog and been counted out by the many self professed experts. That is one of the greatest assets he would bring to the 2016 Presidential campaign. He has the potential to draw voters from across party lines and help to forge a new governing coalition which can resuscitate the American dream and set us on a course to brighter future. I sincerely hope he runs.

By Keith A. Fournier

Rick Santorum is a statesman in an age of salesmen - and women. He is a man with a chest.  I will be watching his movements over the next few months. If he decides to run, and I hope he does, he will bring along with him into his presidential campaign a ... continue reading


Pelosi favors sweeping regulations to save net neutrality and ban Internet 'fast lanes' Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

It's an unpopular stand for many Republicans, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she wants to give federal regulators sweeping new powers over Internet access. It's a necessity in order to save net neutrality and protect Internet users, she says. ... continue reading


READY TO STRIKE: President Obama prepared to use airstrikes in Syria Watch

Image of President Obama believes he needs formal congressional approval to take that action, according to people who have spoken with the president recently.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

From admitting that he had no policy in regards to Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama is now ready for some clear decisive action. The president says that he is prepared to use U.S. military airstrikes in Syria in order to defeat the militant jihadist group ... continue reading


Real cost of Obamacare - 350,000 jobs loss and premium hikes for small businesses Watch

Image of Individual year-round employees at businesses with 50 to 99 workers lost $935 annually, while those at firms with 20 to 49 workers are out an average of $827.50 per person in take-home pay.

By Catholic Online - (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

According to a new analysis of the effects of the health-care reform law, Obamacare has taken a toll on small businesses. According to a new study, there have been millions of dollars in reduced pay and hundreds of thousands fewer jobs. In short - many ... continue reading


More emails 'lost' connected to Lois Lerner case Watch

Image of IRS teacher Lois Lerner, who was placed on leave and has since retired, has emerged as the key figure in congressional investigations.

By Catholic Online - (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

In the most recent development, the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS says it has lost emails from five more employees' part of congressional probes into the treatment of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - ... continue reading


Team Clinton turns on Obama! Foreign policy in new book dismissed as 'feckless' Watch

Image of A scathing new book from a member of Team Clinton takes President Obama to task for an unfocused foreign policy.

By Catholic Online - (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The honeymoon appears over between top U.S. Democratic alliances, the Clintons and the Obama administration. A member of the Clinton kitchen cabinet is out with a new book that slams U.S. policy as "muddled, irresolute, and even feckless." Doug Schoen's takes ... continue reading


Is hummus too fatty? First lady Michelle O's diet plan driving kids away from school lunches Watch

Image of As championed by Michelle Obama, the new school diet plan is fraught with loopholes.

By Catholic Online - (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

First lady Michelle Obama has rolled up her sleeves and launched a campaign against childhood obesity by devising a diet that eliminate high-fat foods from school lunches . The trouble is, kids find the approved school lunches too bland and are seeking ... continue reading


All Politics & Policy News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-31
12 For as with the human body which is a unity ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 100:1-2, 3, 4, 5
1 [Psalm For thanksgiving] Acclaim Yahweh, all the ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 7:11-17
11 It happened that soon afterwards he went to a town ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 16th, 2014 Image

St. Cornelius
September 16: Cornelius whose feast day is September 16th. A Roman priest, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter