The term pursuit of happiness, which occurs in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, has attracted the attention of countless scholars over the past two centuries. The phrase differs from the triad of rights put forward by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government (1690), where he defended the rights of Englishmen to their “Life, Liberty, and Estates.” Whigs had traditionally included estates or property as an essential element of the liberties of Englishmen, which was classified among the natural rights that all men possessed. So why did Jefferson change the formula from “Life, Liberty, and Estates” to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”? The question has produced a distinctive subcategory to the general study of the Declaration.

The oldest view is that the locution, as used by Jefferson, was meant as “words of art,” used to dress up, but not significantly alter, the older Lockean formula. The similarity of the phrase with its earlier expression, the philosophy of government then current, and the importance of property to the cause of American independence lends solid historical support to this interpretation. The security of property was at the center of the colonists’ dispute with England. Inasmuch as no American was represented in the British Parliament, how could this body levy taxes against Americans? This interpretation of the traditional Lockean view has been made most forcefully by Carl Becker and Ronald Hamowy.

Others, however, have argued that the “pursuit of happiness” should be accorded a more original place in the formation of modern democratic theory. The phrase, according to this view, was meant to encompass all the preconditions that make the pursuit of happiness possible. Rather than merely negative rights, the phrase supposedly imposes on government the political obligation to ensure all of the conditions essential to the happiness of each member of society be met. As understood in this way, the “pursuit of happiness” requires that government accommodate the modern desire for increased social welfare and environmental and cultural regulation. Garry Wills, Scott Gerber, and Richard K. Matthews are among the leading exponents of this interpretation.

Both the traditional and modern interpretations fall short of conveying the richness of the idea of happiness as it was used in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Because government is expected to do so much today, the distinction between government and nonpolitical social institutions has been blurred, and what is “social” and “public” is typically associated with government. Thus, the traditional Lockean interpretation is liable to be misunderstood as devoid of social concern and narrowly economic. The modern interpretation, in contrast, while providing a sense of the social dimension suggested by the term, makes an assumption about the primacy of government that was no part of the original understanding.

The distinction between government and society was fundamental to English and American Whigs, who argued against monarchical absolutism and an intrusive government. For these libertarian forebears, happiness had a specific meaning tied closely to freedom of association. It referred to a flourishing of society in which voluntary organizations formed and throve for all manner of purposes. Such a society was thought to entail a limited government based on consent, with strong protections for the right to own property as a precondition for liberty. Only then could individuals follow their natural inclinations and their rational faculties to pursue the widest range of personal objectives: commercial, philanthropic, religious, and social. Thus, the premier Whig essayists of the Atlantic world, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, could write that “True and impartial liberty is … the right of every man to pursue the natural, reasonable, and religious dictates of his own mind.” Observing that such “liberty is the divine source of all human happiness,” they contended that “countries are generally peopled in proportion as they are free, and are certainly happy in that proportion.” Free association, for all sorts of reasons, was the basis for happiness in civil society. This notion was commonplace among Americans of the 18th century.

In 1766, Richard Bland of Williamsburg wrote that Virginians were not obliged to remain in submission to “the publick Authority of the State … longer than they find it will conduce to their Happiness, which they have a natural Right to promote.” Daniel Shute of Boston remarked in 1768 that “Civil government among mankind is not a resignation of their natural privileges, but that method of securing them to which they are morally obliged as conducive to their happiness.” George Mason noted in his draft of the Declaration of Rights for Virginia in June of 1776 that

all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Many have viewed Jefferson’s composition as a more effective revision of this earlier text. There are other possible influences.

A number of scholars have pointed to the important place of the Scottish moralists in Jefferson’s thought. These Scottish thinkers, each in their own way, postulated an inborn moral sense or sentiment beyond mere self‐​interest that gave to individuals an immediate experience of the good. Individuals could be trusted to govern themselves because human motivation embraced a capacity for empathizing with the plight of others and associating for reasons other than just material gratification. Acts of faith and philanthropy had their own rewards. Perhaps the most significant source for this view comes from a work highly recommended by Jefferson and one that he read with care long before he composed the Declaration: Henry Home, Lord Kames’s Essays on Morality and Natural Religion. In writing of the Creator and his work, Kames notes:

What various and complicated machinery is here! and regulated with what exquisite art! While man pursues happiness as his chief aim, thou bendest self‐​love into the social direction. Thou infusest the generous principle, which makes him feel for sorrows not his own … and by sympathy linked man to man; that nothing might be solitary in thy world, but all tend to mutual association.

This idea was endorsed by Jefferson, who remarked that a “moral sense was as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” The moral sense formed an important reason for Jefferson’s confidence in the ability of individuals to exercise personal self‐​government. The pursuit of happiness was thus broader than the right to own property, but it was in no way opposed to it. From the ultimate right of self‐​ownership, individuals possessed the capacity to pursue their aspirations in association with others who might hold similar convictions. Thus, the pursuit of happiness was social and public, but not primarily or even essentially political. Politics entered the picture only to the extent that a limited government maintained the peace and enforced the rules of just conduct. The result, Jefferson doubtless thought, would be a flourishing associational life.

Further Readings

Becker, Carl. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Ideas. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922; New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

Gerber, Scott Douglas. To Secure These Rights: The Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Interpretation. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Gordon, Thomas, and John Trenchard. “Cato’s Letter No. 62: An Inquiry into the Nature and Extent of Liberty.” Cato’s Letters. Vol. 1. Ronald Hamowy, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995.

Hamowy, Ronald. “Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Critique of Garry Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series (October 1979): 503–523.

Hyneman, Charles S, and Donald S. Lutz, eds. American Political Writing during the Founding Era 1760–1805. Vol. 1. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1983.

Jayne, Allen. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Matthews, Richard K. The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson: A Revisionist View. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

Mayer, David N. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Robbins, Caroline. “The Pursuit of Happiness.” America’s Continuing Revolution: An Act of Conservation. Irving Kristol, ed. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1975.

Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Originally published