In a playful moment a century ago, the historian Carl Becker pondered this counterfactual: What if Benjamin Franklin, not Thomas Jefferson, had drafted the Declaration of Independence? A scholar of the American Revolution, Becker knew that such a thing was plausible. Franklin was, after all, on the Committee of Five in Philadelphia, which was allotted the job of drawing up the text in June 1776. A gifted writer of great standing, he was just the sort of person who might compose a document of such paramount importance.
Yet Becker thought the idea absurd. Although he admired Franklin for his “intimate and confidential” style, Becker did not believe that the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack could have written such sentences as “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” or “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” These lines were charged with a peculiar, arresting quality, mixing precision with poetry. This quality Becker associated with Jefferson’s “engaging felicities”–quite different from Franklin’s prose, which had an “air of the tavern or print shop.”
In fact, Franklin would have been very unlikely to produce the Declaration’s first draft. By 1776, he was too worn out by the strains of life to tackle the challenge. Also, as he later confided to Jefferson, he had made it a rule to “avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body,” because taking on a task of that nature was to invite trouble. Jefferson, then still 33, would learn the wisdom of this for himself when Congress debated his draft. First, on about June 12, he sat down at a traveling desk of his own design in the parlor of his lodgings on Seventh and Market Street and started work on the Declaration of Independence.
Franklin was, however, among the first to read Jefferson’s efforts, a week or so later–as was John Adams, who found himself “delighted with its high tone, and the flights of oratory with which it abounded.” From Adams, this was high praise, but there was also a hint of something else in his compliment. The “flights of oratory” certainly had luster, but did the words have real substance? Becker himself, in a close rereading of the “original Rough draught,” confessed that Jefferson’s prose sometimes left him with a feeling of insecurity, “as of resting one’s weight on something fragile.”
Nowhere is this sensation more present than in the Declaration’s most celebrated phrase, “the pursuit of Happiness.”
This appears in the second sentence of the document as Jefferson outlines his brief list of “unalienable rights”–“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The final four words have an instant aesthetic allure, but the longer one lingers over them, the more a riddle appears. Why has Jefferson denoted both life and liberty as rights, but not happiness, which is qualified by the word pursuit? Was this use of pursuit purely rhetorical? As the 19th-century lawyer Rufus Choate believed, was it nothing more than one of those “glittering and sounding generalities” designed to ornament “that passionate and eloquent manifesto”?
Many commentators have interpreted pursuit in this way over time. It adds rhythm and flourish at a pivotal early moment in the text. Others, however, have not been so sure. To the Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., “the pursuit of Happiness” had real meaning, but not the meaning most readers recognize today. To illustrate his point, Schlesinger sifted through patriot literature by such writers as James Otis, Josiah Quincy II, James Wilson, and Adams himself. All of them wrote about happiness, though–unlike Jefferson–framed it not as something people should merely “strive for but as something that was theirs by natural right.”
The clearest expression of this strand of American thought came in George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was drafted in May 1776. In it, Mason spoke of “pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Mason’s text, which was reprinted in Philadelphia newspapers in early June, has long been acknowledged as a key influence on Jefferson. The link between the two declarations is plain enough, yet the crucial shift from “obtaining happiness” to simply pursuing it is not so easily explained.
In 1964, Schlesinger wrote a striking short essay titled “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’” in which he offered a new interpretation. For years, he argued, people had been reading that line incorrectly. Schlesinger believed that when Jefferson wrote pursuit, he was using it in the word’s “more emphatic” meaning–as lawyers used to talk about “the pursuit of the law” or doctors spoke of “the pursuit of medicine.” This did not mean questing after or chasing down. Instead, it implied a person’s engagement with a practice or vocation already in their possession. Jefferson was not at odds with the other Founders at all, according to Schlesinger, but in his reading of the line the shift in meaning was significant: Some of the romantic sense of mission, some of the novelty of its idea of itself, was gone.
