The Corner

The Pursuit of Happiness

Continuing the discussion from yesterday, an email:

“1. Why did Jefferson replace ‘property’ with ‘pursuit of happiness’? Historians usually attribute the alteration to a widespread awareness that ‘property’ was a colonial euphemism for ’slavery.’ Had the Continental Congress proclaimed the purpose of government the preservation of life, liberty, and slavery, the document would have lost something of its rhetorical force, no?

“2. More seriously, I think [Andrew] Sullivan is widely off the mark in suggesting that the Founders were indifferent to the government’s role in cultivating virtue. To a one, they subscribed to the logic of classic republicanism, which held that liberty could only be maintained by a virtuous people. (It held as a corollary that the only reliable means of safeguarding virtue was the cultivation of religious piety, but that’s another matter for another time.) They believed that local governments were best positioned to cultivate the moral sentiments necessary for republican governance, but they weren’t averse to seeing the national legislature take on the task within its proper domain — specifically, in the federal territories. Recall, for example, Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which stipulated that ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’

“There’s a lot more to say about this; I could go on for pages and pages. Suffice it to say, I think that Sullivan’s interpretation can’t bear the weight of overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary.”

RP: This is all very interesting, as was the discussion yesterday, and I thank the correspondent. I think that the bit there about religion and morality “being necessary. . . to the happiness of mankind” gets you part of the way (but only part of the way) to an answer to my original questions–which were, again, whether we can identify a particular view of “happiness” among the Founders and whether that view included a moral component (whether, that is, they regarded happiness not just as satisfaction but as something closer to justified satisfaction).

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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