President Thomas Jefferson’s likeness has a place of honor on Mount Rushmore for his great contributions to the development of the United States and for writing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, especially the sentence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness“
Upon a motion by Richard Henry Lee, the Continental Congress had appointed a committee to write a resolution of independence. Committee members were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman. The actual writing was entrusted to Jefferson; the revisions were made by Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, then by the entire Congress.
The document is based on the Theory of Natural Rights, developed by avant-garde philosophers John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Their rational and secular view of the world was based on general belief in human progress and the ultimate perfectibility of man acting rationally in harmony with the universe. The supreme importance of the individual in the rational organization of society was a major element in The Enlightenment, sometimes called The Age of Reason that transformed Western thought.
These ideas had already been used by the rebellious colonists. The Continental Congress declared in 1774, that “the inhabitants of the English colonies in North America are entitled to Life, Liberty and Property.” Note the word property as a basic right: the colonists were indeed worried about the danger that the British Crown might seize their property by eminent domain or confiscatory taxation.
Nevertheless, “property” was eliminated and “The Pursuit of Happiness” substituted. Property was a specific and measurable asset. Happiness is a general term subject to individual interpretation, various levels of self-consciousness, unachieved desires, and limitless aspirations, more personal than the goals of society.
“Pursuit of Happiness” is not defined in the Declaration nor in the influential commentaries of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers that explained and analyzed the U.S. Constitution as well as the Declaration to the American public. While 18th century thinkers, such as Adam Smith regularly used “moral statements” about the conditions of social classes in economic policies, happiness was not a category, but the Charles Dickens accounts of English poverty did affect policy. It is difficult to think of young Oliver Twist in pursuit of happiness.
Declaring “Property” a basic right put the union of the thirteen colonies in doubt. For the Northern colonies it meant ships and shops and farms, even if some of the ships transported slaves. But for the southern colonies, the prime assets were their slaves, millions of them, the very heart of their assets and wealth of the social organization that made their economic system intensely profitable and put the white plantation owners in absolute control.
We must remember that slavery was the norm during most of human history. The perennial institution of slavery was undermined in the 18th and 19th centuries by the moral attitudes fostered by the “Enlightenment” and by Adam Smith’s argument that free labor made better products at lower cost than slave labor.
The “Pursuit of Happiness” was intended to solve the political problem of keeping the thirteen colonies united, to encourage Enlightenment tendencies while avoiding the national decision about slavery in the United States – another in the series of compromises that would continue until the Emancipation Proclamation.