The Right – Lite? – to Pursue Happiness

As you already know, the United States Declaration of Independence, which was largely drafted by Thomas Jefferson and adopted on July 4, 1776, states the following:

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.

You might not know that of the unalienable rights, in particular the right to pursue happiness has fueled deliberation, mirth, and ridicule over the years.  And I mean fueled those reactions both in daily, chatting-in-the-street, as well as academic sorts of ways.

For instance, a 1970s children’s televison show,  ”America Rock,” teaches about American history by setting illustrations to music.  Each time the Declaration of Independence and thus the right to pursue happiness is mentioned, we see a male American colonist chasing a female colonist around, like a boss chasing his secretary around the desk in a 1960s television sitcom.  Although I like “America Rock”, I find it bizarre to illustrate the pursuit of happiness by a horny guy chasing billowing skirts. Gets a laugh every time though, even from young children who have at best a tenuous grasp on the meaning of “pursuit.” 

Non-Americans and social scientists deliberate the pursuit of happiness in conversations over drinks and in print.  Over drinks the right to pursue happiness smacks too much of valuing fun.  Maybe things should not be so fun.  (Go read my post “Fun, Un-fun, and Anti-fun”).  Among academics, apparently, there is discussion about the extent to which Jefferson was influenced by John Locke, who wrote that, "the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness," but did not call happiness a “right.”

A more recent interpretation by an historian at Northwestern University holds that one should neither attribute Jefferson’s writing to Locke, nor view it as vapid endorsement of fun, but rather realize that Jefferson more likely was referring to “a public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government.”


When people joke about the pursuit of happiness, I think about my maternal grandmother’s family.  My grandmother’s great grandparents immigrated to Wisconsin from Norway in 1867.  When they arrived in Wisconsin, being poor farmers without yet land to farm, they lived in a sod house on the banks of the Yahara River, south of McFarland (WI).  A sod house means that they dug into the ground and lived in the type of abode described in “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Apparently things like water but also snakes could drop suddenly to the floor from the dirt ceiling. There are still impressions visible in the riverbanks where the sod houses once were, which make me sad, and not happy.

My grandmother’s parents first settled in a tiny log cabin on a farm in Dane County.  My grandmother was born in that tiny cabin.  It is still there.  Here is a picture of it taken a long time ago:

I don’t think I need to add a hammer to the photograph to help you appreciate the size of the house.  By 1896 when my great-grandfather Ole Nelson and his wife Mary bought a farm, there were two little children living there too; my grandmother was the firstborn.  And even though the farm was successful enough, and they sure tried to pursue happiness at least for future generations, tragedy struck the family repeatedly.  The third child, a daughter Sena, died of diphtheria at the age of 9.  The only son, Helmer, died at the age of 22 in World War I, when he stepped on a mine in northern France, three days before the armistice. 

My mother spent part of her life living with her grandparents Ole and Mary.  She remembers that she and her three sisters got about a quart of milk to share among them on a good day, and that they could not afford wooden clarinets to play in band at school.  Theirs were metal.  Although there were many small-town pleasures, there was also poverty and hardship.

“My grandparents and my mother didn’t smile much, you know,” my mother told me recently.  “They were very sad for most of their lives.”

This tale is not unique; it is an immigrant story.  The stories of my paternal grandparents are trivially different in the degree of suffering and lack of smiling. They just happen to be about Germans who settled in a different state.  My paternal grandparents too were trying to assure happiness for their children, and whenever they thought they couldn’t do so, they were sad all over again.  I once picked up a photograph of my paternal grandmother at the time of her wedding.  “Wow, Nanny, this is a beautiful wedding dress.  Do you still have it?  Can I use it too?” I asked.  She shook her head with some blend of humiliation, pain, and confusion, and said, “Oh, honey, we were so poor.  I am sure I had to cut it off to use for your aunt.”   

So, whether Jefferson meant private or public happiness, I suppose that we should read him with thoughtfulness.  The people who scoff at his ideas, or use them out of context, probably are unfamiliar with the various states that are the opposites of happiness.