“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those words are sacred to most Americans, standing alongside “All men are created equal.” Where, though, did this idea and those immortal lines come from? We know “the most vibrant of afterlives” of Jefferson’s words and how they have inspired reform movements throughout American history, but do we know their “captivating pre-history?”
In Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream, historian Peter Moore seeks to uncover the roots of America’s political credo, taking a close look at pre-Declaration history. Moore describes the “new force” that Jefferson and the revolutionary generation unleashed, a spirit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that wasn’t their own invention. It was, in fact, a force that had been building for some time: these ideas had precedents, found in the writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson, Catherine Macaulay, and John Locke, and in George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, in the years and decades before 1776.
Benjamin Franklin, the Urban Revolution, and a Growing Revolutionary Current
At America’s founding, one man, Benjamin Franklin, found himself in the middle of this new world of new ideas. Franklin was born into a rapidly transforming world, a world where a new form of modern life was becoming accessible to common people, and a fresh spirit of liberty was unfurling. While Moore rightly acknowledges that “God remained the pivot around which all life revolved,” the new life offered through economic opportunity, urbanization, and mass information permitted many “to see themselves as the masters of their own destiny.” As an entrepreneurial and creative man, Franklin was at the heart of this newfound pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, a shifting cultural ethic that would eventually unleash a revolutionary storm over North America.
Franklin’s life was emblematic of what energized so many in his day to seek opportunity and fortune. Those who were once constrained to the farm and Sunday rest now had the opportunity to participate in global adventure and conquest, leave their small towns to seek new life in cities, and make bold decisions, based on the relatively vast amount of information now accessible to them in the printed newspaper—news from near and afar, disclosing continental economic trends and local economic opportunities alike.
Franklin, ever astute and cunning, understood and capitalized on the power of print and the appearance of images in a rapidly transforming world. And so he made his way to Philadelphia, arriving as a penniless youth who quickly made his name and fortune in the new world available to him. While he brushed aside the theological questions of his Puritan upbringing, the dedication to hard work that he inherited from that upbringing remained.
From Hierarchy to Radical Egalitarianism
What we learn from Moore’s narrative account of the new philosophy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is how the transforming world was opened up to opportunistic adventurers, writers, intellectuals, and even a few politicians willing to rile up the populist crowds about their natural liberty for electoral gain. It wasn’t the “Whig oligarchy”—rife with its own corruption and bribery schemes to maintain a hold on power—that advanced the causes of life, liberty, and happiness. It was a handful of enterprising individuals, like Franklin, who, through sheer force of will and foresight, advanced the cause that spread to many. As Moore argues, it was a bottom-up movement, not a top-down political imposition.
In particular, the writers on liberty were the main agents of change. Though print publications often reported on events, their purpose was typically partisan. The media have never been “objective” or even “impartial,” as we like to tell ourselves. But their partisanship is what caused their success. As more and more people were becoming educated with the spread of schools, this new middle-class population of tradesmen, lawyers, merchants, and entrepreneurs also devoured the newspapers and magazines filled with invective rhetoric and wit. Dr. Samuel Johnson, for instance, became a favorite. Schools throughout the country used his writings to educate the population, which, in turn, led to their greater political participation in life.
Additionally, fear of corrupt forces working against the institutions and laws of freedom is what produced the belief in the free and independent press, the precursor to the freedom of speech that Americans, most especially, cherish and guard. The idea of the free press was to shine a light on the dark and insidious forces working in corrupt halls of governmental power. The free press was, therefore, instrumental to the advancement of liberty by highlighting the immorality of backroom wheeling and dealing of politicians, ministers, and their lackeys far and wide—be they in the East India Company or local judges and magistrates. Free speech and the free press would expose to the masses what was actually going on behind the scenes (sometimes accurately and sometimes libelously, which did cause problems); they would awaken the sensibilities of the masses to act in defense of the freedom on the cusp of being taken away by corrupt and evil ministers.
Alongside this spread of print media—which in many ways was a great equalizer that gave everyone access to the same information—came a sense that all were capable of improving their lot in life. Many desired to surge “upward through the social ranks to become one of the ‘better sort.’” The hierarchical world was not displaced by an abstract egalitarianism, but by the belief that anyone could rise, anyone could be “noble,” anyone could be the “better sort.” The belief in self-advancement up the ladder of social hierarchy fueled the movement for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Early proponents of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness believed—in unequivocal agreement with the classical authors they had read in their education—that moral degeneracy and its companion, political corruption, were the greatest threats to liberty. Many of the great republican writers in England—and even some monarchist writers who had their own awkward allegiances to the crown—attacked the immorality of corrupt Whig politicians and their hidden benefactors, whom they viewed as representing a dangerous cabal of tyrants. (This was the view of Edmund Burke when he wrote Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents in 1770.) This sentiment was shared in the American colonies. Franklin, in particular, was “troubled to read in the papers that Britain was growing increasingly morally degenerate.”
Catherine Macaulay, the famous female historian and republican writer, shared these concerns. She wrote that the flourishing of liberty depended on a virtuous citizenry, especially a virtuous political class strong enough to resist the corrupting temptations of power. Her arguments against monarchy rested on the logic of the intertwining of virtue and liberty: those who held hereditary positions of power would be easiest to corrupt. With their corruption would come the demise of liberty for all, since a handful of corrupt and powerful men would consume everything for themselves. The republican writers from antiquity to the present always associated the blessings of liberty with the fortitude of moral virtue.
Nevertheless, the noble ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness most effectively came about because the daily reality of human life really could be improved. Hitherto, hardship had been accepted as a constant feature of temporal existence. Before this time most people had had no access to medical care, and few had enjoyed much leisure.
As cities were transformed through technology, industry, and commerce, the growth of leisure, the expansion of education, and the rise of economic opportunities all led to growth in the widespread attainment of happiness in this life (and not just the next).
The possibility of greater economic, social, intellectual, and personal health, more than anything else, spurred the advancement of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness among many. While it is true that many people still labored in the hardship of temporal existence, many were also escaping those hardships that had defined life in generations past. The Anglo-American world was now the center of the new world of global commerce, industry, and education—not to mention a relatively free and open press. Its spirit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would produce champions of freedom like Thomas Paine and the leaders of the American Revolution who sought to enshrine the new lifestyle of the “modern” world.
Peter Moore has shared a gripping narrative behind the story of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we all know. The “common sense” of Thomas Paine was a new common sense, one that arose as men and women sensed that they had it within their own power (liberty) to improve their lives and attain a state of blessed existence with their friends, families, and loved ones. Yet Moore’s book also reveals the precarious slope on which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness rest: there needs to be a firm belief that a better life tomorrow is within our reach. If we lack that belief, the backsliding into mundane conformity and the demand for a government of autocratic direction can easily undo all that the past few centuries have bequeathed us. We are the children of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but we must also ensure that our children have the same vigor and opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.