Taking into account the season, I decided to read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety on Saturday.
Having a three-day weekend with which to enjoy the now-passed Fourth of July holiday, I was privileged to participate in a bit more leisure than I am accustomed.
Without being compelled to pore over the copious verbiage that my occupation requires, it was a delight to read for the sheer pleasure of study and contemplation… an endeavor that is usually wedged between long work hours, over the span of a harried week.
In reading the Declaration, I hoped to sit in an audience before some of the foremost minds my nation has produced in its fledgling 234-year history. Having made no small study of the era, and the men it contained, I wanted to consider heavily their words and purpose behind desiring odds with their ruling monarch.
Moving past the opening remarks, which are so ingrained on the consciousness of any American who has managed even to view a History Channel special on the document, I was eager to delve deeper into the particulars than I had previously.
But something caught my eye very early on, and so distracted me that it took a deliberate and hasty effort to complete a reading that turned out to me far more cursory than I had intended.
That humanity is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and that one of these “unalienable rights” is the pursuit of happiness. Did you catch that? The pursuit of happiness.
Not the attainment of happiness or even the likelihood of happiness, but the pursuit. An interesting turn of phrase indeed.
It is widely understood that the primary author of the Declaration was Thomas Jefferson, and a quick ideological assessment of Jefferson will tell you that he was Deist with a strong debt to English philosopher John Locke.
Locke was one of the foremost Enlightenment thinkers and, in his view, the three fundamental human rights were life, liberty and property. Jefferson replaces the right to property with the right to happiness, which is an Aristotelian ethic.
Now, while Aristotle took it for granted that people strive for happiness, he never went so far as to assert that it was a right, let alone an unalienable right. An “unalienable” right is one that cannot be taken away or even surrendered. This right, the Declaration asserts, is endowed by “their Creator” and is self-evident.
As the actions of King George III hindered these rights, the authors make the case that they are justified in declaring their independence, whether implied or no, by armed revolution.
In our present age, we tend to equate “happiness” with simple pleasure. As such, it would seem absurd to fight something as arduous as the Revolutionary War for the ability to pursue certain amiable trifles.
Sure as I enjoy a steaming dish of Moo Goo Gai Pan, I am certainly not going to raise up arms against the People’s Republic of China for the right to do so. No, the “pursuit of happiness” indicated here goes well beyond the price of tea, even in China.
When the founders published this document on a sultry Philadelphia summer in the year of our Lord 1776, war with Britain had been going on for well over a year. If the limited skirmishes had caused a fissure in Colonial America’s relationship with their monarch, the Declaration provided the final breech.
As I relaxed in my air-conditioned house on a Saturday afternoon, with a full stomach and the relaxed posture of a man completely at ease, I thought about how dear these men reckoned their lives and their liberty. How expensive, to them, the “pursuit of happiness” would cost.
We often paw gamely at our happiness, moving from one state of contentment and pleasure to the next. Happiness is an accoutrement to modern living, not a foundational ethic. For us to pursue it is as simple an endeavor as deciding to shop at Walmart or Target, or to purchase one brand of automobile or another. The cost of “freedom” is found in gym memberships and credit card bills.
To the “founding fathers” of this nation it was a facet of a deep moral imperative, and something worth dying for.