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.