Politics & Policy

America’S Path

From the January 26, 2004, issue of National Review

The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, by Carl M. Cannon (Rowman & Littlefield, 318 pp., $24.95)

In this exceptionally friendly book, journalist Carl Cannon explores what the word “Happiness” means in the famous phrase, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” found in the Declaration of Independence. Much of the conceptual power of this phrase derives from its linkage of the three: Life is necessary to liberty, and liberty to the pursuit of happiness. Cannon examines the sources of these words, deep in the traditions of Enlightenment political reflection, and the ways they have reverberated in American history since 1776, used by warriors and presidents, including Washington at Valley Forge.

The Confederates, Cannon notes, could make slavery compatible with it only by deeming slaves partially “men,” and of course Lincoln answered this in his Gettysburg Address. George H. W. Bush, World War II flying hero, says here, in a heartwarming response to Cannon’s inquiry, that he attained happiness through satisfaction in his family — thus reminding us that the word “happiness,” for the Declaration, is a box to be filled in by the individual, its content not prescribed (as by Plato and much classical thought) as philosophical contemplation or (as by Christianity) as prayer and holiness.

While giving Jefferson credit for the “magical phrase,” Cannon shows its long prehistory in Enlightenment political theory and the parallel documents of colonies, counties, and towns. In a felicitous passage, Cannon says it more resembles the Mormon Tabernacle Choir than a string quartet: It reflects the mind of the new nation as a whole.

Locke had spoken of life, liberty, and property — explaining that by property he meant the “natural rights of man” not given him by king or ruler — and of the State itself as the basis of a “social contract” between the governed and those who governed them. Prior to this social contract, man was in a mythical State of Nature. Many have asked, as need not be surprising, how a “natural right” as Locke posits it comports with the strict empiricism — sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, however supplemented by instruments — of his Essay on Understanding. Where, amid his empirical facts, does Locke find a natural law? All or most men may say murder is wrong. But where is the law, as far as empiricism is concerned?

Cannon invokes Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) as another possible source, because of its emphasis on liberty: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Taken literally, this is nonsense: A new infant is especially dependent. Rousseau has to mean that man was free in the original State of Nature. Like Locke, he is an anti-Hobbesian: Where Hobbes saw man’s life in the State of Nature as savage — “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” — Rousseau sees mankind as “born free,” without qualification. For him, some of man’s “chains” are desirable: They are not Hobbes’s powerful sovereign but the small deliberative entity ruled by its majority. Ideally, such self-government renders these “chains” legitimate — but all the actual monarchies of Rousseau’s Europe illegitimate. Was Rousseau thus utopian? Burke and Johnson thought so. Not so fast, argued political theorist Willmoore Kendall: Burke and Johnson had not read Rousseau’s recommendations in the 1772 treatise The Government of Poland — which are highly prudential. As much as Burke, perhaps, Rousseau depends in practice upon the particulars of time, place, and history to form a judgment of the possible; he stresses the likely loss inseparable from change. Rousseau, meet Burke.

According to the Declaration, men are “created equal” with regard to those “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” But these rights are commonsensical and in the tradition of English law; they are also, in an important way, contingent. The man condemned to the gallows has forfeited his right to life, the man in prison his liberty; the highwayman cannot claim a right to the “pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration leaves open the specific arrangements for implementing such rights under law.

In the Constitution we have that form specified. Here contingency is foremost, and the term “rights” never appears. The first three words, “We the People,” specify precisely where the foundation of legitimacy lies, and the republican form is set up that was promised in the Declaration’s statement that government derives its “just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” The self-governing people, through a deliberative process — made deliberate by built-in delaying features — decides under what laws it agrees to live. The goals are specified by the six purposes listed in the Preamble, the effectuation of new rights not among them. This Constitution and the Declaration are a seamless cloth.

But do the luminous words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” express universal truths? If they are “self-evident” to human beings, then they must be universal. Cannon seems to believe they are. But such human rights certainly had not occurred to the Indians who are the subject of the 27th count of the indictment of George III — which follows the Preamble in the Declaration but is almost never read: “He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes, and Conditions.” Since the Declaration asks for wide agreement, in America but especially in Paris, “multiculturalism” clearly was not yet a widespread superstition.

But even apart from the “Indian savages,” the “self-evident” truths were hardly self-evident to mankind in 1776. At best, we might argue that such truths were latent in those Indians, and also were latent outside Christian-Enlightenment Europe. Latent in, say, the Chinese or the Zulus? Would these people duly emerge from their conditions, given time? One might hope, I suppose. But Jefferson really seems to have had only Western civilization in mind, as when he wrote to Adams in 1821. Cannon quotes the letter: “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on a steady advance. We have seen, indeed, once within the records of history a compleat eclipse of the human mind continuing for centuries. And this too by swarms of the same northern barbarians, conquering and taking possession of the countries and governments of the civilized world.”

The phrases I have italicized speak for themselves. As Alexander Pope had written in 1727: “How little, mark! That portion of the ball [world] / Where, faint at best, the beams of Science [knowledge] fall.”

But now we face a question. One notices today that the former English colonies — even Kenya — are doing much better those of Spain, Portugal, or even France, nations traditionally more authoritarian in religion and government, and communicating no tradition of self-government. In Heart of Darkness, and I do not wish to dislodge him from his esteem in the universities, Conrad attacks Belgian colonialism, not English. The great English ships going down the Thames and out to sea, he says, were “bearers of a spark from the sacred fire.” How English is the Declaration-Constitution theory of government? How transferable outside the modern West? In most of the world, is free, representative government really latent, maybe “developing,” to use a respectable word, like a photographic print in the acid bath (of Enlightenment)?

Until 1945, Germany, a modern nation, had representative government only during brief and despised Weimar; Japan until 1945 never had it, but is now a successful imitator, as, curiously, in so much else. Both nations had to be smashed in 1945; both seem to have come forward well. Africa remains Africa; Latin America, backward. But the Arab world? Stagnant, humiliated, as lethal as a nest of vipers. Carl Cannon’s book possesses the intellectual excitement that forces us to frame the crucial questions in Jefferson’s terms, questions of high policy now, and of life and death.

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