At its deepest level — deeper than the family get-togethers, the fireworks and cookouts — Independence Day is about the freedom our founders secured for us, the depths of which we continue to explore almost 250 years later.
We pledge our allegiance to our nation’s flag and to “liberty and justice for all.”
Our “star-spangled banner yet wave(s) O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In our national anthem we sing of our “sweet land of liberty.”
But there’s a third member — the neglected member — of the triumvirate of our “unalienable rights:” “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We don’t sing of our sweet land of happiness. The star-spangled banner does not wave o’er the land of the happy.
Why is the pursuit of happiness there, a seeming lightweight among profound philosophical concepts such as life and liberty?
Some will point out that the Declaration does not say that we have a right to be happy, merely the right to pursue happiness.
But in his consequential essay, “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’” Arthur Schlesinger said that argument rests on a misunderstanding of the way “pursuit” was often used in the 18th century and is still used today.
When we say that a lawyer is employed in the pursuit of law, we don’t mean that she or he is chasing the law or searching for it; we mean she or he is practicing law. It is in that sense, Schlesinger argues, that the pursuit of happiness should be understood in the Declaration of Independence. “The historic manifesto proclaimed the practicing rather than the quest of happiness as a basic right equally with life and liberty.” (Emphasis his.)
Schlesinger concluded that the “spokesmen of the American cause” did not think of happiness as “something a people were entitled to strive for but as something that was theirs by natural right.”
It is striking that Thomas Jefferson, who penned the words that have become as close to hagiographa as is possible in a secular government, introduced happiness into a foundational document of the emerging nation. John Locke, one of the leading English philosophers of the day, had spoken of life, liberty and property. Jefferson seems to have substituted happiness for property. (He mentions property and safety later in the Prologue.)
It is even more striking that Jefferson claimed “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted ...”
Jefferson was not alone in believing that governments have a responsibility for the happiness of their citizens. In the critical year of 1776, John Adams wrote that “the happiness of society is the end (aim) of government.”
Two hundred and forty-three years later, when politicians and political theorists tangle over how large a government is too large a government and how much government intrusion into citizens’ lives is too much, the idea that government should be concerned about the happiness of its citizens seems trivial.
For most Americans, individualists that we are, happiness or satisfaction with one’s life is a personal matter. It is our business and our responsibility; no one else’s.
Brent Strawn, professor at Emory University, begs to disagree. “According to the Declaration, the extended quality of happiness — what we might call the good or flourishing life — is or should be a primary concern of government.”
More importantly, Thomas Jefferson would beg to disagree. In the sentence that follows the listing of examples of our unalienable rights, the Declaration claims “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect (bring about) their safety and happiness.”
It is instructive that Jefferson left happiness undefined. My guess is that was intentional. It isn’t government’s job to define the good or happy life. It is government’s job to make sure that its citizens are free to define it for themselves and to practice happiness as they understand it, as long as their practice doesn’t interfere with someone else’s freedom.
Every American has an unalienable right — endowed by the Creator — to a happy/satisfying life, just as she or he has the right to be free. It is the responsibility of the institutions of society, including government at all levels, to make sure that that right is secured for all Americans.