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The Pursuit of Happiness: Pursuing the Declaration of Independence's Intent

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
7/4/2014 (2 years 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."

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 č vero č 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.

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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.

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