Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As most Americans will recognize, these are words from the Declaration of Independence.
Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, in his beautiful and insightful book: The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It,” writes: “The Founders understood [the Declaration and Constitution] to be connected, to supply together the principles and the details of government, to be a persuasive and durable unity.”[i]
Most Americans have never encountered Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration[ii] and are not aware the Declaration went through significant “wordsmithing” on its path to approval on July 4, 1776. In his draft, I particularly prefer Jefferson’s more powerful: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable” to the final, “self-evident.” On the other hand, other sentences in Jefferson’s draft clearly benefited from the collaboration of the Congress, even while Jefferson later complained his work had been “mangled.” The judgment of historian Carl Becker was that “Congress left the Declaration better than it found it.”[iii]
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here Jefferson is of course referring to the “certain unalienable Rights” we have been “endowed by [our] Creator.” These natural, unalienable rights derive from natural law. In a 1775 newspaper essay entitled “The Farmer Refuted,” Alexander Hamilton explains the relationship between natural law and natural rights this way:
“To grant that there is a supreme intelligence who rules the world and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and still to assert that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appears to a common understanding altogether irreconcilable. Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature … Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind … The Sacred Rights of Mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of the Divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” (Emphasis added)
Indispensably obligatory? Sir William Blackstone explains why:
“Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is entirely a dependent being. A being independent of any other, has no rule to pursue, but such as he prescribes to himself; but a state of dependence will inevitably oblige the inferior to take the will of him, on whom he depends, as the rule of his conduct; not indeed in every particular, but in all those points wherein his dependence consists. This principle, therefore, has more or less extent and effect, in proportion as the superiority of the one and the dependence of the other is greater or less, absolute or limited. And consequently, as man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his Maker’s will.”[iv]
If there was one political principle which was ubiquitous during the founding period, it was the natural, unalienable rights of the colonists. Early Americans almost never missed an opportunity to proclaim them. As Thomas West argues, “the founders shared a ‘theoretically coherent understanding’ of politics rooted in natural rights philosophy.”[v]
While Jefferson directly lists only three unalienable rights, other rights, both individual and collective, are hidden in plain sight. These include:
- The right of a people “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”
- The right “to alter or to abolish [an old government], and institute new government.” (Note: this right can also be seen as a duty!)
- The right to secure their unalienable and civil rights through the institution of government.
- The right to delegate power to government, through the people’s consent.
We must also note that Jefferson’s use of “the pursuit of happiness” is unusual. The normal “trio” of essential rights was “Life, Liberty and Property.” We find property mentioned in most “rights” documents from the founding period: “pursuit of happiness” is an outlier. John Adams, in A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787), reminds us:
“Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty.…The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.”
But as Thomas Paine warns us:
“[P]roperty will ever be unequal …. Industry, superiority of talents, dexterity of management, extreme frugality, fortunate opportunities, or the opposite, or the means of those things, will ever produce that effect, without having recourse to the harsh, ill-sounding names of avarice and oppression; and besides this there are some men who, though they do not despise wealth, will not stoop to the drudgery or the means of acquiring it, nor will be troubled with it beyond their wants or their independence; while in others there is an avidity to obtain it by every means not punishable; it makes the sole business of their lives, and they follow it as a religion. All that is required with respect to property is to obtain it honestly, and not employ it criminally; but it is always criminally employed when it is made a criterion for exclusive rights.”[vi]
Is there a relationship between property and other rights? To James Madison there certainly was: “In its larger and juster meaning, it [property] embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to everyone else the like advantage… In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions, and in the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the professions and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right in his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”9 Madison then explains that “conscience is the most sacred of all property … more sacred than his castle.”[vii]
With “property” aside, the unalienable rights of Life and Liberty are relatively easy to understand, but a right to “pursue happiness” begs further explanation.
In his First Inaugural Address, George Washington explained: “There exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” Jefferson would agree. But perhaps we should first clarify what the pursuit of happiness did not mean. To America’s founders, it was not the pursuit of licentiousness, the pursuit of base pleasure or the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake. John Locke warns us: “mistake not imaginary for real happiness”[viii]
“[T]he “pursuit of happiness” as envisaged by [John Locke] and by Jefferson was not merely the pursuit of pleasure, property, or self-interest (although it includes all of these). It is also the freedom to be able to make decisions that result in the best life possible for a human being, which includes intellectual and moral effort. We would all do well to keep this in mind when we begin to discuss the “American” concept of happiness.”[ix]
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or Twitter @constitutionled.
[i] Larry Arnn, The Founders’ Key; The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, Nashville, 2012, p.11.
[iii] Carl Becker, Declaration of Independence, New York, 1922, p. 209.
[iv] Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Section 2, Of the Nature of Laws in General, accessed at: https://www.laits.utexas.edu/poltheory/blackstone/cle.int.s02.html.
[v] Thomas West, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom, 2017.
[vi] Thomas Paine, Dissertation on First Principles of Government, 1795.
[vii] Kurland, Philip B. The Founders’ Constitution. Vol. 1. Chicago , IL: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1987, p.598.
[viii] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, accessed at https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/locke-the-works-vol-1-an-essay-concerning-human-understanding-part-1.
[ix] Anonymous, accessed at https://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/john-locke/.