Life, Liberty, and the PURSUIT of Happiness

United States Declaration of Independence

 “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 Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those are among the first words spoken in the United States’  Declaration of  Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. It may be the most important verse in the entire document as everything that follows is an explanation of why the United States’ desire to protect what Jefferson called the “unalienable rights” of their people. Those being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The founding fathers of the United States were men of many faults, as could be said of all men and women, and the Declaration is not a perfect document. In particular it fails to mention the rights of women and slaves who sadly would not be granted basic rights until much. While there were some glaring omissions and errors, and while there may have been selfish and greedy motives behind the very desire to become independent, I still find that this is one of the finest documents ever written. It lays out the plan for what could have been a utopia, a place of true freedom where men and women of any background would be free to live, prosper, and pursue freedom without constraint. This may be over-idealistic and it pains me to see how far we have strayed from that original intent, often seeing the declaration and the constitution manipulated to pursue nefarious agendas. I am however, nothing if not an idealist, choosing to see the best in anything, and I still see incredible promise in the declaration, the aims of which I hope that this country can embrace and deliver for not just all Americans but all of humanity

Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration
and 3rd President of the U.S.

The particular part of the declaration which I want to focus on are the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I specifically want to discuss why I think Jefferson wrote “the pursuit of happiness” rather than  simply “happiness”. I believe that reason is because Jefferson, being a wise and learned man understood that happiness is not a right. Life does not give you the right to be happy but everyone does have the right to PURSUE happiness. Jefferson knew that the new government could not guarantee happiness and as such he did not promise it.  He did however  recognize that happiness is one of the chief goals in life, and wanted to guarantee that everyone should be able to pursue it, to the best of their own abilities, in whatever such terms that sense of happiness means to them. 

There are no guarantees of happiness in this life. Many religions and beliefs make it clear that suffering is an inevitable part of existence. The first of the 4 noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering, pain, and misery exist in life. Sound bleak? Maybe, but it can’t be denied. The remaining 3 pillars and practically the entire basis of the Buddhist faith are about teaching how to deal with and overcome that suffering, pain and misery. The Hindu concept of Karma teaches us that suffering is a part of life and that all pain is a result of past actions in this or in a previous life. The 3 major Abrahamic religions teach us similarly, making great note of the suffering in the world, but showing a way forward by trusting in god and following the word of the major figures of each: Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. 

I really can’t think of a religion, philosophy, or thought movement that doesn’t recognize that suffering is an inevitable part of life. The Stoics urge us to recognize that which is within our power to control and that which isn’t, thus being able to withstand the pain of certain aspects of life. They remind us that events are neither good nor bad, they simply are, but the whole point is to not let seemingly unfortunate incidents overwhelm us, this is bound to happen, and unless we are mentally prepared, these events will bring suffering. Even the Epicureans, a group who’s entire basis was on the attainment of pleasure, recognize the suffering and pain in life. Their whole reason for enjoying pleasure was as it stood in stark contrast to the inevitable suffering and they constantly warn against the overindulgence of pleasure, knowing that there too suffering would be found. 

Thomas Jefferson was likely most influenced by his Christian upbringing, and as an educated man was probably familiar with the writings of the Stoics as well. Whichever one influenced him in his writing of the declaration, he was wise to make sure that he mentioned only the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed and not the happiness itself. Furthermore, happiness is not something he or any government can guarantee. He likely understood that true happiness comes from within and in many ways it has nothing to do with possessions, or any sort of external attainment. Happiness is most accurately a state of being, love, contentment, and gratitude and as such no power on earth outside of that of the individual can truly bring happiness. 

By mentioning happiness at all in the declaration, Jefferson was recognizing it’s importance as perhaps the supreme goal of all human existence. Furthermore, by naming it as a protected right, he was helping to establish a system  where should  the actions of others that might prevent another from pursuing freedom to the best of their own ability would be considered illegal. The ideal of America is that everyone has the right to enjoy freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in so far as their version of such does not infringe on the rights of others to do the same. As soon as your free actions violate the unalienable rights of another, you have transgressed. This is something that I think many of my fellow citizens have failed to recognize lately, forgetting that their right to practice their religion freely does not give them the right to force their religion on others; that their right to not wear a mask is fine only if it does not infringe upon the health of others; that they are free to marry as they please but that their idea of marriage is not one to which others must conform. 

The founding fathers were not perfect ,and neither is the declaration of independence. It is a flawed document written by flawed men but it get’s many things right. Namely that all men and women do have the right to life, a free life of liberty, and the right to pursue happiness and whatever that means to them. But the attainment of that happiness is not guaranteed, and it only extends in so far as it respects the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of others. I wish you all the very best in your own pursuits of happiness. 

Click here to read the full transcript of the United States’ Declaration of Independence:

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