The Pursuit of Happiness? Did Jefferson get it Wrong?

Did he miss a golden opportunity in his choice of words?

“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.”

This may be the most important sentence ever written for America by an American, and one quoted often in our country (and other countries) by those who feel oppressed.

But, what if?

What if Thomas Jefferson, in all his brilliance, had chosen to alter one word? What if instead he would have written, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Greatness.”?

Before I get into it, a little background on Jefferson’s choice of the word “Happiness.” It is theorized by Stephen Greenblatt in his wonderful book, The Swerve, that Jefferson was being true to his declared Epicurean philosophy, which is, basically…the pursuit of happiness. However, in Jefferson’s mind this happiness was not the one we know today. What he intended was defined by Epicurus himself 2000 years before the Sage of Monticello used it to found our nation:

“By [happiness] we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.” Epicurus c.300 BC.

I think it is clear that Jefferson assumed, like most of the founding fathers, his words would be a gateway to their version of happiness – a life-long pursuit of self-improvement. There was no way they could foresee that future generations would take their definition of happiness and apply a new meaning – “putting my wants before my needs.” Jefferson believed strongly that he and his cohorts were giving us the Epircurean happiness that few others in the world were experiencing, and this sole thought drove them and others in shaping our Constitution and Bill of Rights – and thank you one and all for this vision.

But what if?

If Jefferson had only known what would become of most of us pursuing happiness, he may have switched to the word “greatness” and laid down the ultimate challenge to all future generations in America and abroad. What if he had chosen another word and created a clearer template for a country in which all citizens were free, and maybe compelled, to be great?

Maybe a bigger question is, if he had chosen the word “greatness,” would it have changed the way we raise and school our children? I think it would have made a huge difference.

Think of the guilt we would feel as parents as we sit by and watch our kids waste their childhood on junk food and video games. They are happy this way, but not Jeffersonian “happy.” They aren’t great. They aren’t in a continual state of self-improvement. Most of them are in continual state of catatonia.

Think of the effort our schools and government would make as our children fall behind most other civilized countries in all realistic measures of health and education. (Read up if you don’t believe…)

Every politician, teacher and administrator would not stand for it on a local, state or federal level. Every child would be fed with organic food they themselves know how to grow on the school grounds, and taught with relentless vigor under the school roofs. There would be no need for expensive private institutions. All public schools would be like the Academy that Plato founded in ancient Greece and every American child would think and act like a warrior poet.

Why do I seem negative? I’m a dad and it’s my American “itch.” Plus, I’ve always been curious why, almost 250 years after those founding mothers and fathers laid the groundwork, none of us seem to surpass them in intelligence, discipline or grace. Yes, there is the occasional Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt or Steve Jobs that emerges from the mist, but those are once in a generation. At the birth of our nation, they were everywhere.

Maybe it is crisis the forges leaders like those who emerged during the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. But aren’t we and haven’t we been in crisis for some time with our children? (Illiteracy, obsesity, abuse, etc.)

Today, when they reach the age of maturity, our children have not the tools nor the discipline to become great, so they just feed into the masses and are lapped by those few who truly understand the “happiness” the founders intended.

And somehow most of us are okay with this. The ones of us who are not seem powerless to change it.

I can only turn to another quote from Thomas Jefferson. This somewhat belies his famous “pursuit of happiness,” or at least teaches us that he did not intend his country to become a breeding ground for entitled children, (and please forgive Mr. Jefferson his Deist’s views, but it was very common for those men who founded this country):

“Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of any one of his creatures in this world. The most fortunate of us frequently meet with calamities which may greatly afflict us, and to fortify our minds against the attacks of these misfortunes should be one of the principle studies and endeavors of our lives.”

We need to protect our children by giving them the tools for greatness. They are eventually going into battle (adulthood). We must give them sword (health and discipline) and shield (education and mentoring) to survive.

I am convinced this is true Jeffersonian happiness.


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