In honor of Independence Day, today’s article investigates what Thomas Jefferson meant by the words “pursuit of happiness” that are included in the Declaration of Independence. The full passage is as follows (with original capitalization):
“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.”
As you might suspect, the meaning of the word ‘happiness’ has changed over the 200 plus years since Jefferson penned these words. If we were to ask the average person living today what they understand by ‘happiness’ their description would likely include two aspects that were not prominent in the original meaning of the word. First, today’s understanding would likely focus on the needs of the individual, the pursuer of happiness. Thus, today’s word has individualistic and perhaps even selfish overtones. And second, today’s understanding would likely accentuate the hedonistic aspects of happiness.
Well, the Founding Fathers were not declaring freedom from British rule in order to run a 13 colony frat house. Rather, their understanding of the word was quite different and is described this way by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. The following quote is drawn from a 2005 lecture he gave as part of a program he started called Dialogues in Freedom. Writing of the Founding Fathers, Justice Kennedy writes:
“For them, happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”
Thus, pursuit of happiness meant having the freedom to use your unique talents and position in life for the good of society. In another passage in the Declaration of Independence, happiness is paired with safety, and both are seen as the bedrock of what a government needs to ensure its people. Here’s another Jefferson quote from his monograph, Securing the Republic, in which he writes what schools should teach their students:
“The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds; such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by shewing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”
In the above passage, Jefferson more fully explains what he has in mind when referring to happiness. Notice that what he’s saying is that the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit of good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.
I’ll end with one last quote of Jefferson’s. By virtue of being physicians, perhaps we’re already half way there to the good life.
“It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.”
Until next time,
Quotes from the Founding Fathers:
To continue our Independence Day theme, I searched for quotes from our Founding Fathers and include my favorite one from each person. I specifically chose quotes that provide advice we can use during our upcoming relaxed 4th of July holiday. These quotes show an unexpected side to our Founding Fathers.
“True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity, before it is entitled to the appellation.”
– George Washington
“Let me recommend the best medicine in the world: a long journey, at a mild season, through a pleasant country, in easy stages.”
– James Madison
“As much as I converse with sages and heroes, they have very little of my love and admiration. I long for rural and domestic scene, for the warbling of birds and the prattling of my children.”
– John Adams
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
– Benjamin Franklin