Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Declaration of Independence and the Pursuit of Happiness

Now, as another July 4th approaches, it behooves us to consider what the holiday commemorates. In the late days of June, 1776, more than a year into the American Revolution Thomas Jefferson hastily wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, which was modified by and revised by others. Finally, on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously signed the document. Despite the dominance of the British Empire and their imminent capture of New York City, the Declaration
severed all ties between Great Britain and the thirteen American colonies. (Or so the Americans maintained. But it would take another six years before we forced the British to their knees.)

Most famously, the document pronounces mankind's "natural" right of personal liberty, the notion, introduced by British philosopher John Locke a century earlier, that man is born into a state of freedom, and thus cannot be governed by a monarch. Government, says the document, exists only to serve man and laws can only be passed with the consent of the governed.

In the most famous portion of the document, the signatories assert that "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 the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (Emphasis added.)

What did they mean by the phrase "pursuit of happiness, a phrase that survived a number of drafts?"

In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke maintains that mankind possesses the right to "life, health, liberty and property" (Emphasis added.)  Why did we Americans alter this set of rights to include the "pursuit of happiness?"

As literary scholar Carol Hamilton has argued, Locke used the phrase elsewhere, writing in another essay, that "the necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty."

But "happiness," as used at the time, did not mean the gratification of our emotional needs and demands. Writes James R. Rogers, professor of political science at Texas A&M,  "[i]t meant prosperity…well-being…the right to meet physical needs [and included] a significant moral and religious dimension."

Note, too, that happiness itself is not guaranteed, but rather "its pursuit." Writes James R. Rogers: "'The pursuit of happiness' means … occupying one's life with the activities that provide for overall wellbeing. This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity's spiritual and moral condition."

Like the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence asserts that government must step out of  our way.

But we live in an era in which everyone, including multi-billion dollar corporations, demands that government provide them with instant gratification. It is time to remember the philosophies of our Founding Fathers and limit the size and reach of  our massive federal government.

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