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… (Declaration of Independence)
Those reading Jefferson’s draft(s) of the Declaration certainly heard the echo of John Locke’s celebration of life, liberty and property. That the vast majority of propertied men in the Continental Congress adopted an alternative phrase is surely meaningful.
Life and liberty deserve their own close reading, but happiness has become — it seems to me — an especially American value, both to our benefit and burden.
Our pursuit of happiness is a particular burden when we forget the distinction between property and happiness that our founders so clearly offered.
Jefferson was a materialist, even a sensualist who died deeply in debt to his lifestyle. Most of the founders were very conscious of risking their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in order to preserve their liberty to accumulate property. The distinction being made does not suggest a disdain for property.
But the distinction does point to a purpose beyond accumulation of property.
Jefferson and his peers were as familiar with Aristotle as with Locke. Translations of Aristotle’s Ethics persistently use “happiness” as the English equivalent of eudaimonia. This is a reasonable translation, if — big if — you understand the Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean, and Stoic subtexts of eudaimonia.
Too quickly: For Aristotle eudaimonia is the product of energeia (activity) exhibiting arete (excellence) in accordance with phronesis (practical wisdom). Please see the Nichomachean and Eudemian Ethics.
On this day of all days it is worth considering how homeland security activities advance life, liberty, and this layered sort of happiness.