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.

---


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


Copyright 2016 - Distributed by THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for June 2016
Universal:
Human Solidarity: That the aged, marginalized, and those who have no one may find-even within the huge cities of the world-opportunities for encounter and solidarity.
Evangelization: Seminarians and Novices: That seminarians and men and women entering religious life may have mentors who live the joy of the Gospel and prepare them wisely for their mission.



Comments


More Politics & Policy

'I would ask her to step aside': DNC chair pressured to resign Watch

Image of Debbie Wasserman Schultz pressured to resign.

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Controversial emails continue to haunt the Democratic party. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The emails suggested the Democratic National Committee (DNC) favored Clinton during the primary and revealed possible evidence of the DNC attempting to destroy Bernie ... continue reading


Ted Cruz did WHAT at the Republican National Convention? Watch

Image of Ted Cruz was booed when the crowd realized he wouldn't be endorsing Donald Trump.

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Ted Cruz was booed during the Republican National Convention Wednesday night when it became clear he wouldn't be endorsing Donald Trump. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - When the Texas senator took the stage Wednesday night, his 23-minute remarks began well.He ... continue reading


The people have won! Trump becomes official nominee Watch

Image of Donald Trump is the people's choice for president.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Donald Trump is the official Republican nominee for president. Last night, Trump was officially awarded 1,725 delegates to become the nominee.  The total is well above the 1,237 required by the party rules. LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - America has a ... continue reading


RNC convention opens with plagiarism accusation, Dems have worst record Watch

Image of The Republican National Convention opened last night with controversy over Melania Trump's speech.

By Marshall Connolly (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Republicans kicked off their convention in Cleveland last night with a list of speakers addressing the theme, "Make America Safe Again." The event conveyed low energy, possibly because of the subject matter involved, but it was topped with an appearance by Donald Trump ... continue reading


Making a Difference: A political platform for all the people Watch

Image of

By Tony Magliano

During this month of political conventions, when America's two major parties adopt platforms designed to further their particular goals, it is clear that neither party's goals reflect a genuine total commitment to God, all of God's people and all of God's creation. ... continue reading


Traitorous liar Paul Ryan tries to deceive voters after supporting Obama's radical agenda Watch

Image of Voting for Ryan is like voting for Obama.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Paul Ryan is asking voters to reelect him because he will stand up to Obama's open borders policy. The problem is, he's had 17 years to do this and all he's done is the opposite. LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - Paul Ryan, the treasonous, ineffective rat of a ... continue reading


Judge rules: Police need a warrant to track your phone Watch

Image of Police now need a warrant to track your phone.

By Marshall Connolly (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

A federal judge has ordered that police cannot track cell phones without a warrant. The ruling may impact thousands of cases. LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - Police may not track phones without a warrant. This is the latest ruling in a narcotics case in a ... continue reading


Nancy Pelosi, Boasting of her Devout Catholic faith, is a Heretic Watch

Image of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi

By Deacon Keith Fournier

It is time to take the verbal gloves off once again - especially, as the 2016 election campaign begins in the United States of America. It must be said that Nancy Pelosi is engaging in more than scandal. She is engaging in the "obstinate denial of truths which ... continue reading


Democrats freak out as Clinton drops in polls Watch

Image of Clinton is still confident of victory, but she shouldn't be. Trump has surprised people before and he could surprise Clinton. Democrats are worried.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Democrats are concerned over Hillary Clinton's poll numbers as Trump inches close to Clinton in battleground states. The polls suggest that Trump could win, despite Clinton's greater popularity. LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - A private meeting at the Capitol on ... continue reading


LEAK? Trump picks Pence as Clinton continues to collapse Watch

Image of Trump appears to have decided on Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Donald Trump has picked Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. A Republican insider has leaked the news a day early. Trump has a conference planned for tomorrow to make the formal announcement. Trump has not confirmed this information, so it remains speculative. ... 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

the FEED
by Catholic Online

  • St. James the Greater: Saint of the Day for Monday, July 25, 2016
  • Daily Reading for Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 HD Video
  • Daily Reading for Monday, July 25th, 2016 HD Video
  • Christ apparition in Mexico
  • Daily Readings for Monday, July 25, 2016
  • 'Contemplative communities are not immune': Pope Francis on prayer
  • 'She is the witness to the risen Christ': Mary Magdalene honored

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Second Corinthians 4:7-15
7 But we hold this treasure in pots of earthenware, so that the immensity ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
1 [Song of Ascents] When Yahweh brought back Zion's captives we lived in ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 20:20-28
20 Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came with her sons to make a request ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for July 25th, 2016 Image

St. James the Greater
July 25: Nothing is known of St. James the Greater's early ... Read More