Kerr: ‘…and the pursuit of happiness’ | Securities
These are the last words of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Although succinct, it is also one of the most profound, philosophical and memorable statements in the document.
The entire sentence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
We Americans have heard this phrase repeated so many times that we don’t give it the attention it deserves – especially the last three words. It was quite remarkable that the Founding Fathers declared the equality of mankind and the rights to life and liberty, but the final sentence did something that no government document, certainly no founding document, had ever done before, nor since, and it was to declare that the pursuit of happiness is a human right.
This type of thinking is indicative of the Enlightenment – the period of awareness and learning which, at its height in the late 18th century, gave rise to notions such as representative government, an intense questioning of what which was once considered an absolute doctrine (both in terms of religion and governance) and the importance of natural rights, inherent in our very state of being.
At the time, the notion of self-government, central to the Declaration of Independence, was still a new and dangerous concept to some. After all, this was a world of kings and empires, and the idea of a colony declaring itself independent based on such theories of governance was unheard of.
There was no precedent. It was also extremely dangerous. After all, everyone who signed the Declaration of Independence was a traitor to the British crown. However, there was more than that. These words, contained in an already profound statement of individual rights, offer unique insight into the spirit and vision of our founders.
It has been argued that the phrase is nothing more than a placeholder. However, this is unlikely. These men were not accustomed to throwaway phrases. Although one of the first drafts said “life, liberty and property”, at the suggestion of Ben Franklin and with the agreement of the other members of the Declaration Committee – Thomas Jefferson (the author of the document) , John Adams and Roger Sherman – phrase changed from “property” to “pursuit of happiness”.
When the Continental Congress debated the declaration, it made dozens of changes. Some sparked heated debate, but the reference to “the pursuit of happiness” stuck.
Despite all its fame, the Declaration of Independence does not have the force of law. Many people are surprised by this, but it was not supposed to be a law. Rather, it was a statement of the principles underlying the American Revolution and was written with the aim of explaining in clear and compelling terms our reasons for wanting to separate from Britain. In this regard, it was essential to explain the general philosophy of the government of the founders.
However, while this arguably imprecise phrase guaranteeing the right to the pursuit of happiness may not have the force of law, since 1776 this reference has been used to support all manner of causes where individual rights conflict with prevailing notions. of society or of the law. . The pursuit of happiness, nebulous as it is, has been repeated and discussed in congressional debates, noted in Supreme Court decisions, and found its way into political and philosophical discussions around the world.
Because it is unique to each of us, happiness is difficult to define and almost impossible to guarantee. But that was not the point. The aim of the founders’ revolutionary philosophy was to declare that no government – be it Great Britain or a local government – should impose upon its citizens unreasonable barriers and restrictions which limit their potential for personal fulfillment or happiness.
The “pursuit of happiness” as a human right was a remarkable statement about individual freedom and freedom. It was a radical concept then and it still is today.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.