“You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means,”
Some argue that Happiness, in the context of our Declaration of Independence, means material happiness (e.g., property.) Some argue for emotional happiness. Yet others would argue that the word means more (e.g., free assembly, free speech, free exercise of religion, etc.)
Declaration Preamble, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)
All of us may be familiar with the following words, but let’s review them anyway:
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.
–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…
Today’s post contends that ‘Happiness’ means most of these possibilities. However, it means one more than the others. But we must not exclude any of these at our peril. Along the way, we’ll examine the words: Unalienable, Pursuit, Life, Liberty, and Consent, too.
Our sources are essays written by James R. Rogers and a commencement address given by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Rogers, in a series of essays for Law and Liberty, defines Happiness along with the other important words to renew our understanding of our obligations to this nation and our fellow citizens. Solzhenitsyn, in his Harvard University Commencement Address, praises our nation’s founding principles and decries our fall from them. Let us examine the aforementioned words.
Unalienable or Inalienable
In his essay, “What Americans Miss about the Declaration of Independence,” Rodgers states that the Declaration’s inalienable rights are pre-political rights that we receive from our Creator. Governments are instituted to protect these rights. In the United States of America, we have the privilege to have instituted our government as a representative republic.
The essence of our rights’ inalienability, Rogers maintains, is not that our rights can’t be taken away, they can, but that we cannot give them away. They are not ours to give, we have been given them by our Creator. Rogers offers the example,
…People cannot justly commit suicide because humans do not own themselves, rather God owns them. Because our lives belong to God, and so are his to dispose rather than ours, the right we have to life is “inalienable.” We cannot give away our lives.
Because of the principle of inalienability, any government that recognizes a “right to die” has become a despotism. If the right that was taken away was alienable, then the details of the transaction dictate whether the taking is just or unjust. However, when any inalienable right is taken away, that taking is always unjust. It does not matter whether it is an individual or a governmental body doing the taking, it is unjust.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., in his essay, “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Jul., 1964), pp. 325-327, said that, in colonial times, “pursuit” meant vocation, occupation, or practice, as in ‘pursuit of medicine,’ or ‘pursuit of law.’
Rogers, in his essays, “Liberty, Licentiousness, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Meaning of “The Pursuit of Happiness,” develops the meaning of happiness from 18th century sources.
Today, the unalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness” is understood as “a right to chase after whatever makes one subjectively happy.” This is mistaken. The Declaration’s claim is also misunderstood to mean only the right to pursue what makes you happy but not to obtain happiness. Digging deeper, the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution imply that happiness is merely a synonym for property. Though acquiring property necessary to life is part of the pursuit of happiness, it isn’t the whole story.
In the eighteenth century, the political use of happiness meant something more. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 says,
As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.
Additionally, Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 says,
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.
From these examples and, according to Rogers, many more of the period, “happiness” in the Declaration means “something more akin to eudemonia, meaning felicity or well-being broadly understood. Critically, it commonly included an ethical or religious dimension…This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity’s spiritual and moral condition.”
Since this right is inalienable, we do not have the right NOT to pursue happiness, that is, not to practice moral and spiritual well-being. Restating it again, we may not alienate ourselves from the objective moral order. Further, the Declaration says governments are established to protect this right and the others and can be replaced when they become destructive of those rights. The right to pursue happiness, understood correctly, is in direct opposition to progressivism, especially the libertarian streak within it.
In his essay, “God Talk and Americans’ Belief in Inalienable Rights,” Rogers asks, “Why would anyone in his or her right mind give away the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness?” He points out that debate about assisted suicide and the “right to die” is the same as the debate about whether life is an alienable or inalienable right. As we have seen above, we are not our own, God owns us. So, disposing of one’s own or others’ lives infringes on God’s rights.
Further, Rogers explains,
So, too, we cannot become slaves to another because we are already, as it were, God’s slaves. The irony is that the more abased humanity is before God the greater the dignity humans must accord to each other; liberty, as well as life and the pursuit of happiness, are all the more protected because of rights humans don’t and can’t have over themselves. They are “unalienable.”
However, because we are no longer a religious people, our skepticism undermines our ability to affirm the inalienability of our right to life. This leaves us in a bad place. To this, Rogers asks,
What [are] the implications…if Americans as a people are today ill-suited for the Declaration’s argument, and what the implications are if the Declaration’s argument is ill-suited for America.
