Saturday, July 5, 2008

Declaration! The Pursuit of Happiness

This is the last in a series of three posts I have been writing about the Declaration of Independence. The insights in the posts are taken from discussions we've had here at Los Pecos Homeschool that have been refined by me to bring out the important point that we arrived at from our reading and discussion of the text of the Declaration, as well as other primary and secondary sources used to aid our understanding. The first two posts can be found by clicking The Crimes of the King (1st post) and Governments Instituted Among Men (2nd post).

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson penned this famous phrase:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The rights to life and liberty are somewhat self-explanatory, and led to specific ennumerated rights in the first ten ammendments to the Constitution. The right to life, for example, involves the right to keep and bear arms in order to defend that right on the individual level as well as the national level. Certain rights to due process are extended as well, so that the state may not take a person's life for less than a grave offense (usually involving murder in the first degree) and with more than the usual safeguards. Thus the lengthy process of appeals for criminals facing execution.

The right to liberty mentioned in the Declaration also led to specific ennumerated rights in the Bill of Rights mostly related to due process. For example, and the right to freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, as well as the right to refrain from self-incrimination. All of these rights protect the citizen from a restriction of liberty at government hands.

But the pursuit of happiness is particularly interesting because it is less rigourously defined nor is it usually directly connected to certain liberties ennumerated in the Bill of Rights, although it can be, as we shall see.

The origins of the phrase are thought to be a paraphrase of John Locke's statement that "no one ought to harm another in his life,...liberty, or possessions." Elsewhere, Locke thought of the rights as "life, liberty and estate (property)," and these are indeed the rights that ennumerated in the Constitution and ostensibly protected by the United States Code of Law.

Some historians believe that the phrase "pursuit of happiness" was introduced to replace the term "property" because of the argument over slavery that was ongoing from the very beginning of the American experiment.

However, the concept of a right to the pursuit of happiness also has its own intellectual pedigree in the English Enlightenment tradition. The concept that an individual should pursue what he or she deems to be good in life is a revolutionary idea that reinforces the value of each individual life, and the unique makeup thereof. Happiness has no universal definition; rather each person is the arbiter of what it means. Therefore, the right to pursue of happiness includes but is not limited to the right to property. It also includes the right to individual choice in vocation and manner of life for each person, limited only by the restriction on the violation of the rights of others. (Slavery was a clear violation of the right to pursuit of happiness, and the founders knew it, and this expression of the right was incompatible with it. Sadly, it still took nearly 90 years more to settle the argument and longer to enact the 14th ammendment).

Thus the ennumerated Constitutional rights to freedom of speech, press, religion, and public assembly may be derived from Jefferson's right to the pursuit of happiness, as well as the protections placed on the ownership of property that guarrantee that citizens have freedom of movement and the freedom to choose where and how to live and work. All of these choices define individual assessments of what it takes to live the good life.

Courts have referenced the right to pursuit of happiness in several court decisions: one that upheld the right of a citizen to choice of vocation (Butcher's Union v. Crescent City, 1884), the right to privacy via the 14th ammendment (Meyer v. Nebraska, 1923), and the right to marry as one chooses (Loving v. Virginia, 1967). This last struck down anti-miscegnation laws as unconstitutional. If the courts are true to precedent, it is likely that this same argument can and will be used to strike down laws prohibiting legal unions between gays.

What is so politically revolutionary about stating such a right in the Declaration of Independence is that it is a radical change in philosophy. Previous to the English Enlightenment, an individual in the west was subject to the king, church, and state; his life was to be lived in service to these entities, and his personal happiness and choices were to be sacrificed to these higher powers. The idea that a human being is property of the state or of society still exists in socialist, communist, and theocratic states. Such slavery is incompatible with American ideals.

The founding of the United States as a servant government via the Enlightenment philosophy of individual rights turned the idea that a human being lives for the state on its head. The statement in the Declaration of Independence "...that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" encoded the idea that government is the servant to the citizen and not his master is truly revolutionary. And like all such ideas, did not come to immediate fruition. The emancipation of slaves, the emancipation of women to live as full and equal citizens, and further work to ensure the freedom of all citizens to pursue the good life was and is ongoing.

