Thomas Jefferson’s bedrock American right has harmfully merged with the pursuit of material wealth
On Route 15, northbound, a billboard welcomes travelers to Pennsylvania. “Pursue Your Happiness,” it reads. Several miles later, another sign calls attention. Beside golden arches, a Big Mac, and a sweating cola it offers a related sentiment: “Pursue Your Thirstiness.” The Declaration of Independence, ratified in nearby Philadelphia, is implicit in both boards. Jefferson’s words continue to resonate in the American consciousness so strongly, it seems, that they endow McDonalds with the ability to compel drivers off the highway. To Americans, such corporate usurpation of the words and ideas that years ago delivered and then organized freedom in a tyrannized land feels natural. It is trite, even.
But before the Declaration’s contents were commercialized, it accomplished two rather large tasks for the Thirteen Colonies. First, it unanimously declared war against Britain; and second, it explained the Colonies’ grounds for freedom and stated key principles for their eventual government.
Jefferson owes much of the Declaration’s thinking to his philosophical ancestor, the Englishman John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government is the basis for both the grounds and the principles. Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths of human equality and unalienable rights match Locke’s natural rights, which are self-evident in that they are deducible with God-given reason. Jefferson’s assertion that government exists to protect such rights is also Locke’s that government exists to mitigate the inconveniences of the state of nature, not infringe upon its freedoms. That government derives its powers from the “consent of the governed” echoes Locke’s argument that, for it to be legitimate, individuals must consent to participation in a political body.
The thrust of the Declaration is also borrowed. Jefferson writes than when government “becomes destructive of these [previously stated] ends” it becomes the right and duty of the people to “alter or abolish it.” Analogously in the Second Treatise, Locke writes: “by this breach of trust [government] forfeits the power the people had put into [its] hands…and the power devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty.” The bulk of the Declaration thereafter lists evidence of King George III’s tyranny, justifying and compelling the Colonies’ revolution and actualizing the theory laid out in Locke’s Second Treatise.
It is plain that Locke informed Jefferson. The Declaration hinges on his ideas, and at times the former President is a word or two away from plagiarism. This conformity between their writings highlights, in the few spots they occur, their differences. Most glaring and significant among them is Jefferson’s replacement of Locke’s third-listed natural right, “estate,” with the “pursuit of Happiness.” Along with “all men are created equal,” Jefferson’s trio of unalienable rights—especially the last—has become the preeminent extract from the Declaration. This begs the question: why the switch?
Even if one could solidify an answer, at this point it would be more trivia than triumph: what Jefferson intended with his diction pales to what his diction has inspired. The “pursuit of Happiness” is so dense and fertile an idea that it became the bedrock of the American Dream, but, as McDonalds exemplifies, it also evolved into something unhealthy. By replacing Locke’s “estate” with the “pursuit of Happiness,” Jefferson planted in the soul of the United States a seed of consumerist materialism. At our present consumption-created precipice of climate catastrophe, it is necessary to address the formidable Cherry into which Jefferson’s seed has grown and hew it to its mythological and ideological roots. The American Dream and American individualism must be founded on a more environmentally and existentially sustainable base than the pursuit of material well-being: the “pursuit of Happiness” must be re-replaced.
The coalescence between happiness and material well-being is expounded in Alexis de Tocqueville’s proto-sociological text, Democracy in America. Tocqueville claims the fiercest attachment of the American heart to be “the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess [a precious object] and the incessant fear of losing it,” and observes that in the U.S. the “love of [material] well-being has become the national and dominant taste” which “carries everything along in its course.” In other words, Americans believe acquiring property equals pursuing happiness. The conflation makes consumption the nation’s primary occupation.
Tocqueville’s commentary on American materialism was prescient in 1840 and remains pressing today. Evidence for it accumulates yearly: in 2017, consumers in the U.S. spent $240 billion on luxury items—twice as much as in 2002, despite only a 13% population increase. Higher spending signifies a healthy economy, but it also corresponds to the on-average 81 pounds of textiles dumped annually by each American (five times more than in 1980) and the doubled number of personal storage facilities. If the attitude in de Tocqueville’s time was more, it now seems to be more, more, more.
Even if unintended or invisible, the physical consequences of rising consumption are dangerous. Of the 26 million tones of plastic used by Americans in 2015, only 9% were recycled. What goes unrecycled winds up in landfills, where it generates methane gas; or in the ocean, where it is ingested by marine life. Both are harmful: methane accelerates climate change, and ocean plastics kill crustaceans, fish, and amphibians. Ocean littering also introduces plastic—and a host of health risks—into the human food chain. These are examples, not exceptions. The environmental damages caused by a culture of consumption abound, and, since the global population is on track to double material resource usage by 2060, the buying habit must be broken.