“The pursuit of Happiness” may be pure rhetoric, as Choate believed, or it may have a lost meaning, as Schlesinger argued, but there is a third interpretation we should consider. The age of Enlightenment out of which the United States arose was abuzz with discussions of happiness. What was it? How best to acquire it? Debating clubs churned over these issues. The philosopher Francis Hutcheson came up with complex formulas involving human qualities such as “benevolence” (B), “ability” (A), “self-love” (S), and “interest” (I) to create the conditions for what he termed the “moment of good” (M). (One part of his workings went M = B + S x A = BA.) Others relied on experience more than theory. Having encountered the Indigenous people of New Holland (modern-day Australia) for the first time, Captain Cook sailed away mulling, ungrammatically, whether they were “far more happier than we Europeans.”
But the author who wrote with the most intensity about happiness during the Revolutionary period was Samuel Johnson. Johnson was someone all of the Founders knew well. Ever since the reproduction of parts of his poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes”in Poor Richard’s Almanack for 1750,his work had found a ready audience in the colonies. As the historian James G. Basker has pointed out, “Johnson was a part of the consciousness of every literate American during the Founding Era.” And for Jefferson, he notes in particular, “the connection was unusually subtle and sustained.”
As a young man, Jefferson sought out Johnson’s political tracts. He recommended Johnson’s Dictionary as a necessary addition to the library a friend was constructing, and he always made sure he had a copy to hand himself, whether he was in Monticello or Paris. Later, in a 1798 letter, he confessed to using it as “a Repertory, to find favorite passages which I wished to recollect,” although he added intriguingly, “but too rarely with success.”
This line captures something of the place Johnson occupied in Jefferson’s mind–often there, not always as a welcome guest. In 1775, Johnson had emerged as the sharpest British critic of what he called the “wild, indefinite and obscure” resolutions of the Continental Congress. Jefferson had felt the warmth of his prose more than most. Reading the copy of Johnson’s furious polemic Taxation No Tyranny that he’d acquired shortly after its publication that year, the slave-owning Jefferson would have been confronted with a distinctly personal taunt: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
Johnson’s admonitions did not just haunt Jefferson at Monticello; they also followed him to Philadelphia in 1776. The week that Jefferson arrived to attend the Congress in May, The Pennsylvania Evening Post printed a long letter about “Doctor Johnson,” his Dictionary,and the use of words as weapons. Jefferson would not respond openly to any of this. In politics, he and Johnson were as divided as could be, but when it came to another matter, happiness, there was an odd convergence between the two. Five times before 1776, in all of his major works–The Rambler, Dictionary, The Idler, the novella Rasselas, and the political pamphlet The False Alarm–Johnson used the phrase the pursuit of happiness.
That construction was not itself exceptional: As Basker observes, “it also occurs in other writers of the period and the question of whether Jefferson took it directly from Johnson remains tantalizingly open.” More notable, and important, is the similarity in how these two great figures thought about happiness. Time and again, Johnson stressed his belief that pursuing happiness was a natural human instinct. This impulse, however, came with a warning. To pursue was natural; to obtain was a different proposition.
Johnson demonstrated this distinction most powerfully in Rasselas, which was published first in Britain in 1759 and then in Philadelphia in 1768. This moral fable recounted the adventures of an Abyssinian prince who, with his colorful entourage, was always seeking but never quite finding happiness. Sometimes, their journey would be lit up by moments of hope; more frequently came disappointment. At one point, in a quintessentially Johnsonian twist, one of the characters cries out in exasperation at the paradox that confronts them: “Yet what, said she, is to be expected from our persuit of happiness, when we find the state of life to be such, that happiness itself is the cause of misery?”
As the literary scholar Thomas Keymer has noted, Rasselas provides a clue to help us unpick one of the most engaging and ambiguous lines in the Declaration. By 1776, Jefferson was already known for his “happy talent for composition,” but this was only a part of his genius. He seems, too, to have had the gift of foresight. In that line, he frames, eloquently yet economically, the kind of country this new republic would be.
It was to be a place of promise, but it would not promise too much. It could not be both the land of opportunity and a place of greater safety. Pursue happiness, by all means, but do not expect a guarantee of obtaining it. Already in Jefferson’s rough draft, “The United States of America”–one of the very first uses of this name–we can glimpse the emerging nation’s essential character.
That character endures to this day. The United States would offer those who wished to come the chance of bettering themselves. But like Johnson, Jefferson seems to have appreciated the risks of the quest. Who knew, especially in the perilous summer of 1776, what lay ahead? The “pursuit of Happiness” was enough.