As Americans, we are free to make our own choices as to how to pursue what we personally deem to be the good life. No one may dictate for us what that should be or how we should pursue it. The restriction we place upon ourselves to this purpose is that we may not dictate by coercive force how others among us choose to do so, nor may we violate the rights of others in our pursuits.

Photo Credits: 1) Declaration of Independence Image taken from Engraved version by William Stone, 1836.
2) Sailor aboard USS Constitution in Period Dress. E.Levin, July 2004.
3) Patriot, Living Historian, Boston Common, E. Levin, July 2004.


Amie said...

Great post (as always). I think "pursuit of happiness" is a brilliant phrase and I do think it was quite a revolutionary idea at the time.


Brother David Steindl-Rast :

Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy -- because we will always want to have something else or something more.I have liked your blog. I will come again to your site. Keep it up!

Miriam said...

Something further to mention is that the founders were deeply religious and when they wrote "the pursuit of happiness" it must be understood that the pursuit was to be kept within context of Almighty God's laws. The pursuit of happiness didn't mean you could do whatever you wanted. That point seems to be lost on today's culture.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

No, the Enlightenment idea of the pursuit of happiness means that a person can do what he or she deems good for his or her own life, so long as those actions DO NOT VIOLATE the rights of others to life, liberty and property/pursuit of happiness.

Although the founders understood the need for a virtuous and moral society in order to maintain liberty, they also understood the terrible violation of human liberty often done in the name of establishing particular religions. Therefore, in the United States, there is no established religion, and people are not forced to subscribe to or finacially support a particular religion.
This is an important point, because too many conservatives seem to want to establish their particular (Christian) religious confession.

This is one reason why I am not Conservative. Rather, I am libertarian.

Miriam said...

If you will allow me, I have split my response into two entries, here is the first:

The “Enlightenment Idea” of not violating the rights of others is simply a Judeo-Christian value that has been renamed to sound more humanistic and secular. The full sentence in the Declaration of Independence reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our Creator endows us with rights that He expects us to exercise within His laws, the founders were well aware of this, that is why they made the point that these rights come from God. (Notice the Declaration also refers to “Nature’s God” and “Divine Providence”) They certainly weren’t trying to avoid religion in this document. So the next question is: what God are they referring to? Go to Art. I, Sec. 7 of the US Constitution and find the sentence that begins “If any Bill shall not… (Sundays excepted)…” Why take Sunday off? Because they were Christian and believed in the God of Christ. Otherwise it would have been Saturday (for the Jewish), Friday (for the Muslim) or any other day (for atheists, Buddists, etc.). Further evidence is in Art. VII where the Constitution closes with “in the Year of our Lord,” a specific reference to Christ. (referring to the dating using B.C. “Before Christ” and A.D. “anno Domini” which means “year of our Lord”).

While it is true that the founders were fearful of the potential interference by the federal government in its ability to place restrictions on the free exercise of the Christian religion (which they experienced first hand under British rule), it is totally false to assume they did not want the nation to retain any attachment to it. Specifics of the religion were to be left up to the states. The Christian religion is inherently assumed and implicitly present in the Constitution and obvious in MANY official documents across the US both then and now: Consider the state constitution of Massachusetts “Part the First” Art. II claims it is “the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to Worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator, and Preserver of the universe.” Which God? Read down through Art. III—the one worshipped by Protestants. Or more specifically see “Part the Second” Ch.II, Sec.I, Art.II, where it requires the governor to “declare himself to be of the Christian religion.” 7 of the 12 original states explicitly required office holders to be of the Protestant religion. Overall, every single one of the states enacted constitutional acknowledgement of the one religion of Christianity.

The founders recognized that you can’t force people to believe in the Christian religion, but they had to abide by laws based in it. Take for example homosexuality, where I personally believe that this behavior does in fact violate the rights of others (especially when viewing its effects on society as a whole), many people in today’s culture would disagree vehemently, claiming the behavior is harmless to others. However, all of the original colonies treated it as a criminal offense, as did all 50 states in the coming years. Some even made it punishable by death. This was due to their Judeo-Christian values.

