Next week is the 4th of July, a day we honor our declaration of freedom to pursue happiness, if not outright attain it.
Just one question: What is this happiness we are told we can pursue?
Time’s cover story this week considers whether the Founding Fathers’ view of the word is the same as the accepted definition today — whatever that is.
Much is often made of the fact that Jefferson inserted “the pursuit of happiness” in place of “property” from earlier formulations of fundamental rights. Yet property and prosperity are essential to the Jeffersonian pursuit, for economic progress has long proven a precursor of political and social liberty. As Jefferson’s friend and neighbor James Madison would say, the test is one of balance and proportion. More often than not, Americans have managed to find that balance.
We must, therefore, be doing something right. The genius of the American experiment is the nation’s capacity to create hope in a world suffused with fear. And while we are too often more concerned with our own temporary feelings of happiness than we are with the common good, we still believe, with Jefferson, that governments are instituted to enable us to live our lives as we wish, enjoying innate liberties and freely enjoying the right to pursue happiness, which was in many ways the acme of Enlightenment ambitions for the role of politics. For Jefferson and his contemporaries — and, thankfully, for most of their successors in positions of ultimate authority — the point of public life was to enable human creativity and ingenuity and possibility, not to constrict it.
It’s a good article worth reading here, but invites our individual noodling: What’s happiness?