The Declaration of Independence is an astounding document. It’s short (you should read it). The majority of its content is actually an enumeration of “injuries and usurpations” by the British monarch King George III against the American Colonies, but the most interesting part is the first three sentences which give a rationale for why it is necessary for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” The following “unalienable rights” that the Declaration lists—Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—would become the shorthand for what America stands for, and would be the lifeblood of the next great document to be produced by the new country: the Constitution. G.K. Chesterton once observed, “America is alone in having begun her national career with a definite explanation of what she intended to be. And this is an experiment of the highest historical and philosophical interest.”
In comparing America to England, Chesterton saw the value in starting a nation off with an ideal standard, a very definite Constitution, as opposed to mere custom, compromise, and an unwritten constitution. For, an unwritten constitution “may be an unrecognized and unrespected constitution,” “the neglect of custom may itself become customary,” and the principle of compromise “may itself be compromised.” He was absolutely right. But he may have over-estimated the definiteness of America’s Constitution. The framers of the Constitution tried to be as farsighted as possible, but they knew there would be issues they couldn’t foresee. That’s why they set up a process for adding Constitutional amendments and an entire branch of government to make judicial rulings for special cases.
But what they didn’t set up for future generations was a guiding principle of interpretation—interpretation not only of the documents they produced, but of the philosophy they held in producing them. What exactly did “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” mean to those men? What if they came to mean something quite different in the course of a couple centuries? Could it be that the sacred virtues upon which our Constitution is predicated are themselves a sort of custom and require a sort of unwritten constitution to interpret them? Let’s examine those principles.
“Life” seems pretty straightforward, but in 1868, the fourteenth amendment had to extend the Constitutional right to life to a class of humans that hadn’t been considered persons when the Constitution was ratified, i.e. black (former) slaves. But then in 1973, Roe v. Wade revoked the Constitutional right to life for a class of humans that had been considered persons at the time the fourteenth amendment was ratified. Life also has less definite parameters nowadays, with fertilized human embryos frozen in laboratories, the use of extended life support technologies like ventilators and ECMO machines, and even licit doctor-assisted suicide for people not yet on the brink of natural death. So even “Life,” it turns out, can be loosely interpreted and applied.
“Liberty” is more difficult still. In our time “freedom” and “liberty” are often used interchangeably, but the words have had different histories of use in different contexts. Broadly speaking, “liberty” is more often used in civil or political discourse and implies liberation from some form of undue or arbitrary restraints, while “freedom” has been more often employed to describe the general ability to achieve any number of possible outcomes, in physics (to describe the possible movements of objects) and in philosophy (to describe free will, self-determination, and autonomy). Thus Liberty, as John Stewart Mill wrote, concerns the legitimate powers a government or society may exercise over an individual. Freedom, however, may more broadly refer to an individual’s ability to do whatever he or she wills (more on that in a moment).
Liberty in this political sense, specifically as protection against the abuses of a formal Government, is most certainly what the founding fathers had in mind. But Mill, writing in the 19th century, saw that it’s not only Government which may oppress an individual, but also society itself: “Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways. . . .”
These words have proved prophetic. The immense social pressure that can now be mobilized (especially with the aid of media and social media) against individuals, companies, or other groups which are out of sync with the majority or the most powerful social ideology is becoming ever more intense and consequential. The loss of jobs and income, social ostracism, and even the threat of physical harm to person and property are the punishments sometimes meted out by the hordes of du jour ideologues. And once these contingents have amassed enough power and influence, they parlay their social victories into civic victories through legislation and litigation. The Government is then (supposedly) innocent of the charge of despotism since it has derived its mandate to uphold the prevailing opinion and feeling not from itself, but from “the people”—that is, the majority or most powerful contingent of the people. Democracy and “self-governance,” laments Mill, “is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest.”
And so people believe it’s not a violation of personal liberty if you’re made to design that cake for a wedding you don’t endorse, or to share a locker room with that boy who identifies as a girl, or to be required to perform against your convictions abortions as a doctor, because the rules would be from a “Government of the people,” not a dictatorship or monarchy. Is this really the founding father’s dream for democracy or their idea of Liberty?
“The pursuit of Happiness” seems like the most open-ended (and thus the most obscure) of the rights listed in the Declaration, but it may hold the key to the warping we’ve seen of the other two. The phrase “the pursuit of happiness” didn’t originate with Thomas Jefferson but has an older heritage. According to Professor Carol Hamilton, “when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice.” What Jefferson meant by “happiness” was not merely personal pleasure or fulfillment but the realization of a broader goodness, a full life lived virtuously.
Over time, this phrase has been sapped of its pith and richness, becoming a vapid mandate to each citizen to do or be whatever he or she desires. But the trouble with desires is that they don’t always lead to our health in body and soul. The older conception of happiness was the achievement of a state of being widely deemed good by the broad consensus of humanity and which entailed a degree of self-control, bridled passions, and discipline. The new happiness is a state of being potentially indifferent to the evaluative judgement of the consensus of humanity, and which very well may prefer immediate satisfaction to self-discipline (though not necessarily). The point is, each individual has the freedom to chose what it is that makes them happy, in addition to the liberty to pursue it. This is where that distinction between civic “liberty” and self-determined “freedom” comes into play.
Once, men believed themselves to be bound by, or at least bound to, a certain objective standard of goodness and behavior. The way they ought to act belonged as much to the realm of fact as the sun in the sky or the earth beneath their feet. But these objective values became undermined in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in writers like Diderot and Hume, who espoused what Alasdair Macintyre calls moral emotivism (the idea that right and wrong are determined by our feelings and emotions). After objective value and “moral oughts” were destabilized, the objective nature of man himself was next to fall.
In the 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre asserted that man has no objective essence, no innate purpose or nature or telos. We merely come into existence as biological entities saddled with the terrible burden of having to determine our own essence. “Man is condemned to be free,” he said. This heavy yoke of self-determinism permits us to look to previously held conceptions of manhood and morality for guidance if we wish, but it supplies us no reason for following them apart from our naked choice, and it certainly doesn’t oblige us to. Thus, the new radical freedom we have “liberates” us from the old conception of happiness—from the old conception of human—that our ancestors for centuries held to.
Now unmoored from the safe harbor of tradition, we are at sea in an endless ocean of individual opinions. Instead of facing inland toward the great beckoning mountain of our shared ultimate purpose, we’re turned around and facing an infinite, indifferent horizon of nothingness. We have no telos. With no telos, the “pursuit of happiness” becomes an empty, mocking phrase. We’re left with no positive use for our Liberty, and we come to see less and less the value of Life. The familiar habit of valuing Liberty and the pursuit of one’s happiness in one of the many identities on the market may be sustaining for a time; just as the busying tasks involving ropes and masts and sails may divert a sailor’s attention for a time, and standing on a sandy atoll may relieve his wobbly sea legs. But if he thinks to look up from his menial tasks occasionally or from the wave-swept sand bar on which he stands, he’ll see that sickening, disorienting infinity of freedom still surrounding him.
This country was founded for man—to protect the Life of man, the Liberty of man, and man’s pursuit of Happiness. But “man,” for the founders, meant a creature whose essence preceded its existence, a creature with a set of values belonging to the world of fact, not fancy, and a telos deriving from God, not gut. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” meant something different to the founders than they do in our time, because the founders could not have foreseen the Abolition of Man.