Sitting in his small two-room suite in the bricklayer Jacob Graff’s house at Seventh and Market Streets in Philadelphia — he hated the flies from nearby stables and fields — Thomas Jefferson used a small wooden writing desk (a kind of 18th century laptop) to draft the report of a subcommittee of the Second Continental Congress in June 1776. There were to be many edits and changes to what became known as the Declaration of Independence — far too many for the writerly and sensitive Jefferson — but the fundamental rights of man as Jefferson saw them remained consistent: the rights to life, to liberty and, crucially, to “the pursuit of happiness.”
To our eyes and ears, human equality and the liberty to build a happy life are inextricably linked in the cadences of the Declaration, and thus in America’s idea of itself. We are not talking about happiness in only the sense of good cheer or delight, though good cheer and delight are surely elements of happiness. Jefferson and his colleagues were contemplating something more comprehensive — more revolutionary, if you will. Garry Wills’ classic 1978 book on the Declaration, Inventing America, puts it well: “When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness,” wrote Wills, “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.”
The idea of the pursuit of happiness was ancient, yet until Philadelphia it had never been granted such pride of place in a new scheme of human government — a pride of place that put the governed, not the governors, at the center of the enterprise. Reflecting on the sources of the thinking embodied in the Declaration, Jefferson credited “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c.”
As with so many things, then, to understand the Declaration we have to start with Aristotle. “Happiness, then,” he wrote, “is … the end of action” — the whole point of life. Scholars have long noted that for Aristotle and the Greeks, as well as for Jefferson and the Americans, happiness was not about yellow smiley faces, self-esteem or even feelings. According to historians of happiness and of Aristotle, it was an ultimate good, worth seeking for its own sake. Given the Aristotelian insight that man is a social creature whose life finds meaning in his relation to other human beings, Jeffersonian eudaimonia — the Greek word for happiness — evokes virtue, good conduct and generous citizenship.
As Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. once wrote, this broad ancient understanding of happiness informed the thinking of patriots such as James Wilson (“the happiness of the society is the first law of government”) and John Adams (“the happiness of society is the end of government”). Once the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed in the summer of 1776, the pursuit of happiness — the pursuit of the good of the whole, because the good of the whole was crucial to the genuine well-being of the individual — became part of the fabric (at first brittle, to be sure, but steadily stronger) of a young nation.
The thinking about happiness came to American shores most directly from the work of John Locke and from Scottish-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. During the Enlightenment, thinkers and politicians struggled with redefining the role of the individual in an ethos so long dominated by feudalism, autocratic religious establishments and the divine rights of kings. A key insight of the age was that reason, not revelation, should have primacy in human affairs. That sense of reason was leading Western thinkers to focus on the idea of happiness, which in Jefferson’s hands may be better understood as the pursuit of individual excellence that shapes the life of a broader community.
Like, say, the newly emerging United States of America. Pre-Jefferson, the precept was explicitly expressed in the newly adopted Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document written by George Mason and very much on Jefferson’s mind in the summer of 1776. Men, wrote Mason, “are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights … namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Property is often key to happiness, but Mason was thinking more broadly, drawing on the tradition of the ancients to articulate a larger scope for civic life.