“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” (Whitney v. California, 274 US 357 – Supreme Court 1927)
Before America’s founding documents were ever published the primary rights of the common people were expressed in simple, yet very broad terms – “life, liberty & estate.” Those seven syllables became the cornerstone of every democratic system established since. John Locke, in the “Two Treatises” used the very same phrasing and argued the need to establish civil society for their protection. The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution specifically provides, “nor shall any person be deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of law.”
The documents that trumpeted America’s independence were such elegant pieces of works, even today. The language of the time, the document’s ageless quality promising betterment for the colonies down the centuries exacted from its authors the burdens of historical significance. They had to painstakingly search for just the right words in order to strike the perfect tone. They had to convince the people of the new world that tyranny was being replaced by a government assembled to establish certain democratic ideals.
So, why did the framers choose the words “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” when they penned the “Declaration of Independence? What exactly did they mean by the word happiness? Was it something that they had intended for all the people of America? Or was it a set of privileges and immunities that they, the presumptive rulers of the colonies, had sought for themselves – in the way English nobles demanded of King John through the Magna Carta in 1215? How does one acquire happiness if they were to petition their government for it?
The subjective nature of the word happiness has an infinite number of answers unique from one person to another. The constitution provides for many of such possibilities, principally by preventing the occurrence of events that cause depravations. It does so by not only assigning but also limiting government power. The Preamble of the Constitution sets forth:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The documents were occasioned “to form a more perfect union.” But a union with whom, the 13 colonies, or dare we inquire, covertly with the British Crown? In historical accounts, the framers were concerned about the treasonous nature of their activities. Benjamin Franklin had warned his compatriots, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” If they were all willing to risk being “hanged” they must have had visions of grandeur, of some form of happiness, for life is the highest of all liberties from which all else springs from. Losing their lives would have certainly extinguished all that mattered, not the least of which was their pursuit of happiness.
Modern experts in the field of psychology attribute happiness to external stimuli, causing momentary states of well-being. One theory developed by Martin Seligman views the relationship of a person’s emotional state with time – dealing with the past, happiness in the present and optimism in the future. He expresses those states in the acronym “PERMA” and are chiefly acquired through a person’s actions: (1) acquisition of POSITIVE EMOTIONS (2) ENGAGEMENT to attain flow (3) building nurturing RELATIONSHIPS (4) finding MEANING in activities and; (5) feeling a strong sense of ACCOMPLISHMENT from one’s work.
Government cannot in itself give us happiness. It is something that we must take for ourselves, using our own faculties and the ingenuity that we develop. Furthermore, it is clear that the government is prohibited from standing in the way of those who seek it, but for instances that create harm to themselves or others. Sometimes, in moments of tyranny, governments take from the people under the guise of justice and rule. What the framers did not foresee were the technological advances in the succeeding centuries. Many of which can give a person momentary happiness – appliances that connect people can also provide lifting music to impel dance of elation and joy. Yet, the very appliances can be doorways to faceless persons able to peer into our own lives. Are we willing to trade for such conveniences if we must allow strangers, some of whom are employed by the government, to have access to our lives without consent?
Perhaps, that is where the next fight for our liberties lie.