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Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant writer, the most gifted articulator of the values of the most creative generation in American political history. But as happens with brilliant people, sometimes his brilliance got the better of him.
Jefferson was an heir of the natural rights philosophy of John Locke. In Locke's formulation, the holy trinity of human rights consisted of life, liberty and property. Jefferson, while drafting the Declaration of Independence, tweaked the trinity by replacing property with "the pursuit of happiness."
Jefferson never explained the substitution. Perhaps he preferred the euphony of his extra syllables. More likely he didn't want to get into a debate about who owned property and what it consisted of. Many of the stalwarts of the protests against British laws—the Boston Sons of Liberty and their counterparts elsewhere—were not conspicuous property owners. Jefferson wanted to enlist them on the side of independence, in addition to wealthy planters like George Washington and rich merchants like John Hancock. Not everyone owned property, but everyone could pursue happiness.
Then there was the question of what constituted property. In every colony, slaves were considered property. Did Jefferson want to claim a natural right to own slaves? Though a slave owner himself, Jefferson deemed the institution of slavery a blight on republicanism, and he didn't want to sully his declaration with what would appear a defense of slavery. At the least, he didn't want to start a debate over slavery amid the debate over independence from Britain.
When the Continental Congress reviewed Jefferson's draft, no one objected to "the pursuit of happiness." Most delegates probably considered it innocuous, a literary flourish of the kind expected of Jefferson. The Congress approved the declaration and the delegates signed it, and "the pursuit of happiness" became one of America's founding principles.
The other founding principles, life and liberty, were well understood. Legitimate governments could not deprive citizens of either without compelling cause. Capital punishment was practiced in Jefferson's day, but it was inflicted only after a court trial and conviction by a jury of the accused's peers. Liberty was a bit more problematic. A free person could not be jailed without trial and conviction. An enslaved person . . . well, what made a slave a slave was that he or she could be deprived of liberty. Yet the depriving still had to be according to the rules of law.
But the pursuit of happiness? This was terribly squishy and ill defined. And the pursuing part could be easily lost, leaving people to think they had a right to happiness in the American scheme of things.
In defense of that scheme, it probably has produced more human happiness than any other in history. At any rate America has attracted more immigrants than any other country, suggesting that people thought they were better off—happier, according to whatever measure they chose—in America than elsewhere.
But when the word happiness appears in a listing of human rights, people who are not happy tend to feel they have been deprived. Something they are owed has been taken away from them. For all the material blessings enjoyed by Americans over the centuries, they have been consistent complainers.
To be sure, first-generation immigrants don't often complain; they understand how much better off they are than they were back home. But their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren take for granted the blessings of American life and harp on those areas where the blessings fall short.
Perhaps this is human nature, and not simply American nature. Give a human everything he or she wishes today; come back in six months and that person will wish for something more or something else.
But in America, this aspect of human nature has been sharpened. Quite possibly it's an effect of immigration. The easily satisfied don't emigrate; they stay put. The simple fact of upping stakes and moving to America suggests that the mover is hard to please. And then, perhaps in the course of preparing for naturalization, the immigrant encounters the Declaration of Independence and discovers that dissatisfaction with the status quo is part of the new country's DNA.
Again, it's important to note that Jefferson didn't say happiness was a right. Only the pursuit of happiness. But in saying it, he has condemned many generations of Americans to continually chase happiness. To fail to do so would be almost unpatriotic, certainly un-American.
To this pursuit we owe our material standard of living, which has long been the envy of the world. But to it, we also owe the characteristically American feeling that enough is never enough. Americans are strivers; workaholism is a trait about which Americans humble-brag. Americans work many more hours per year than their counterparts in most other rich countries, and often count it a positive mark of American exceptionalism.
One reason for the endless striving is the comparative meagerness of America's social safety net. But a major reason for that meagerness is the expectation of Americans that they must always keep striving. To suggest otherwise is to risk being labeled a socialist. In theory Americans could choose comprehensive funded health care, mandatory month-long vacations, free college and child care. But we don’t. And most of us are satisfied not to.
We reject guarantees. We prefer the pursuit. It’s what makes us American.