Our Declaration of Happiness
September 3, 2010 |  by P.J. O’Rourke

American exceptionalism annoys the world. Happiness is the source of annoyance. Other countries are built upon battle, blood, nationality, culture, language, and territory. America is the exception. Our foundation is the pursuit of happiness. It appears in the first sentence of our Declaration of Independence—the one novel feature of the document, coming as something of a surprise after the predictable boilerplate calls for Life and Liberty.

We can examine mankind’s other covenants, conventions, protocols, compacts, and concordances and not find happiness. No talk of happiness appears in England’s Magna Carta or the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. The constitution that was proposed for the European Union never addressed happiness, although, at 485 pages, it addressed practically everything else including regulatory specifications for “edible meat offal.” In the New Testament happiness is mentioned just seven times and never in a happy context. Jesus is quoted as saying the word “happy” only once, on the occasion of washing his disciples’ feet. We admire the Son of Man, but we sons of a gun who populate America do not pursue our happiness in this manner.

The United States is the first—and so far only—among happy nations. Not that Americans are necessarily happy at any given moment. But the Declaration of Independence reads, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” not, “Life, Liberty, and YIPPEE!” Perhaps Jefferson chose to insert “the pursuit of” before “happiness” to remind us of what happens to the poor devils who, in their pursuit of happiness, catch the thing. America’s legion of former minor reality television stars can tell the story.

But what’s happiness doing in the Declaration of Independence anyway? The original phrase is “Lives, Liberties, and Estates,” a brief catalog of man’s natural, inherent rights that appears several times in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. When Jefferson drafted the Declaration he was referring directly to Locke’s statement that men are “willing to joyn in Society . . . for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties, and Estates, which I call by the general name Property.” Every educated person understood the reference and many must have wondered about Jefferson’s substitution of laughter for valuable possessions.

It may have been a matter of definition. Locke died in 1704, when “Estates” was still synonymous with land and land was still synonymous with riches. Until Adam Smith succeeded in improving the understanding of economics (if he ever did), land was considered the only ultimate source of profit.

The Declaration was written by Jefferson, but it was revised by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson was a man of property in the sense of land and chattel (of animal and other kinds). But Adams, although a farmer, had no Jeffersonian vision of America as a pure, agrarian society. Perhaps this was because Adams, unlike Jefferson, made a living from his farm. Franklin understood that trade, manufacture, and finance would be as significant to America as “real” estate. And Franklin had an interest in a type of ownership different from a land title—what we would call intellectual property. Yet we can understand why, for reasons of tact, the rights in the Declaration of Independence weren’t listed as “Life, Liberty, and Stinking Wealth.”

Roger Pilon, constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute, believes that Jefferson also detected a flaw in the logic of Locke’s “unalienable” rights. Property has to be alienable, in a legal sense, or we can’t sell it. If we lived in a country were property was unalienable, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would still have the pocket calculator that they sold to start Apple. When we went to work there’d be nothing on the screen of the computer that wouldn’t exist at the job we wouldn’t have because we’d still be farming the tobacco patch our ancestors bought the last time anybody was allowed to sell anything, in the reign of George III.

“Pursuit of Happiness” doesn’t denigrate material wealth, it expands the idea of materialism. America was established as a way for Americans to make and do things. What sort of things Americans make and do and whether these things lead to great riches, pious satisfactions, or transitory pleasures is nobody’s business but our own. America’s political institutions are supposed to be the machinery for our making and doing. America is a tool. America is the only place on earth or in history created to be both free and teleological, at liberty and guided by a purpose. And America is guided by a purpose. But we Americans get to individually, personally, separately decide on any purpose that we want.

What’s the point of other nations? Conquering the world seems to be a purpose for some—fortunately they never succeed. Maybe nations arise to provide their citizens with mutual protection against external and internal threats. But, if this were the usual case, history would read like an account of the interrelations among the cantons of Switzerland. Certain nations seem to exist only to torment their citizens. Other nations are simply… there. Notice how in Paris people go to cafés and just sit around all day being French. This gives Americans the heebie-jeebies. We have to be making and doing. Albeit what we make is often a mess. And what we do is often our undoing. But at least we’re busy.

William Blake was an American in spirit, with his happy combination of the naïve, the profound, and the rebellious. Blake said, “The busy bee has not time for sorrow.” We Americans owe our joy to three little words in our Declaration of Independence.

This essay is adapted from a chapter of P. J. O’Rourke’s forthcoming book, Don’t Vote—It Just Encourages the Bastards (Grove/Atlantic), due out this fall.