Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

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"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" is a well-known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence.[1] The phrase gives three examples of the "unalienable rights" which the Declaration says have been given to all human beings by their creator, and which governments are created to protect.

Origin and phrasing[edit]

The United States Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and then edited by the Committee of Five, which consisted of Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. It was then further edited and adopted by the Committee of the Whole of the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.[2][3] The second paragraph of the first article in the Declaration of Independence contains the phrase "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

Jefferson's "original Rough draught" is on exhibit in the Library of Congress.[4] This version was used by Julian Boyd to create a transcript of Jefferson's draft,[5] which reads:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; ...

The Committee of Five edited Jefferson's draft. Their version survived further edits by the whole Congress intact, and reads:[6]

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. ——

A number of possible sources or inspirations for Jefferson's use of the phrase in the Declaration of Independence have been identified, although scholars debate the extent to which any one of them actually influenced Jefferson. Jefferson declared himself an Epicurean during his lifetime: this is a philosophical doctrine that teaches the pursuit of happiness and proposes autarchy, which translates as self-rule, self-sufficiency or freedom. The greatest disagreement comes between those who suggest the phrase was drawn from John Locke and those who identify some other source.[citation needed]

Meaning of "happiness"[edit]

There is debate about what the word "happiness" may have meant in 1776. Current usage focuses on pleasant, positive emotions and having needs satisfied,[7][8] whereas in 1776 the common meaning may have been "prosperity, thriving, wellbeing".[9][10]

Lockean roots hypothesis[edit]

In 1689, Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that political society existed for the sake of protecting "property", which he defined as a person's "life, liberty, and estate".[11] In A Letter Concerning Toleration, he wrote that the magistrate's power was limited to preserving a person's "civil interest", which he described as "life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things".[12] He declared in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that "the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness".[13]

According to those scholars who saw the root of Jefferson's thought in Locke's doctrine, Jefferson replaced "estate" with "the pursuit of happiness", although this does not mean that Jefferson meant the "pursuit of happiness" to refer primarily or exclusively to property. Under such an assumption, the Declaration of Independence would declare that government existed primarily for the reasons Locke gave, and some have extended that line of thinking to support a conception of limited government.[14][15][16][17][18]

Virginia Declaration of Rights[edit]

The first and second article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776, speaks of happiness in the context of recognizably Lockean rights and is paradigmatic of the way in which "the fundamental natural rights of mankind" were expressed at the time.[19][20]

That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson in downplaying protection of "property" as a goal of government. It is noted that Franklin found property to be a "creature of society" and thus, he believed that it should be taxed as a way to finance civil society.[22]

Alternative hypotheses[edit]

In 1628, Sir Edward Coke wrote in The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England, his commentary on Thomas de Littleton, that "It is commonly said that three things be favoured in Law, Life, Liberty, Dower."[23] At common law, dower was closely guarded as a means by which the widow and orphan of a deceased landowner could keep their real property.[24]

Garry Wills has argued that Jefferson did not take the phrase from Locke and that it was indeed meant to be a standard by which governments should be judged.[25] Wills suggests Adam Ferguson as a good guide to what Jefferson had in mind:

If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.

— Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society[26]

The 17th-century cleric and philosopher Richard Cumberland wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the "pursuit of our own happiness".[27] Locke never associated natural rights with happiness, but his philosophical opponent Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made such an association in the introduction to his Codex Iuris Gentium.[28] William Wollaston's The Religion of Nature Delineated describes the "truest definition" of "natural religion" as being "The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth".[29] An English translation of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui's Principles of Natural and Politic Law prepared in 1763 extolled the "noble pursuit" of "true and solid happiness" in the opening chapter discussing natural rights.[30] Historian Jack Rakove posits Burlamaqui as the inspiration for Jefferson's phrase.[31]

Another possible source for the phrase is in the Commentaries on the Laws of England published by Sir William Blackstone, from 1765 to 1769, which are often cited in the laws of the United States. Blackstone argues that God 'has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.” This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.'[32]

Comparable mottos worldwide[edit]

Other tripartite mottos include "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) in France; "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" (unity, justice and liberty) in Germany and "peace, order, and good government" in Canada.[33] It is also similar to a line in the Canadian Charter of Rights: "life, liberty, security of the person" (this line was also in the older Canadian Bill of rights, which added "enjoyment of property" to the list).

The phrase can also be found in Chapter III, Article 13 of the 1947 Constitution of Japan, and in President Ho Chi Minh's 1945 declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. An alternative phrase "life, liberty, and property", is found in the Declaration of Colonial Rights, a resolution of the First Continental Congress. The Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution declare that governments cannot deprive any person of "life, liberty, or property" without due process of law. Also, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person".


