Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

7/4/2014 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (

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."


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

7/4/2014 (1 year 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


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

Copywriter 2015 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for October 2015
That human trafficking, the modern form of slavery, may be eradicated.
Evangelization: That with a missionary spirit the Christian communities of Asia may announce the Gospel to those who are still awaiting it.


More Politics & Policy

Russia accuses Turkey of aiding ISIS -Turkey President will step down if Russia can prove it Watch

Image of Russian President Vladimir Putin [not pictured] accused Turkey of aiding ISIS by purchasing oil from the terrorist group.


Tensions between Russia and Turkey seem to be coming to a head as Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped forward to accuse Turkey of aiding ISIS. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Putin's outrageous - and currently unfounded - claims that Turkey has been ... continue reading

Who's really dying? Tragic reports surface revealing Russia kills more civilians than ISIS militants Watch

Image of


Between meetings for the climate summit in Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for a thirty-minute talk concerning the Syrian crisis and Ukraine situation. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - One official reported President Obama ... continue reading

'We cannot succumb to fear': U.S. joins France in fight against ISIS Watch

Image of U.S. President Barack obama has decided to join forces with France in eliminating ISIS.


Following a meeting with French President François Hollande, United States President Barack Obama has proclaimed "total solidarity" with France. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - President Obama believes the declaration of solidarity, alongside his trip to Paris for ... continue reading

U.S. throws doors open to Syrian refugees - despite identity of Paris terrorist suspect as disguised refugee Watch

Image of It's not yet known how many more additional refugees the U.S. may take in beyond the originally state 10,000. Two senior administration officials say they are seeking ways to take in even more.


Even after it was learned that a key terrorist in the recent attacks in Paris, 25-year-old Ahmed Almuhamed, snuck into France after he was rescued from a sinking shop off the coast of Greece posing as a Syrian refugee, the Obama administration continues to ... continue reading

Supreme Court to hear arguments over Texas abortion clinic ruling Watch

Image of Lawmakers have put major restrictions of abortion since 2010, but none as far-reaching and strict as Texas' HB2.


A measure passed in the State of Texas, HB2 in 2013 has led to the closure of half of that state's abortion clinics. Now, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over the Texas law that has been among the most crucial in the ongoing national dialogue regarding ... continue reading

PUT TERRORISTS IN COLORADO? Law enforcement officials question Guantanamo Bay closure Watch

Image of Obama's Defense Secretary recently said that around half of the remaining 112 prisoners at Gitmo must be locked up


United States President Barack Obama has long promised to close Guantanamo Bay, a holding facility for suspected terrorists at a U.S. naval facility in Cuba. The question, as posed by dozens of law enforcement officials in a letter to the president . where do ... continue reading

What has the United States Government done with $5.9 billion? Watch

Image of American taxpayers gave the United States government $5.9 billion in foreign military financing last how was it distributed?


Each year Americans complain about paying taxes, much of which is distributed to foreign military aid. So where have all the funds gone? LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to the United States government's Foreign Assistance report, $5.9 billion was directed ... continue reading

You won't believe how Trump and Carson have become a disrupting force in the Republican Party! Watch

Image of Donald Trump and Ben Carson's popularity has other Republican presidential candidates sweating.


Republican presidential hopefuls Ben Carson and Donald Trump have disrupted Republican politicians and have many questioning where the United States is headed should either become the next American President. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Members of the ... continue reading

Fourth Presidential debate asks the hard questions Watch

Image of The Fourth Republican Debate gave presidential candidates several opportunities to shine -but who took advantage of the spotlight?

By Kenya Sinclair (California Network)

The fourth Republican presidential debate took place at the Milwaukee Theater Tuesday night. Candidates were asked the big questions ranging from how they felt about protester demands for a $15 minimum wage to the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants in the ... continue reading

Court halts Obama's executive orders with Obama's own words! What were they? Watch

Image of Obama's own words were used to stop him from changing the law as he pleased.

By David Drudge (California Network)

A federal appeals court has used Obama's own words to halt his growing use of executive orders that allow him to rule by edict. Their decision specifically halts his edict that shields 5 million illegal immigrants from imminent deportation and that he does not have the ... continue reading

All Politics & Policy News


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

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Isaiah 11:1-10
1 A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse, a new shoot will grow from ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 72:1, 7-8, 12-13, 17
1 [Of Solomon] God, endow the king with your own fair judgement, the son ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 10:21-24
21 Just at this time, filled with joy by the Holy Spirit, he said, 'I ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for December 1st, 2015 Image

St. Eligius
December 1: Eligius (also known as Eloi) was born around 590 ... Read More