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In Pursuit

In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed much from English philosopher John Locke. Although it appears without citation, Locke’s influence shows in both the overall approach and specific wording of the Declaration. See also John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690. The core of Locke’s Natural Rights philosophy was the natural right of each individual to life, liberty, and property. Early in the Declaration, Jefferson stated that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are among the “certain unalienable Rights” with which the “Creator” endowed people. Reading the Declaration today, with the Lockean influence well-recognized, it is easy to assume that Jefferson merely was covering his tracks a bit, adding a touch of rhetorical flair and whimsy, or at least avoiding direct and obvious plagiarism by swapping “property” for “the pursuit of Happiness.” (Perhaps my own Hamiltonian sensibilities also served to make it easier for me to arrive that this baser conclusion, but I don’t think so.) Looking at the two writings together and applying ordinary tools of textual interpretation suggests a different result, however. The alternative view is that “the pursuit of Happiness” is not at best a tuft of throwaway fluff, but rather a conscious and meaningful modification of Locke’s original triplet. Looking backwards through time– my first, longstanding approach– we might conclude that “the pursuit of Happiness” means “property” and thus it is through property (and a natural or unalienable right to it) that we might and should pursue happiness. Looking forward through time– the new view I’m suggesting here– we might conclude that “the pursuit of Happiness” means something different or more than “property.” Property could still be a part of it, and one’s home and land could be a great place to develop one’s good life, but it is more than the enforcement of property rights. In some instances, “the pursuit of Happiness” may even be contrary to certain property rights regimes.

Ken Burns at the Chautauqua Amphitheater, Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Furthermore, Jefferson did not substitute “Happiness” in place of “property,”  but rather “the pursuit of Happiness,” which places the focus not on the capitalized word (“Happiness”) but on the central action of the phrase: “the pursuit.” On this view, what Jefferson wanted to emphasize was something ongoing and never completed. It is the journey, the climb, the quest, the striving that must continue, rather than something static like property. In two lectures this week at the Chautauqua Institution, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (Brooklyn Bridge, The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea) illuminated this Jeffersonian vision with passing mention to his eponymous documentary on our third president and with application to the Chautauquan week’s substantive theme, sacred space.

Burns’ work has centered on American people, places, and events, and even if he finds the internal contradictions in Jefferson’s life glaring and impossible to ignore, he seems to have taken to heart Jefferson’s aspirational, ongoing directive to be always in pursuit of happiness. Jefferson had a revolutionary outlook (“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”), but even those with more conservative attitudes can live always “in pursuit.” This need not be the sort of opportunity cost-driven lifestyle I described earlier, see supra here, in which we can never sit still because each moment is a moment we could be spending making money, developing professional contacts, or inventing Velcro II. Instead, we can maintain a posture in which we are never completely satisfied with the status quo because we know we can do better, as individuals and as a community. The view that we can always improve– in how we treat other people (at home and abroad), other living things, our (natural and built) environment, and our sacred spaces— strikes me as appropriately American: American in that the notion of living always “in pursuit” has Jeffersonian roots in the Declaration and that it speaks to a people always striving to be the best at whatever they do; appropriate, in that the approach is not imperial or domineering, suggesting self and internal improvement rather than external subjugation of others. Jefferson was an idealist (a Hamiltonian knows this if anyone does), but by building into the Declaration a kind of practical idealism, he instituted something to be done, not merely to be pondered under a shady tree.

To continue the pursuit is to continue to validate the Declaration, to continue to declare and protect independence. In other words, the pursuit really is not optional. First, the language of the Declaration places the pursuit of happiness among the core of the unalienable rights that come from the creator, as mentioned above. Surely there is no independence where unalienable rights are violated. Second, there is an American sense of collective individual responsibility. Our country is a project, and we all bear some modicum of responsibility for the furtherance and sustenance of the project. President Abraham Lincoln knew both of America’s greatness and that it could be its own worst enemy. In a statement Burns quoted more than once this week, Lincoln said:

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.

Burns has studied human, American struggles, achievements, lives, and events from many perspectives. His films, and of equal validity, our own experiences and those we share with others, provide windows on opportunities for all of us to continue our pursuit.

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