In addition to the pursuit of property’s physical costs, its conflation with happiness is psychologically injurious. Tocqueville diagnosed this: “in the very midst of their abundance,” Americans were “[singularly] agitated.”. The “pursuit of Happiness led to restiveness—an endless hustle for the next thing and an inability to appreciate the recently earned or already possessed.
We are not wholly responsible for this: because of the evolutionary advantages that abundance provided to past iterations of the homo genus, for-pleasure purchases trigger the brain to release dopamine, a good-vibes neurotransmitter. However, dopamine cravings are causal to addictive disorders like Compulsive Buying Disorder (i.e. shopping addiction), and although such illnesses are rarely developed, everyone is biologically compelled to chase the dopamine releases which can lead to them. This is why advertising works: it endlessly dangles dopamine in front of our ever-hungry brains. Shopping does not assuage the desire; instead, it feeds the loop.
Tocqueville’s observations hold on a larger scale, too. A Princeton University study that found that one’s perception of their own life improves steadily with income concurrently discovered that the curve for “emotional well-being” flattens around $75k. From there up, individuals are as prone to negative emotions as they were with lower incomes. This suggests that while Americans perceive additional wealth to be life-enhancing, it is not. Past a certain point—security, perhaps—the “pursuit of Happiness” in the form of material well-being is, as de Tocqueville puts it, a “useless pursuit of…complete felicity.”
To recap: The conflation of the “pursuit of Happiness” with the pursuit of material wealth damages the environment; at best, briefly excites the individual; and in the long run does not secure a positive state of emotional well-being. Because, then, it is folly to believe in its deliverance and also because consumer culture is unsustainable, the “pursuit of Happiness” as it has become—a corrupted slogan for a material American Dream—must go.
The better choice for the Declaration’s third-listed natural right is Locke’s “estate.” For him, estate means material property (including money), and he arrives at it through his labor theory of value, which states that labor is the act by which man rightfully appropriates property from nature (or our modern equivalent, the workplace). “Estate” is not a right to have; it is a right to do: nobody has the right to be given any property, only the right to earn and then keep it without unjust interference.
Crucially as well, “estate” is nowhere near happiness’s associative neighborhood. It instead focuses on the procurement and possession of goods necessary for the right to life (e.g. shelter and nutrition). As the Princeton study showed, wealth corresponds with happiness up to a ceiling of security, but disengages after that point. “Estate”’s distance maintains that distinction.
It is also superior because it affords specific protections to the individual: from theft and unjust taxation, for example. The right to pursue happiness does not; and even if it was possible to disentangle the “pursuit of Happiness” from material wealth, what would its protection entail? It is too individualistic and amorphous an idea to concretize. Happiness has as many conceptions as it has conceivers; and because Jefferson declined to define it in the Declaration, it has no national definition, either. Competing notions of happiness clash constantly—how could one be favored over another without any reference point?
Yet it may be objected that the loftiness and indefinability of Jefferson’s turn of phrase are its greatest strengths. The “pursuit of Happiness” is considerably more motivating than “estate.” Including it in a list of fundamental rights implies there is an immaterial element to life toward which we intuitively work. A sympathetic reading brings Jefferson’s words near to Tocqueville’s prescription for American society: cultivate “a taste for the infinite, a sentiment of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures.” Both these tastes and the idea of happiness are unique for everyone and, as long as an individual strives for them, a definition is unnecessary. In this way Jefferson’s phrase deflects from the want of material wealth; instead, the “pursuit of Happiness” serves as an immaterial North Star, guiding each citizen along their lifelong path to enlightenment.
And even if the happiness and property have coalesced, is the result as harmful as has been posited? If not partially causal, the conflation is at least correlated to the United States’ economic ascent; and, as found by the Princeton study, up to a point such growth improves emotional well-being. Through their passion for acquisition, Americans have helped lift the floor of poverty again and again. Without the coalescence, the U.S. might not have developed its entrepreneurial, industrial, competitive culture; and without that culture, would we be as well-off as we are now?
Without the “pursuit of Happiness,” what is America? Pennsylvania’s welcome billboard says with Jefferson’s words what the Statue of Liberty says with its raised torch, what the biographies of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Jobs all say: come here, work hard, and you can make a prosperous life for yourself—nobody will stop you. The phrase’s entanglement with material wealth pales to the motivation and hope it engenders. It might be a vague foundation for government, but it is the Atlas of American mythology. It is our romantic idealism that forever asks what is impossible if we pursue hard enough? This was true for the Founders, and remains as true and as inspirational today.
