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The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness

June 12, 2019

One of the most important philosophical principles expressed in the United States’ Declaration of Independence of 1776 is the idea of God-given, unalienable rights–inherent rights that cannot rightly be taken away from a person without just cause.  The Declaration recognizes that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Primary author of the Declaration Thomas Jefferson and the American Founders included the “pursuit of happiness” in the nation’s founding document because they believed that it was an inherent right of all citizens (and mankind) that stemmed from God and nature.  The Founders also believed that the people’s happiness was a primary purpose of civil government.

The idea of the pursuit of happiness as a natural right emerged in the 1700s among the “moral-sense” philosophers, many of the Scottish Enlightenment, who recognized the innate desire in mankind for good or blessedness versus evil in one’s life.  Scottish Enlightenment thinker Francis Hutcheson had described man’s desire for good as a right to pursue it.  He stated in his 1747 Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy that “the several rights of mankind are…first made known by the natural feelings of their hearts, and their natural desires, pursuing such things as tend to the good of each individual or those dependent on him, and recommending to all certain virtuous offices.”[1]  Swiss theorist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, aligning with such Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, saw mankind’s universal desire for good or blessedness versus evil in life as a desire for happiness.  Consequently, he was the first philosopher to articulate the pursuit of happiness as a God-given, natural human right.  As all desire happiness, he asserted in his 1748 Principles of Natural Law, all have a natural, God-given right to pursue and acquire happiness.  He explains,

God, by creating us, proposed our preservation, perfection, and happiness.  This is what manifestly appears by the faculties with which man is enriched (which all tend to the same end) as well as by the strong inclination that prompts us to pursue good and shun evil.  God is therefore willing that everyone should labor for his own preservation and perfection in order to acquire all the happiness of which he is capable according to his nature and state.[2]

English jurist William Blackstone and German jurist Samuel Pufendorf more specifically believed that a person’s happiness is found in his or her relationship with God, in honoring and living by God’s universal moral law, the Law of Nature and God, which tells us that man should love and respect God and others, harm no one, live honestly, and render to everyone his due.  Man’s obedience to God’s moral law, they essentially held, gives him a sense of well-being.  In his 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone states that God has “so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former.  If the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter.”[3]  Blackstone basically aligned with Pufendorf on the matter.  Pufendorf states in his 1703 Of the Law of Nature and Nations that “by order of the Divine Providence it so falls out, that by a natural consequence our happiness flows from such actions as are agreeable to the Law of Nature, and our misery from such as are repugnant to it.”[4]

Many moral-sense philosophers further believed that a primary goal of civil government is the people’s happiness.  Hutcheson writes, for example, “As the end [goal] of all civil power is acknowledged by all to be the safety and happiness of the whole body [of the people], any power not naturally conducive to this end is unjust.”[5]

Many early Americans and American Founders aligned with these moral-sense thinkers.  They upheld the pursuit of happiness as a natural human right, and the people’s happiness as an aim of civil government.  What is more, many Americans viewed happiness as a moral or spiritual pursuit, relating to matters not only secular and temporal but also divine and eternal.

American Founder and U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law, asserted that because God created man out of His goodness and goodwill and has given mankind a natural desire for happiness, man therefore has a natural right to pursue happiness, given that it does not violate the rights of others.  He expounds, … 

Wilson further observed that the American cause for independence from Britain, and the general aim of civil government was the people’s happiness.  Citing Burlamaqui and Blackstone, he affirmed in his 1774 Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament that government is created to increase citizens’ happiness according to the Law of Nature.  Wilson elaborates, … 

American Founder Thomas Jefferson drew from Burlamaqui’s idea of happiness as a natural right, leading to Jefferson’s inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration.  Jefferson also agreed that the gauge of a government’s legitimacy was the people’s happiness.  A state that does not support citizens’ liberties and society’s good and so deprives them of happiness, he thought, operates contrary to its aim and authority.  Jefferson thus further writes in the Declaration,

That to secure these rights [of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, & organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The American Founders believed that the pursuit of happiness was a God-given, natural, unalienable right of human beings based on the Law of Nature and Nature’s God.  They further believed that the people’s happiness was an important aim of civil government.  They recognized that while the government could not guarantee the acquiring of personal happiness among citizens, it could avoid creating hindrances to pursuing it.  Moreover, many early Americans likely understood the pursuit of happiness as a moral or spiritual pursuit, not so much a hedonistic one—with an awareness that man’s well-being comes from honoring God and His moral law.  Indeed, many early Americans likely had in mind not only an earthly, temporal happiness but an eternal, spiritual one.  In his 1801 presidential Inaugural Address, for example, Jefferson acknowledges the existence of both temporal and eternal happiness which man may pursue:  “Let us with courage and confidence pursue our own federal and republican principles, our attachment to our union and representative government, …acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence which…proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”[8]  Indeed, the right to pursue happiness likely held rich philosophical, religious, and spiritual meaning for many Americans.

[1]  Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy:  In Three Parts, Containing the Elements of Ethicks and the Law of Nature, bk. 2 (Dublin:  Printed by William McKenzie, 1787), 96.

[2]  Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Natural Law, in Which the True Systems of Morality and Civil Government Are Established, 1748, pt. 2, trans. Thomas Nugent (London: Printed for J. Nourse, 1748), ch. 4, 161.

[3]  William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries in Five Volumes, ed. George Tucker (Union, NJ:  Lawbook Exchange, 1996, 2008), 40.

[4]  Samuel Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, Eight Books, 1703, 2nd ed., English ed., ed. Jean Barbeyrac, trans. Basil Kennett (Oxford:  Printed by L. Lichfield for A. and J. Churchil, 1710), bk. 2, ch. 3, 117.

[5]  Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy:  In Three Parts, Containing the Elements of Ethicks and the Law of Nature, bk. 2 (Dublin:  Printed by William McKenzie, 1787), 238.

[6]  James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, vol. 1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 309.

[7]  James Wilson, Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, 1774, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, vol. 3, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed for Bronson and Chauncey at Lorenzo Press, 1804), 205-207.

[8]  Thomas Jefferson, Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801, in The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, From 1789 to 1839 (New York:  McLean & Taylor, 1839), 90.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
2.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God

5.  Great Awakening Principle:  Happiness
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
7.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
8.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
9.  The American Quest for Self-Government
10.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God over Man
11.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom for His People
12.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
13.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
14.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
15.  Self-Evident Truth:  Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence
16.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
17.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways
18.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
19.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
20.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 4:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 252, 362-365.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Declaration of Independence…. (may be continued from part 1 of this unit)

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the Declaration of Independence” handout and, as desired, relevant articles on The Founding Blog and relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout.  (The Miracle book is dense, high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class.  You may wish to project some text on-screen.  Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed.  The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text and excerpts.)  After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout.  Discuss.  This reading or portions of this reading may be done in either the first or second part of this unit as the teacher finds appropriate.  Review questions are also found in Chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text, p. 240.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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