“You can’t do that.”
But it makes me feel good.
“It’s against the law.”
Then we should change the law.
Because it makes me feel good.
“Who cares about your feelings?”
Why does the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” appear in our Declaration of Independence? Most people don’t know enough about history or political philosophy even to understand why this is an important question. Instructed with the simple-minded sentimentalism of an elementary school pageant, people cling to the phrase — along with whatever other bits and pieces of their education managed to stick in their minds — with the fierce emotion of a toddler clinging to his mother. Urging such a person to examine the facts critically is likely to produce antagonism, as if you were somehow unpatriotic for insisting that actual history is preferable to flattering mythology.
Diana West’s new book American Betrayal dares to question some of the sentimental gush about the 20th century that too many of us have swallowed without thinking about it, and the problem is that once people integrate false narratives into their worldview, it’s very hard to get them to re-examine their erroneous beliefs.
That’s why I’m calling attention to “the pursuit of happiness,” that curious phrase of Thomas Jefferson’s which ought to arouse more curiosity than it usually does. There is a timely relevance to this matter, but rather than explain that “ripped from the headlines” factor up front, let me continue with the philosophical discussion and let shallow minds look elsewhere for something to arouse them.
The formula of rights that Jefferson meant to invoke in the preamble of the Declaration was “life, liberty and property” — John Locke’s summary of what fundamental goods of the citizen the government was supposed to protect as the justification of its existence. It helps here to quote Jefferson’s preamble at length:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Please read this carefully and ask, “What’s the point?”
How odd that Americans so seldom ask this question. Thomas Jefferson (who drafted the Declaration as part of a committee that also included Benjamin Franklin and John Adams) wasn’t engaged in some abstract philosophical discussion, after all.
The Declaration was written with a purpose: To rally support for the American rebellion, first among the colonists themselves; secondly, among the English people, as a means of undermining political support for the measures undertaken by the Crown to suppress the rebellion; and finally, as an appeal for support from England’s rival powers in Europe, especially the French.
We are in danger of missing the point of the whole thing if we fail to understand the Declaration in this historical context. Yet most Americans nowadays know so little of actual history that they lack the means by which to contextualize the Declaration’s phrases which, without any facts to encumber them, are allowed to float around in our minds as abstract ideas divorced of any real meaning.
Jefferson invokes “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” as necessitating the Declaration: “Americans are not illiterate savages,” he is telling his readership, whom he knows to include ministers in the courts of France and other nations. In deciding to separate themselves from England and taking up an “equal station” as a nation in their own right, Jefferson says, the American colonists understand that they must justify their cause in the eyes of the world — to recount the grievances of a people oppressed by unlawful despotism — as “the causes which impel them to the separation.”
The very eloquence of Jefferson’s prose, its calm and dignified language, was arguably the strongest part of his argument. It signified that these Americans were not (as the British Crown viewed them) an inferior rabble, but rather men of quality, deserving of respect.
Well, what about that curious phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”?
Whereas Locke and others spoke of “life, liberty and property” as the rights government was supposed to protect, Jefferson did not speak of “property” for two important reasons:
- The colonists’ dispute with England arose over issues of taxation. Other European nations, France among them, taxed their people far more heavily than anything that King George III and his ministers had inflicted on the American colonies. If Jefferson had invoked property rights, this may have been interpreted as questioning all taxation, and may have conveyed the impression that the Americans were rebelling for narrowly selfish financial purposes.
- There was, after all, the matter of slavery. Among the species of “property” held by Americans were about half a million African slaves, and more than a few opponents of the colonial rebellion had chastised them as hypocrites for demanding a liberty that they denied their servants.
Now, here we might digress into a long examination of this seeming contradiction in the Declaration, which expresses in such elegant phrases a philosophy of universal equality, even though the man who wrote it was the owner of more than 100 slaves. That discussion, however, would be irrelevant to my point, namely that Jefferson’s famous phrase “the pursuit of happiness” cannot properly be understood outside its historical context.
What did Jefferson mean by “happiness,” anyway? Considering that this phrase occurs where “property” would be found in the classic Lockean formulation of rights, Jefferson means “happiness” not as some mere sentimental feeling, but rather in the sense of “good fortune,” which to an 18th-century mind, would mean what we today mean when we say “success” or “prosperity” — the contented enjoyment of the accumulated fruits of one’s labor. Of course, the mind of an 18th-century colonial plantation owner is so remote from our own culture that we might as well try to understand the worldview of the Pharoahs.
Still, my point is exactly this: Our sentimental reverence for these phrases — “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and so forth — hinders our ability to think about what the Declaration was really all about, and unless we have the maturity to transcend our childish emotionalism, we aren’t really thinking, but merely feeling.
This is how we end up in situations where the discussion of public policy is warped by the claim that our arguments are wrong because we might make people feel bad about themselves. Read more
From The Other McCain: http://theothermccain.com/