Timothy J. Shannon, writing at the Inky, muses on the meaning of one of the most nebulous phrases in America’s mythology: “the pursuit of happiness.” He looks to historical concept to extrapolate what Thomas Jefferson may have meant when he wrote the phrase and how the Continental Congress may have interpreted it when they accepted Jefferson’s draft. Here’s just a bit:
(In Jefferson’s time–ed.) Happiness meant being able to provide for your family without fear of famine, incessant warfare, or an exploitive aristocracy. In his essay “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” Franklin called this condition a “general happy mediocrity.” Today, we call it a stable, middle-class society, where people who work hard can reasonably expect freedom and prosperity for themselves and their children.
With that context in mind, Jefferson’s “pursuit of Happiness” becomes much more than a pleasing turn of phrase. It was a remarkably succinct expression of the American dream, a confident look to the future rather than a backward nod to Locke. As such, it remains foundational to how we define ourselves as a nation.
In this election year, the pursuit of happiness sometimes appears to be in full retreat. Donald Trump has ridden a tide of fearmongering to his party’s nomination, and his campaign promise to “make America great again” cynically swaps hope for nostalgia. By many measures, Americans have lost their faith in the pursuit of happiness . . . .