No other few words in American history are more well-known and iconic than the phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “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” (492). Recognized by some as one of the most eloquent and influential sentences in the history American text, Thomas Jefferson’s words have stuck with us for more than two centuries and we still don’t have a clear definition of what these “unalienable rights” truly mean. While many usually can agree on the meanings of life and liberty, happiness on the other hand has long been a matter of discourse. As Americans embark into a new ideal of American life, it's worth contemplating about what this indefinable phrase really means. Though our nation’s founding document states that we are given these rights, what did Jefferson really mean by the pursuit of happiness? Is happiness truly attainable? And more importantly what is the meaning for us today?
The statement issued by Congress on July 4, 1776, as America split bonds with Britain and embarked on a path of Independence, has become a distinctive American concept. In the forming of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson is said to have taken from John Locke's Second Treatise of Government which notes "life, liberty, and estate" and “lives, liberties, and fortunes” replacing the third term for happiness. “In any case, it can hardly be doubted that for many Americans—Jefferson included—property in the eighteenth century was a value associated with the pursuit of happiness, taking its place alongside life, liberty, and
security as basic rights that merited government protection” (McMahon 56). Jefferson might as well have left Locke’s words as is. Today many Americans still find the pursuit of happiness synonymous to “estate” and “fortunes.” The pursuit of happiness has been left up to the free market. Americans are typically responsible for their own happiness and well being. Johan Norberg noted “…government can't give us happiness, it can only give us the right to pursue happiness—because happiness is what we get when we are in control and assume responsibility ourselves” (13).
But did our founding fathers promise us happiness? By examine the phrase you can see the misconceptions that has us so confused and in constant race to meet this unattainable goal. The word “pursuit” is what makes clarifies it all. McMahon’s article “The Market and the Pursuit of Happiness” gives an in depth look at the meaning of the word:
The first thing to note is that the word “pursuit” is interesting in itself. In the English language of Locke, like that of Jefferson, the word had a harder meaning than it does today. It retained, as Garry Wills has pointed out, a close link with its cognates, “prosecute” and “persecute,” leading Dr. Johnson to list the word in his...