From John Winthrop to Jefferson to Lincoln, Americans have been defined by our sense of our own exceptionalism — a sense of destiny that has, however, always been tempered by an appreciation of the tragic nature of life. We believe ourselves to be entitled by the free gifts of nature and of nature’s God — of our Creator, in a theological frame — to pursue happiness. What Americans don’t always let on is that we know, beneath the Rockwellian optimism and the Reaganesque confidence and the seemingly boundless faith in a democratically digital future, that we have only been promised a chance to pursue happiness — not to catch it. Americans would rather the world think of us as Jimmy Stewarts, when there’s a strong strain of Humphrey Bogart in our national character. We’re optimists and believers, yes, but we’re practical about it, even if we don’t want you to know it.
Strictly personal happiness has its own paradoxes. Experience teaches us that the more aggressively we pursue it, the harder it can be to find. (Ask Jay Gatsby, or just about any second-term President of the U.S.) Still, there are a lot more people trying to get into the U.S. than out of it. If it were the other way round, we wouldn’t be debating immigration the way we are.
If the 18th century meaning of happiness connoted civic responsibility, the word has occasionally been taken to be more about private gratification than public good. It’s really about both, but in some eras of U.S. history the private pursuit has crowded out the larger one. Consider the Gilded Age, the cultural excesses of the 1960s and ’70s or the materialism so prevalent in the 1980s. Whether the issue at hand is financial ambition or personal appetite, the pursuit of happiness, properly understood, is not a license to do whatever we want whenever we want if we believe it will make us happiest right then. Happiness in the Greek and American traditions is as much about equanimity as it is about endorphins.
Much is often made of the fact that Jefferson inserted “the pursuit of happiness” in place of “property” from earlier formulations of fundamental rights. Yet property and prosperity are essential to the Jeffersonian pursuit, for economic progress has long proven a precursor of political and social liberty. As Jefferson’s friend and neighbor James Madison would say, the test is one of balance and proportion. More often than not, Americans have managed to find that balance.
We must, therefore, be doing something right. The genius of the American experiment is the nation’s capacity to create hope in a world suffused with fear. And while we are too often more concerned with our own temporary feelings of happiness than we are with the common good, we still believe, with Jefferson, that governments are instituted to enable us to live our lives as we wish, enjoying innate liberties and freely enjoying the right to pursue happiness, which was in many ways the acme of Enlightenment ambitions for the role of politics. For Jefferson and his contemporaries — and, thankfully, for most of their successors in positions of ultimate authority — the point of public life was to enable human creativity and ingenuity and possibility, not to constrict it.
In 1816, Jefferson wrote John Adams about the nature of grief. Drawing on his affection for Homeric poetry, Jefferson quoted the lines from The Iliad in which Priam and Achilles come together one night shortly after Achilles has killed Hector, Priam’s son. The two sit together for a time, musing on the unhappiness of the mortal world.
Two urns by Jove’s high throne have ever stood,
The source of evil one, and one of good;
From thence the cup of mortal man he fills,
Blessings to these, to those distributes ills;
To most he mingles both.
This was the tragic Jefferson, and the tragic American. On other occasions he — and we — could refuse to accept the twilight. “Whatever they can,” Jefferson said of us, “they will.” He lived, as we do, somewhere between Homer and hope, seeking a happiness that will warm our days — and shape not only our own internal worlds, but the world around us.