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They are just three words, imprecise, to say the least, that close the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. This section of the declaration, perhaps the most memorable of the entire document, states «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.” It was remarkable enough for the Founding Fathers to declare the equality of mankind and the sanctity of natural rights, but its closing phrase did something that no government document had ever done, and that’s to state that the pursuit of individual happiness is a right of humankind.
It’s a reference that doesn’t get the consideration it deserves. Consider the seriousness of the men who wrote it and the way they viewed self government: It deserves more thought. These words, contained in an already profound statement regarding individual rights, offer a unique insight into the minds and the vision of the Founding Fathers.
What makes this statement so unique was that happiness, perhaps one of the most challenging notions there is to explain, is up to the individual to define. It isn’t a government responsibility. But it was something every individual had a right to seek on his own. This kind of thinking is indicative of the Enlightenment, the period of awareness and learning that, at its height in the late 18th century, gave rise to such notions as republican government and natural rights. Happiness existed, but since it was changeable, and by its very nature highly unique to each individual, the only thing the government should do is to allow individuals to pursue that goal the best way they could.
It has been argued that the phrase was nothing more than a place holder. However, that’s unlikely. These men weren’t given to throw away phrases. While one of the earlier drafts had said, “life, liberty and property,” at Ben Franklin’s suggestion, and with the ready concurrence of the Declaration Committee’s two other members, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the phrase was changed to include “…the pursuit of happiness.” The Congress debated the declaration for two days. They made dozens of changes, but the reference to happiness remained as it was.
The Declaration of Independence, for all its fame, has no force of law. Many people are surprised at this, but it was not intended to be legislation. Rather, it is a statement of the principles behind the revolution. The Founding Fathers wanted to explain why the colonies were declaring independence. However, while that somewhat imprecise phrase about happiness may not have force of law, it has in the years since 1776, been used to support all sorts of causes where the rights of the individual are in conflict with prevailing notions of society or the law. Often, these three words in speeches on the floor of Congress, in Supreme Court decisions, and debates of all kinds, have helped carry the day in favor of individual rights.
Governments often attempt to try to tell us what will make us happy. However, the Founding Fathers would have readily reminded us that government can’t offer happiness. It simply isn’t possible. What’s more, when it tries, it usually fails. Aside from certain basic functions, sometimes the best course for any government to take in trying to assure the well-being of its citizens, and yes, our personal happiness, is to stay out of our way, and let each of us find it ourselves.
It was a radical concept then, and for many, it still is today.