The Pursuit of Happiness

Common Sense LogoBy Bob Eschliman


The Founders were men of two minds: the deeply theological, and the deeply philosophical. The two crossed paths in the mid-18th century to light a lamp that still burns today, albeit not with the same intensity it once illuminated the world.

The document that first shown that light, the Declaration of Independence, is a product of the combination of the two because its author, Thomas Jefferson, was a man of both minds. He was a voracious reader, which meant he could quote from John Locke and René Descartes just as easily as he could from Jonathan Edwards or Samuel Johnson.

As a result, there has been much debate over one short phrase in the Declaration: “the pursuit of Happiness.”

More socially liberal scholars attest to the fact that Jefferson, in their mind, ripped off Locke, who — despite many examples that defeat their narrative (both of his parents were Puritans) — wasn’t a particularly religious philosopher. Locke believed the sole purpose of a just government was the protection of the population’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.

Sound kind of familiar?

But, the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration isn’t just about property. The other members of the Committee of Five — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston (negotiated the Louisiana Purchase), and Roger Sherman (the only man to sign the Continental Association, the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution) — which was responsible for drafting the document, agreed with Jefferson that there should be less emphasis on property and more emphasis on happiness.

And for that, we need to turn to Johnson, who is today known as the “Founder of American Philosophy” and was arguably one of the greatest minds of the 18th century in America. Not only was he a pastor and philosopher of great prominence, but he also worked in areas of education, writing a number of encyclopedia and college curricula, and founding King’s College — now known as Columbia University.

In one particular college textbook he authored, titled “Elementa Philosophica,” he wrote: “the Art of pursuing our highest Happiness by the practice of virtue.” Historians estimate about half of the college students in America read the book in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

And three of the five in the Committee of Five were closely connected to Johnson. Franklin was his publisher, and promoted the book. Livingston was a former Johnson student at King’s College. And Sherman had been an apprentice to Johnson’s son, William, who was a lawyer and who later chaired the Committee of Style that drafted the U.S. Constitution.

Often, it is conjectured that Johnson and Locke were somehow polar opposites. And again, historical fact seems to contradict that assertion. In fact, Locke said so himself:

“Actions have their preference, not according to the transient pleasure or pain that accompanies or follows them here, but as they serve to secure that perfect durable happiness hereafter.”

So, when a historian tells you Jefferson meant “property” when he said “pursuit of happiness,” he or she is both right and wrong. When another historian tells you he meant “doing what is right by God,” again he or she is both right and wrong.

What Jefferson was really saying is this: We all have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, but the sole purpose them all is to use them in a manner that glorifies God, because that is only manner by which one can achieve true happiness.

•  •  •

Bob Eschliman is editor of The Iowa Statesman and an award-winning journalist who has been covering government and politics for more than 16 years. He may be contacted at