In the same essay in which Rogers discusses inalienability, “What Americans Miss about the Declaration of Independence,” he examines modern and colonial attitudes toward liberty. He says,
In modern America we think laws necessarily restrict liberty. And they can and often do. But the colonists took the idea of “consent” seriously. A contract between two people restricts future actions once entered. But freely entering into a contract that binds future choices is the epitome of liberty.
Rogers thereby indicates that the Declaration limits individual autonomy with respect to liberty. However, the colonists viewed this binding as also establishing liberty. Rogers says, “Like individuals agreeing to be bound by the terms of a contract…legislation could instantiate their liberty rather than merely restrict it.”
In his essay, “Liberty, Licentiousness, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Rogers notes of ‘Liberty,’
It simply cannot mean autonomy. [If liberty is inalienable, then its meaning] harkens to the old distinction between liberty and license…There can be no right to licentious behavior, and there cannot be any such right regardless of whether that behavior implicates other people or not.
Needless to say, such an affirmation flies in the face of most educated sentiment in the U.S. today. Indeed, much modern American opinion and, more pointedly, modern judicial opinion, makes it a point to reject precisely that conception of liberty.
Consent of the Governed
Rogers contends, in his essay, “Americans No Longer Believe in the “Consent of the Governed”,”
During the Founding era, the consent of one’s representatives were taken as equivalent of one’s own consent.
…Whether it can be defended philosophically, as a practical matter, most Americans have already jettisoned belief in the proposition. Americans now almost universally reject one of the most-fundamental claims in their Founding document. Something those early Americans believed in strongly enough to fight and die for. That’s a pretty big change.
…What does it mean for the country when most of its people no longer believe one of the Declaration’s fundamental commitments?
In the founding era, Rogers says, “Americans took seriously the idea of the “consent of the governed.”” They exercised this consent collectively through popular votes or through their elected representatives. This consent extended to both the creation of government through the Constitution and to specific policies through law at all governmental levels.
Before the War of Independence, as an example, taxes were considered gifts of the people through their representatives to the British government for just administration of the colonies. Rogers gives the following explanatory illustration,
…A modest tax without consent was objectionable; a high tax with consent was fine. The moral significance of this is difficult to understate if this consent is real: A government with extremely high taxes under the consent theory is no more objectionable than, say, a person having high car payments to pay because that person chose to buy an expensive car.
Turmoil after the war lead Madison and Hamilton to deliberate over the new U.S. Constitution’s power to quell the power of “faction” both at the state and national levels. That is, for example, how to prevent industrial interests from dominating agricultural interests, or for the executive branch to withstand the legislative branch’s greater power. And in each case, how both parties could formulate a compromise to which both would give consent.
These thoughts were captured in Federalist No. 10 and No. 51. The Federalist Papers were meant to convince the nation to affirm our new Republic. Though the Constitution was ratified, Rogers says this is the period when our ‘consent’ started to flag.
We’ve examined the progression from the founding to where we are now in previous posts. Unfortunately, we’ve let those who would overturn the original U.S. Constitution for something else prevail in government, industry, media, and academia. This, I think, is why we, as a nation, no longer give our consent willingly. We no longer agree on the foundation of governance, so how can we agree on decisions within it.
In his speech at the 1978 Harvard Commencement, titled “A World Split Apart,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn assessed the world’s condition, both in the East and the West. His message was not well accepted. About America’s founding and the West’s decline, he said,
…Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic.
The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse.
And commenting on America’s media influence, he said,
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day.
…This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.
This assessment still pertains to our own situation, even thirty years after the fall of the USSR.
So, what new insights do we gain about our Declaration of Independence? I, for one, never appreciated the depth of it. As Rogers said,
Liberty, as well as life and the pursuit of happiness, are all the more protected because of rights humans don’t and can’t have over themselves. They are “unalienable” [because they are God given.]
We also have to consider that the Declaration, viewed as a contract, is binding on a people who freely affirm the Creator and we no longer do. In fact, this is the very root of our divide in this country. The Progressives and their coreligionists worship Man. Those who adhere to the Declaration and the Constitution, understood in their original meaning, affirm God, the Creator.
What the 2020 Election is All About: Preserving the American Way of Life, October 13, 2020, YouTube, Claremont Institute