Another Look At Those “Unalienable Rights”
The Declaration of Independence says that the Creator has endowed us with “unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The sentence is memorable, in fact is among the most remembered sentences in the English language. Usually the phrase “pursuit of happiness” is attributed to the philosopher John Locke, a British philosopher. Locke is credited with developing the theory of social contracts based on experience that underlies so much of early American political thought and, specifically, the Declaration and the Constitution.
In his 1978 book Inventing America, however, Garry Wills argued that the phrase has to do with the pursuit not of individual happiness (as if pleasure were our goal), but with the pursuit of the corporate good. Wills thus locates the phrase under what we might call public virtue, and traces it to the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson, for whom the “moral sense” was the most important of our senses, and our chief guide for life. We know that Hutcheson was highly regarded in 18th century America.
Whether or not Garry Wills made his case thoroughly, the phrase remains associated with the notion that we have the right to pursue happiness, but this happiness is not the same as the accumulation of goods or property – a point on which both Franklin and Jefferson seem to have agreed. Happiness may thus consist, on one hand, in the delight the mind takes in seeking truth and sensible, reasonable ideas; on the other hand, happiness may also consist in the delight we take in helping and aiding others. Both of these ideas about the meaning of happiness were swirling about in the period when the Declaration was written.
When it came to matters of religion, the framers of the Constitution wisely thought that religion and politics should each have a sphere of influence. This meant primarily for Jefferson that the state should not interfere in religion, which he considered a private matter, and which we might see as the pursuit of happiness in the realm of ideas and ethics. For Jefferson, one of our great early intellectuals, this included the comparative study of religions and the editing and shaping of his own peculiar text of the New Testament. His very words are reflected in First Amendment wording: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The establishment of religion was well known by the Framers of the Declaration and the Constitution. To a man they were familiar with the situation in England, where one Church was “established,” and all others were considered “non-Conformist” at best, and often proscribed. Since the Framers thought the broadest possible approach to religious truth supported the “pursuit of happiness,’” and since they had seen the oppression that the establishment of religion caused, they were eager to carve a new pathway in the new world.
The phrase “separation of church and state,” by the way, is found nowhere in the Constitution and was not formally recognized as a principle until 1947, almost 200 years after the Constitution was put forth. Franklin Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” were freedom of speech, from want, for religion, and from fear. His list may have hastened consideration of the separation of church and state; they certainly had to do with subsequent social programming.
On those weekends when we annually pay homage to our Independence, and we recall that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom,” we have to thank the founding Fathers for their enlightened approach, so that each of us is free to worship God in what way we choose, or to refrain from such worship if it is our desire.
published 01 July 2011