The Pursuit of Happiness

I like to tell my students that Pope Leo XIII was more American than Thomas Jefferson.  When Jefferson had his chance to state the foundational principles of American self-government, he wrote: “all men are created equal, [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

You may know from American history that the triad of natural rights most frequently cited among the colonists was, rather, life, liberty, and property.  This formula was something of a mantra, used by pastors and pamphleteers. It has puzzled historians since 1776 that Jefferson replaced the third of these with the odd-sounding “pursuit of happiness.”

On the other hand, when Leo XIII set down the foundational principles of Catholic social doctrine in Rerum Novarum (1891), he begins with and gives most of his attention to a defense of the natural right to private property.

What of this “natural right to pursue happiness,” then? Can we endorse it as Catholic patriots? Or is it perhaps an incipient “individualism” which was ultimately to prove the undoing of the American project so that, as some have dismally argued, “liberalism is dead”?

I can’t engage in detailed historical scholarship here. But I will point out that although most other phrases in those opening lines of the Declaration were tweaked by Jefferson, in earlier drafts and in response to comments by others, this phrase “pursuit of happiness” went unchallenged.  It was apparently acceptable to all.  To me, this implies that it was taken to express something obvious and uncontroversial.

Scholars have looked for precedents in other founders such as George Mason, passages from John Locke, and the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers. But if we are looking for meanings that are obvious and uncontroversial, we must look to ordinary usage, not philosophical sources.

And Jefferson is revealing, when he refers about happiness by-the-by, for instance:  “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” (Notes on Virginia).

Or consider this advice to a friend: “Be assiduous in learning, take much exercise for your health, and practice much virtue.  Health, learning, and virtue will insure your happiness; they will give you a quiet conscience, private esteem, and public honor.  Beyond these, we want nothing but physical necessities, and they are easily obtained.” Good conscience and a virtuous freedom are essential to happiness, for Jefferson.


As a classical scholar, I can say that Jefferson is putting forward a recognizably classical understanding of happiness, as the exercise of virtue, mainly in private life, which requires little wealth. It is the same conception of happiness as in Aristotle, Cicero, and Boethius.  The “right to the pursuit of happiness” becomes, then, the right to act virtuously and with a good conscience.  Indeed, “without virtue,” Jefferson wrote to Amos Cook, “happiness cannot be.”

We perhaps find a clue as to why Jefferson might regard the “natural right to private property” as, in contrast, something secondary, in his austere understanding of the role of material possessions in genuine happiness: “It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquillity and occupation, which give happiness.” (letter to Mrs. A.S. Marks).  His agrarian fellows, of course, would not have found such an ordering at all controversial.

Besides austerity, one finds a strong emphasis on the sufficiency of the  “domestic” happiness of family life.  His comments on Dabney Carr as a young father could just as well be made about the “moms at Mass” I see every day”:

This friend of ours, in a very small house, with a table, half a dozen chairs, and one or two servants, is the happiest man in the universe. . . .He speaks, thinks, and dreams of nothing but his young son.  Every incident in life he so takes as to render it a source of pleasure.  With as much benevolence as the heart of man will hold, but with an utter neglect of the costly apparatus of life, he exhibits to the world a new phenomenon in philosophy – the Samian sage in the tub of a cynic.

By “the Samian sage” the erudite Jefferson means Pythagoras of Samos, with his capacity to see eternal mathematical principles in ordinary realities.  And he is using “cynic” in the precise sense of one of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, namely, those who imitated Socrates’ fabled austerity in food and clothing.

Among the natural rights, it is the “natural right to private property” that seems to require the most government intervention – another reason to demote it.  Given Jefferson’s esteem for simple and domestic happiness, he was doubtful of government’s ability to contribute positively to happiness:  “I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government, enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments.”

Perhaps Jefferson’s peers sensed that this concept of a right to pursue happiness, in the classical sense, through freedom to act virtuously, was enough to secure, as well, the right to religious liberty:  it was common ground, then, between them and “minds of peculiar structure. . .under the influence of refined education”, as Washington put it in his Farewell Address.

So, can Catholics endorse the natural right to the pursuit of happiness in this sense?  I say: we’d do well to start.

“Happiness,” like “liberty” and “freedom,” is an essentially contested concept. We are far from being in a position peremptorily to declare the Founders misguided.  It’s the reverse, I think: they are generally better than we are, and it is we who, in this respect, have much to learn from them.  As for the Church, it should inspire us to commit ourselves anew to what is best in the American tradition, with its wise reminder that Usus non tollit usum. (“Abuse does not take away use.”)


*Image: The Copley Family by John Singleton Copley, 1776-77 [National Gallery, Washington, DC]

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall S.J.’s Politics and Truth

George J. Marlin’s Radical Egalitarianism on the Loose

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.