The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness

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Scholars have long struggled to define the meaning of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. The most common understandings suggest either that the phrase is a direct substitution for John Locke’s conception of property or that the phrase is a rhetorical flourish that conveys no substantive meaning. Yet, property and the pursuit of happiness were listed as distinct—not synonymous—rights in eighteenth-century writings. Furthermore, the very inclusion of “the pursuit of happiness” as one of only three unalienable rights enumerated in the Declaration suggests that the drafters must have meant something substantive when they included the phrase in the text.

This Article seeks to define the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” within its eighteenth-century legal context by exploring the placement and meaning of the phrase within two of the eighteenth century’s most important legal texts: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). Ultimately, this article concludes that “the pursuit of happiness”—which was understood to be both a public duty and a private right—evoked an Enlightenment understanding of the first principles of law by which the natural world is governed, the idea that those first principles were discoverable by humans, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing.