Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

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."

Highlights

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

7/4/2014 (2 years 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 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.

-----

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.

---


'Help give every student and teacher Free resources for a world-class moral Catholic education'


Copyright 2017 - Distributed by THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for DECEMBER 2016
Universal:
End to Child-Soldiers: That the scandal of child-soldiers may be eliminated the world over.
Evangelization: Europe: That the peoples of Europe may rediscover the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Gospel which gives joy and hope to life.



Comments


More Politics & Policy

Pentagon wastes $125 billion of YOUR money, virtually providing a boss for every person Watch

Image of The Pentagon has wasted enough money to buy every soldier in the field a personal boss.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

The Pentagon is hoping you don't find out about their $125 billion in wasted administrative funds. That money is just a fraction of what it costs to support just over 1 million personnel to keep an army of just 1.3 million troops in the field. LOS ANGELES, CA ... continue reading


DID KANYE WEST TAKE HIS MEDS TODAY? - The dumb question we're asking as terrorists in Afghanistan steal up to a BILLION DOLLARS of US education aid in Afghanistan so they can KILL our troops Watch

Image of Americans are more concerned about Kanye West than the real issues of the day, which is why we have so many real issues.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

The United States has spent $1 billion in your tax dollars to build and support schools in Afghanistan. The project is supposed to help educate and liberalize the country, moving it away from fundamentalist ideologies that are closely associated with terrorism. An ... continue reading


'I will kill you all' -- Trump chooses Mad Dog Mattis as Sec. of Defense Watch

Image of General Mattis will be the next Secretary of Defense.

By Marshall Connolly (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

President-elect Donald Trump has selected General James "Mad Dog" Mattis as the next Secretary of Defense. The Marine Corps general will be formerly announced on Monday. General Mattis has a reputation as a scholar and a fighter and is very popular with the troops. LOS ... continue reading


Why Catholics support Trump's pick for the next Secretary of Health and Human Services Watch

Image of Tom Price med with pro-life applause.

By Matt Hadro (CNA/EWTN News)

Pro-life groups praised President-elect Donald Trump's announcement that he would name Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. Washington D.C. (CNA/EWTN News) - "In particular, Rep. Price's strong pro-life values and record to ... continue reading


The next House minority leader will be a pro-abortion Catholic, HERE'S WHY Watch

Image of

By Catholic News Agency

When the Democratic Party makes its decisions about leadership at the end of the month, the House Minority Leader will be a self-proclaimed "pro-choice Catholic." Washington D.C. (CNA) - Both current House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and her challenger, Rep. Tim ... continue reading


Planned Parenthood smugly reports surge in donations - so they don't need your tax dollars anymore, right? Watch

Image of Shown: The 'I lie for a living' starter pack.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Trolls have sent over 200,000 donations to Planned Parenthood in Vice President-elect Mike Pence's name. The movement is an attempt to protest the possible defunding of the organization under a Trump-Pence administration. Mike Pence has taken a hard line against the ... continue reading


Now the hard work begins! Watch

Image of

By Tony Magliano

For those of us using the Gospel and Catholic social teaching as our voting guide, choosing between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates was an absolute dilemma.    Hillary Clinton's hawkish military attitude, like her vote to authorize ... continue reading


How will Trump deal with the UN? Don't look to his campaign promises -- look to how he views himself Watch

Image of Get rid of the ugly green marble slab. That'd be an improvement.

By Marshall Connolly (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

What will Donald Trump do to the UN? So far, there is considerable speculation and few details. Reporters are trying to dig up his old remarks to get some sense of how Trump will deal with the U.N. and the many international crises the country faces. LOS ANGELES, CA ... continue reading


Already great! Trump bans lobbyists, to meet with Japan PM, GOP warned to expect 'sweeping legislation' Watch

Image of Goodbye lobbyists!

By Marshall Connolly (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Donald Trump continues to work harder than most presidents in history, and he hasn't even taken office yet. Today, his team continues to work on their transition while meeting with foreign officials, taking phone calls from dignitaries, and Trump announcing a lobbying ... continue reading


Catholic Coalition of Advisors finds Trump listens well to Catholic concerns Watch

Image of Secretary Jim Nicholson said he thinks Trump is a good listener and will do well.

By Marshall Connolly, (California Network)

According to the Catholic Coalition of Advisors and others, Donald Trump has been a "very good listener" when it comes to Catholic concerns. Deacon Keith Fournier, Editor-in-Chief of Catholic Online, is a member of this advisory board. LOS ANGELES, CA (California ... continue reading


All Politics & Policy News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

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

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Genesis 3:9-15, 20
9 But Yahweh God called to the man. 'Where are you?' he ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
1 [Psalm] Sing a new song to Yahweh, for he has performed wonders, his ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in ... Read More

Reading 2, Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
3 Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for December 8th, 2016 Image

St. Romaric
December 8: In the account of St Amatus of Remiremont it is ... Read More