Miriam said...

“Although the founders understood the need for a virtuous and moral society in order to maintain liberty, they also understood the terrible violation of human liberty often done in the name of establishing particular religions.” I agree with you except that they were mainly afraid of establishing a particular sect of Christianity which is evidenced: George Mason, a member of the Constitutional Convention and recognized as `The Father of the Bill of Rights', submitted this proposal for the wording of the First Amendment: `All men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular sect or society of Christians ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.' (Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason [New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1892,] Vol I, p. 244.) Thus the context of their discussion.

“This is an important point, because too many conservatives seem to want to establish their particular (Christian) religious confession.” Christians don’t want the government to force people to believe in the Christian religion, but they do want it to abide by Christian values, just as the founders did:
"It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible" President George Washington, September 17th, 1796
"The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His Apostles.... This is genuine Christianity and to this we owe our free constitutions of government."Noah Webster
"The reason that Christianity is the best friend of Government is because Christianity is the only religion that changes the heart." President Thomas Jefferson
"The highest story of the American Revolution is this: it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity." President John Adams
"Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers. And it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest, of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." First Chief Justice of Supreme Court John Jay
"We've staked the whole future of American civilization not on the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us . . . to Govern ourselves according to the commandments of God. The future and success of America is not in this Constitution, but in the laws of God upon which this Constitution is founded." President James Madison
"The Bible is the Rock on which this Republic rests." President Andrew Jackson
"Our laws and institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teaching of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that is should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian . . . this is a Christian nation." US Supreme Court, 1892

The quotes I could reference are seemingly limitless. Whether one likes it or not, this nation began as a Christian nation. Yet, it was a nation that welcomed people of all backgrounds, but expected them to abide by laws based in Judeo-Christian values.

I avoid party labels as they are both divisive and a hindrance to honest debate. I am simply a Christian who votes based on Christian values. For this topic I recommend the book “The Silencing of God: The Dismantling of America’s Christian Heritage” by Dave Miller, Ph.D. I’m not asking you to believe in Christ, though of course I believe it would be good, what I’m asking is that you review the plethora of evidence that this nation was founded with Christianity at the forefront of importance. The Christian history of our nation has been ignored in history classrooms for the last 50 years and what is contained in this book, and others like it, will completely surprise you. The quest for balanced knowledge is paramount in our current times. Thank you for “hearing” me out. I will leave this as my last response. God Bless you!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I look forward to any comments that are made thoughtfully, whether the commenter agrees with me or not.

Thoughts on Part 1 Comment:
You and I do not differ on our understanding of the history of the founding of this country, but we do disagree about the full expression of the philosophy under which it was founded. Certainly, I understand that the Enlightenment values of which I speak are Western, and were heavily influenced Christianity. (I do not accept that there is anything called "Judeo-Christian", being a Jew, I am well aware of great differences between Christian universalism and Jewish particularism . . . but's that's another discussion. Christians, being the dominant religion in the culture are often blind to these differences).

The Constitution, in the First Amendment forbids the establishment of any particular religion. Although the predominantly Christian founding fathers believed that their own cherished beliefs were right and correct, enough of them had also seen the great strife in Europe caused by religious warfare to want to prevent that on our shores. That the Constitution recognizes the predominant dating system of the West does not imply the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the United States. That the Constitution recognizes the Sabbath day customs of the vast majority of citizens at that time, also does not imply the establishment of any religion. The Bill of Rights ennumerates certain individual rights.

With respect to your comment about homosexuality, all such laws have been enventually struck down as unconstitutional, and with good reason. Society is not a human being, and has no particular interest. Society is a collection of individual human beings, each of whom has his or her own interests. Each individual has the right to pursue those interests so long as she does not violate the individual rights of others. If you do not like homosexuals, you are free not to live among them. And they are equally free to disdain you. What you are not free to do is force them to see things your way.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson very deliberately set about to use the much more generic term 'Creator' than to use words that would imply adherence to any sectarian confession in order to make his words as broadly interpretable as possible