“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 political right to pursue happiness is one of the truly unique contributions of the Declaration of Independence. Today’s pic of the week post highlights some of the historical sources that have been proposed as the origin of the pursuit of happiness as a political right. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the three self-evident rights that Thomas Jefferson identified in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. With some justification they are thought to be a blend of ideas that Jefferson drew from the English political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke named life, liberty and property as the three fundamental natural rights of mankind in his Second Treatise on Government; the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” came from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding where it was identified as a principle motivator of people’s actions. Meantime, the sweep of Jefferson’s rhetoric owes quite a lot to George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.
But other interpretations of its origin can be found. One source might be the writings of the Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748), whose books were astonishingly popular throughout the eighteenth century. They were known to the founders of the American Republic primarily through English translations that were prepared by Thomas Nugent. A 1752 edition of Nugent’s translation of The Principles of Natural Law is depicted below. Burlamaqui identified the pursuit of happiness as the purpose of all human actions. People are by nature seekers of happiness, from which one can infer a natural right to seek happiness. Burlamaqui writes:
“Natural liberty is the right which nature gives to all mankind, of disposing of their persons and property, after the manner they judge most convenient to their happiness… To this law of nature there is a reciprocal obligation corresponding, by which the law of nature binds all mankind to respect the liberty of other men…” Principles of Politic Law, pg. 15-16.
While this quotation sounds like an expression of modern individualism, Burlamaqui goes on to develop a theory of the civil state that diminishes the autonomy of the citizen quite a lot. He suggests, however, that every political arrangement should be judged according to its success or failure in providing people with the framework under which they are most likely to use their reason to its best purpose and to pursue happiness unimpeded.
Another figure often mentioned in this context is the German enlightenment philosopher Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (1646-1714). Known for his discovery of calculus and for his metaphysical work, Leibniz also wrote voluminously on law and politics. Like Burlamaqui, Leibniz viewed happiness as the core motivation of all human action. Leibniz argued, however, that happiness could only come as a result of the development of the moral life. True and lasting happiness was a result of moral perfection. In his Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus (1693), a major work on international law, Leibniz argues that the entire natural law is derived from the human necessity to pursue happiness understood broadly as the obligation to grow in moral perfection. For those who are so inclined, reading the pursuit of happiness in light of Leibniz can import a pre-liberal understanding of political philosophy into the founding moment of the American experiment.