As you watch fireworks and flip those burgers, take a moment to consider how well you understand the 18th Century meaning of our cherished Declaration of Independence. And if this post makes you say, “Hmm. I didn’t know that,” then commit yourself to giving the entire document a read sometime soon… and perhaps pursuing happiness a little more.
In order to appreciate what our Founding Fathers said – indeed, proclaimed to the world – when they declared American independence, we owe it to them to occasionally delve a little deeper. Seemingly common words in the Declaration which we still use today meant something entirely different to an 18th century man like Thomas Jefferson.
Consider just the phrase “pursuit of happiness”. The modern-day American might be surprised to learn that so simple a set of words has nothing to do with being “happy” as we understand it today.
For Jefferson and his contemporaries, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was understood in the Classical sense, in which happiness meant having the right to participate in democratic governance and society. This weekend, it would not be a surprise to see a play on the same phrase for a special 4th of July holiday weekend deal on buying a new car. Of course, the auto dealer is suggesting that we Americans have the “right” to pursue our happiness, so buy that new SUV! But Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and their contemporaries might roll in their graves at the thought.
US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy explained this often forgotten sense of happiness in his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship. Kennedy noted that while in modern times there is a “hedonistic component” to the definition of happiness, for the framers of the Declaration of Independence “happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.” In the context of the Declaration of Independence, happiness was about an individual’s contribution to society rather than pursuits of self-gratification.
While this sense has largely fallen out of use today, it’s important to keep these connotations of happiness mind when celebrating our nation’s move towards independence.
So enjoy your day off and then commit yourself to the pursuit of happiness. Tom, John and Ben would expect nothing less of you.