AMERICA'S FOUNDING DOCUMENTS

When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.~Thomas Jefferson

Most Americans cherish our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Unfortunately, many do not understand the purpose of those documents, and mistakenly believe that although the Declaration is admirable, it was essentially rendered obsolete by the Constitution. It is important that we understand that the Declaration and Constitution are inextricably linked, otherwise, we fail to understand the very nature of our system of government.

The Declaration of Independence, signed by 56 Founders in 1776, claimed the God-given rights of mankind:
Life
Liberty
Pursuit of happiness

We understand the concepts of equality, life, and liberty, but what did the Founders mean by “the pursuit of happiness”? In his 2007 article The Pursuit of Happiness, Daniel Brook stated:
"The eighteenth-century British political philosopher John Locke (ed: Locke lived primarily in the 17th century) wrote that governments are instituted to secure people’s rights to 'life, liberty, and property.' And in 1776, Thomas Jefferson begged to differ. When he penned the Declaration of Independence, ratified on the Fourth of July, he edited out Locke's right to 'property' and substituted his own more broad-minded, distinctly American concept: the right to 'the pursuit of happiness.'"

Rarely do we read any discussion of what “happiness” meant to our Founders, or where their ideas of happiness originated. Many people assume that the “pursuit of happiness” is the effort to have what makes us feel good or satisfied—to be able to do what we want. This, however, is not what the Founders meant when they declared the pursuit of happiness an unalienable right.

To understand the language used by our Founders, it is necessary to remember that many of these men were classically and broadly—if not formally--educated. They read Aristotle and Plato, Locke and Bacon, and studied philosophy, science, metaphysics, mathematics, and ancient and modern history. They would certainly have been familiar with Aristotle’s idea that happiness is “striving one’s utmost under favorable conditions.” Aristotle did not view happiness as a pleasant feeling, but as a behavior bound with right conduct. This idea of happiness—deep satisfaction resulting from hard work and accomplishment—is vastly different than the average young adult who today would define happiness as “a good time.”

As Adler observed, “Both Aristotle and the Declaration use the word happiness in a sense which refers to the quality of a whole human life—what makes it good as a whole, in spite of the fact that we are not having fun or a good time every minute of it.”

Jefferson, author of the Declaration and whose towering intellect is universally acknowledged, was an admirer of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus insisted that nothing should be believed except that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction. In a letter to William Short (October 13, 1819), Jefferson wrote, ”I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” Jefferson summarized the key points of the Epicurean moral doctrine: “Happiness is the aim of life. Virtue the foundation of happiness. Utility the test of virtue….Virtue consists in 1. Prudence 2. Temperance 3. Fortitude 4. Justice.” In short, Jefferson believed that happiness was rooted in wisdom and virtue.

Jefferson certainly was not alone in his understanding of the concept of happiness. In his 1770 essay The False Alarm, Samuel Johnson wrote,
"It is evident, whatever be the cause, that this nation, with all its renown for speculation and for learning, has yet made little proficiency in civil wisdom. We are still so much unacquainted with our own state, and so unskillful in the pursuit of happiness, that we shudder without danger, complain without grievances, and suffer our quiet to be disturbed, and our commerce to be interrupted, by an opposition to the government, raised only by interest, and supported only by clamour, which yet has so far prevailed upon ignorance and timidity, that many favour it, as reasonable, and many dread it, as powerful. (emphasis added)

Locke himself wrote, in his 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding,
"The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases." (emphasis added)

Locke’s position is clear: happiness is not the momentary feeling of pleasure, or the effort to meet a particular desire, but is instead a result of pursuing what is good for us—again, wisdom and virtue, manifested in right conduct.

Happiness, correctly understood, is connected to both individual and civic virtues of wisdom, courage, discipline, and justice. These virtues are necessary for individual pleasure, but individual pleasure is not the goal—in fact, the person whose goal is individual pleasure would be one whom our Founders would consider neither wise nor pursuing happiness, because happiness requires intellectual discrimination. The goal of individual pleasure would more rightly be called hedonism. The pursuit of earthly delights could be called sensualism.

Thus, with the Declaration of Independence, our Founders claimed equality as our state of being, and our rights as a gift from God. They further declared the radical idea that government exists to protect these rights. Whereas Locke supported a government for the people, it was within the context of a ruling class (kings, parliaments, etc.) who must respect the rights of their people/subjects. The aim of such a government was justice. Our Founders, however, believed in self-government—that the people ruled themselves, and government must conform to their ideals, not the other way around. Locke’s ideas would constrain the king to do what is just; in Jefferson’s free society, there is no place for a king.

When America won her independence, the Constitution sealed the purpose of government, based upon the ideals of the Declaration. Because the legitimate purpose of government is to protect the unalienable rights of individuals, the Constitution bound the authority of the federal government to very limited purposes, i.e., protecting the unalienable rights of Americans. Thus, the Founders delineated the purpose of the “more perfect Union”: establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty “to ourselves and our posterity.”

Because the Founders were particularly aware of the ways tyrannical governments usurp the power of the people, the first ten amendments—often referred to as “the Bill of Rights” (although such a term is a misnomer and misunderstands the purpose of the Constitution)—restrained the federal government from particular abuses. The remainder of the document serves as a blueprint of American government—any power not specifically granted to the government does not exist. Therefore, those who believe that a right must be listed in the Constitution in order to exist have it exactly backward—the Government has no power if it is not listed in the Constitution, and has an obligation to protect the inherent rights of Americans—rights given by God, not government. No individual, group, or government has the authority to deny the God-given rights of America’s citizens. The movie The Scarlet Pimpernel eloquently captured this idea when Count DeTourney, threatened with death, responded: “God gave me life and He shall take it away when it pleases Him.”

The purpose of our government is made clear by the Declaration of Independence. The form of our government is established by the Constitution. These founding documents cannot be properly understood if separated from each other. Any law or policy must comply with both documents before it should be considered. Policies must both secure and protect individual liberty, and must be within the authority of the Constitution to be enacted. No individual, group, or government can grant us any right; rather, it is the duty of each of us, through establishing and preserving a just government, to protect the rights of all citizens. This duty begins with demanding our elected and appointed officials respect the remarkable form of government our Founders envisioned, fought and died to establish. We would be wise to remember John Adams admonishment:

"A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is
lost forever."


~Shyla Lefever