Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: The Story Behind the Phrase

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is one of the most popular phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence. The phrase provides three examples of the “unalienable rights” which, as per the Declaration have been bequeathed to all humans by God and must be protected by the Government at all costs. A lot of speculation and discussion have happened over the origins of this phrase. Let’s find out more.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Origins and Different Hypotheses

How did the phrase originate?

The United States Declaration of Independence was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and then edited by the Committee of Five. That committee was made up of Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Further editing was carried out by the Committee of the Whole of the Second Continental Congress which adopted it on July 4, 1776. The second paragraph of the first article in the Declaration of Independence has the popular phrase  “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Jefferson’s original draft can be found in an exhibition in the Library of Congress. Julian Boyd utilized this version to transcribe Jefferson’s draft. It reads: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” The Committee of Five also worked towards editing Jefferson’s draft. 

Their version survived further edits by the whole Congress intact, and reads as such: “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.”

Scholars are still debating the different sources that influenced Thomas Jefferson to come up with this phrase. The greatest disagreement comes between those who suggest that the phrase was drawn from John Locke and those who identify some other source. Let’s delve into them more deeply.

What is the Lockean roots hypothesis?

In 1689, John Locke used his Two Treatises of Government to argue that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property”. 

According to Locke, “property” consisted of a person’s “life, liberty, and estate”. John Locke wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration, “a magistrate’s power was limited to preserving a person’s civil interest”, which he described as “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things”. Locke also said in his essay Concerning Human Understanding that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.

As per the scholars who saw that Locke’s doctrine had the root of Jefferson’s thought, “Jefferson replaced estate with the pursuit of happiness, although this does not mean that Jefferson meant the pursuit of happiness to refer primarily or exclusively to property. Under such an assumption, the Declaration of Independence would declare that government existed primarily for the reasons Locke gave, and some have extended that line of thinking to support a conception of limited government.”

What is the Virginia Declaration of Rights?

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was penned by George Mason and unanimously adopted by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776. The first and second article of that declaration talks about happiness in the context of recognizably Lockean rights and is paradigmatic of the way in which “the fundamental natural rights of mankind” were expressed at the time: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Benjamin Franklin agreed with Thomas Jefferson as far as downplaying the Government’s role in the protection of “property”. Franklin perceived property to be a “creature of society” and thus, he believed that it should be taxed as a way to finance civil society.

What are some of the other alleged sources of the phrase?

In 1628, Sir Edward Coke opined in The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England, that “It is commonly said that three things be favoured in Law, Life, Liberty, Dower.” As per common law, dower was closely guarded as a means by which the widow and orphan of a deceased landowner had the right to retain the property.

Garry Wills argued that Jefferson didn’t borrow the phrase from Locke and it was just meant to be a standard by which governments should be judged. According to Willis, Adam Ferguson was a more likely  guide to what Jefferson had in his mind:

“If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.”

According to Richard Cumberland, a noted 17th-century cleric and philosopher, promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness”. Meanwhile, John Locke never drew any relation between happiness and natural rights. However, Locke’s philosophical opponent, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz did go on to make this association during the introduction for his work Codex Iuris Gentium. William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated described the “truest definition” of “natural religion” as being “The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth”.

1763’s Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law extolled the “noble pursuit” of “true and solid happiness” in the opening chapter that discussed natural rights. According to noted historian Jack Rakove, Burlamaqui’s words were the inspiration for Jefferson’s phrase.

Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England published between 1765 and 1769, which are often cited in the laws of the United States, are also rumoured to be a source of Jefferson’s phrase. 

According to Blackstone, God ‘has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.” This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.’

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