What Did TJ Mean By “Pursuit of Happiness,” Anyway?

The satirist PJ O’Rourke, What Did TJ Mean By “Pursuit of Happiness,” Anyway?:

…I’m an American. And we are, to my knowledge, the only nation that has hounding down joy written into our foundational documents. Declaration of Independence, second paragraph, first sentence —- we’re “endowed… with certain unalienable Rights… among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

…In his “unalienable Rights” passage, Jefferson was openly cribbing from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1689. But Locke’s phrase was “life, liberty, and estate,” meaning property.

What made Jefferson go off script? Professor Forrest McDonald, in his magisterial book Novus Ordo Seclorum—The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (tree farming gives you a lot of time to read), argues that Jefferson may have gotten the alternative wording from British jurist and proponent of natural law, William Blackstone. Or from John Adams, who was hovering over his shoulder and was big on property if not the vanities and levities of showing off about it. Or, says McDonald, Jefferson may have been expressing an “Aristotelian idea.”

…Maybe Jefferson simply spotted a flaw in Locke’s logic. If “life, liberty, and property” are “unalienable Rights” then property can’t be alienated. That is, property can’t be separated from an individual….

…So Jefferson, going “Life, Liberty, and… and…” pulled “Pursuit of Happiness” out of his wig. To give a modern reading: “Life, Liberty, and WTF.”

…And happy with the notion that the meaning of “happiness” has shifted since 1776.

The word did not then have the connotation of “jumping up and down with joy” (even on the bed with Sally Hemings) and certainly not the connotation of “jumping up and down with ironic joy” (Brooklyn vintage clothing store snap-brim fedora find).

Jefferson was familiar with Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (farming with slaves gives you a lot of time to read). Dr. Johnson defined happiness as “state in which the desires are satisfied.” (Okay, okay, jumping up and down on the bed with Sally Hemings after all.)

But Jefferson was also familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man. This is cited by The Oxford English Dictionary in its slightly archaic definition 2 of happiness: “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good.”

One thought on “What Did TJ Mean By “Pursuit of Happiness,” Anyway?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>