It feels good to rest the consciousness of a nation on such hopeful words. Yet that feeling is the flaw. The “pursuit of Happiness” and its connotations of bootstrap-acrobatics are fluttery and ideal, but the phrase and its pseudonyms—“Manifest Destiny,” for example—portray an American history much rosier than reality. It is romantic to commend the Oregon Trail as a pursuit of happiness and forget the Native Americans eliminated en route. It inspires pride to attribute the United States’ meteoric rise in the 19th and early 20th centuries to industriousness and neglect the advantages afforded by slavery and exploited immigrant labor. The “pursuit of Happiness” has never truly been the right of every American, much the same way “all men are created equal” was written by a slave-owner. It has been a right of the privileged to pursue their happiness at the expense of the disenfranchised and less-advantaged. Even today, inexpensive marketplace commodities are made possible by corporations wielding low-wage workers with less-fortunate geographic inheritances, and the consequences of climate change are predicted to most severely affect regions already afflicted by poverty, hunger, and war. It feels good to lean into the “pursuit of Happiness” because its ideology acquits or ignores many of the misdeeds underlying its ongoing history.
Perhaps this ideology was necessary to raise the standard of living. The mix-up of material and emotional well-being may have been the psychological carrot that compelled Americans to haul themselves into the first world. But into what does our prosperity translate? According to 2018’s World Happiness Report (WHR), less and less: “[though] America has doubled its income per person in the past 40 years…[it] has slipped to 18th place, five rungs down from 2016.” The WHR also found that Latin America, a comparatively poorer region, has happiness levels “significantly higher than their country’s wealth, corruption, or high levels of violence suggest, since their happiness is connected to strong family bonds.” Because Latin American culture tends to ground its emotional well-being in relationships—not in riches—that ground is much firmer; whereas Americans, who have falsely combined happiness and wealth, cannot consume their way into a good life. The WHR demonstrates that the “pursuit of Happiness” ideology has run its course: it is past time to divorce material from the American Dream and replant the culture on a more sustainable, attainable idea.
Suppose we were able to trim the ideology from the “pursuit of Happiness.” Suppose it devolved to the meaning it held the very minute Jefferson’s quill departed his parchment. Its ambiguity remains an irreconcilable flaw. Happiness and its infinite conceptions would still confound its pursuers—a frustration not without consequences. History illustrates it is in human nature to accept truths from elsewhere rather than figure them out for oneself, and that makes the blight of happiness-as-property inevitable: once it is realized that customers can be lured with promises of happiness, advertising invents itself and, aided by our neurophysiology, propagates. Addictive amelioration for humanity’s intrinsic existential angst has a wide market, and plenty of people (who are likely also motivated by happiness-as-property) are eager to sell. McDonalds’ “Pursue Your Thirstiness” sign symbolizes this and, frankly, so does Pennsylvania’s: both advertise because they want paying customers. The “pursuit of Happiness” is inextricable from such emotional charlatanism. It must go.
It is true that the Declaration of Independence is legally impotent. Revising it would not engage war with Britain nor alter any institutions. But this is irrelevant—the purpose of the revision is neither structural nor legal—and it makes the replacement of the “pursuit of Happiness” all the more provocative. Countries add and change laws constantly, but rarely does one attempt to so profoundly reconstruct its identity. Amending the Declaration would cause outrage, but also introspection and, hopefully, a paradigm shift.
As it would divorce property-ownership from happiness, “estate” alone is a passable technical replacement, but insufficiently idealistic. If Jefferson’s American scripture is to be revised, the new words must have combine the potency of the “pursuit of Happiness” with an understanding of its flaws. They must acknowledge Tocqueville’s critique that “passion for material enjoyments…[cannot] be enough for a whole people [because] the human heart is vaster than one supposes, ” and then sing into the heart’s vastness with Motown soul, Southern twang, and California cool.
So append a fourth right. Replace “pursuit of Happiness” with “estate” and then one-up the Founders. How do we choose the addition? Look to history, art, philosophy. The fourth right could hark back to the Greeks and prioritize virtue; or self-expression, akin to the Renaissance. It could be a healthy planet and pivot us toward the inexorable challenges of the climate change, or an aphorism that captures Rawls’ thorough and just primary goods. But whatever it is, it must steer the nation to the immaterial. Our lesson is learned: material wealth affords security, not happiness—whatever one conceives happiness to be—and its perpetual pursuit is too deleterious. The new right must instead be founded not in having, but in being; or even better, in becoming. Let it lead us to something aspirational, something newly American.