  1. Jump up ^ "The Declaration of Independence: Rough Draft". Archived from the original on March 30, 2014. Retrieved May 18, 2014. Scanned image of the Jefferson's "original Rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence, written in June 1776, including all the changes made later by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other members of the committee, and by Congress.
  2. Jump up ^ Rakove, Jack N. (2009). The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 7–22. ISBN 0674036069.
  3. Jump up ^ Dube, Ann Marie (May 1996). "The Declaration of Independence". A Multitude of Amendments, Alterations and Additions. Pennsylvania: U.S. National Park Service. OCLC 44638441.
  4. Jump up ^ "We Hold These Truths To Be Self Evident..." U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved October 29, 2013.
  5. Jump up ^ Boyd, Julian P., ed. (1950). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Volume 1: 1760–1776. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 243–47. OCLC 16353926.
  6. Jump up ^ "Declaration of Independence". U.S. National Archives. Retrieved May 19, 2013.
  7. Jump up ^ Khoddam, Rubin (June 16, 2015). "What's Your Definition of Happiness?". Psychology Today. Retrieved January 21, 2017.
  8. Jump up ^ Kaufman, Scott Barry (January 30, 2016). "The Differences between Happiness and Meaning in Life". Scientific American. Retrieved January 21, 2017.
  9. Jump up ^ Fountain, Ben (September 17, 2016). "Two American Dreams: how a dumbed-down nation lost sight of a great idea". The Guardian. Retrieved January 21, 2017.
  10. Jump up ^ Shannon, Timothy J. (July 4, 2016). "What About That Pursuit of Happiness?". via Gettysburg College. Retrieved January 21, 2017.
  11. Jump up ^ Locke, John (1988) [1689]. Laslett, Peter, ed. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. Sec. 87, 123, 209, 222. ISBN 052135448X.
  12. Jump up ^ Locke, John (1983) [1689]. Tully, James H., ed. A Letter Concerning Toleration. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing. p. 26. ISBN 091514560X.
  13. Jump up ^ Locke, John (1975) [1689]. Nidditch, Peter H., ed. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Book 2, Chapter 21, Section 51. ISBN 0198245955.
  14. Jump up ^ Zuckert, Michael P. (1996). The Natural Rights Republic. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. pp. 73–85. ISBN 0268014809.
  15. Jump up ^ Corbett, Ross J. (2009). The Lockean Commonwealth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 1438427948.
  16. Jump up ^ Pangle, Thomas L. (1988). The Spirit of Modern Republicanism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226645401.
  17. Jump up ^ Gibson, Alan (2009). Interpreting the Founding (2nd ed.). Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700617051.
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  19. Jump up ^ Rakove, Jack N. (2009). The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 78. ISBN 0674036069.
  20. Jump up ^ Banning, Lance (1995). Jefferson & Madison. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 17, 103–04. ISBN 0945612486. Lance Banning notes that the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the inspiration for the phrase in the Declaration of Independence, but does not trace it back to Locke, and in general downplays Jefferson's debts to Locke.
  21. Jump up ^ "The Virginia Declaration of Rights". U.S. National Archives. Retrieved May 19, 2013.
  22. Jump up ^ Franklin, Benjamin (2006). Skousen, Mark, ed. The Compleated Autobiography. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing. p. 413. ISBN 0-89526-033-6.
  23. Jump up ^ Coke, Edward (1628). The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England. London: Adam Islip. Section 193. OCLC 84760833.
  24. Jump up ^ Whitehead, Edward Jenkins (1922). The Law of Real Property in Illinois. 1. Chicago: Burdette J. Smith & Company. p. 178. OCLC 60731472.
  25. Jump up ^ Wills, Gary (2002) [1978]. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. New York, NY: Mariner Books. ISBN 978-0-618-25776-8.
  26. Jump up ^ Ferguson, Adam (1995) [1767]. Oz-Salzberger, Fania, ed. An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–100. ISBN 052144215X.
  27. Jump up ^ Cumberland, Richard (2005) [1727]. A Treatise of the Laws of Nature. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. pp. 523–24. ISBN 0865974721.
  28. Jump up ^ Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1988). Riley, Patrick, ed. Leibniz: Political Writings (2nd ed.). Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. p. 171. ISBN 0521353807.
  29. Jump up ^ Wollaston, William (1759) [1722]. The Religion of Nature Delineated (8th ed.). London: Samuel Palmer. p. 90. OCLC 2200588.
  30. Jump up ^ Burlamaqui, Jean-Jacques (2006) [1747]. The Principles of Natural and Politic Law. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. p. 31. ISBN 0865974969.
  31. Jump up ^ Rakove, Jack N. (2010). Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 300. ISBN 0618267468. ...arguably owed more to Jefferson's reading of the Swiss jurist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui than it did to his manifest debt to John Locke.
  32. Jump up ^ Blackstone, William (1765). "Section the Second: Of the Nature of Laws in General". Commentaries on the Laws of England. Clarendon Press. pp. 40–41. OCLC 65350522.
  33. Jump up ^ Dyck, Perry Rand (2000). Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches (3rd ed.). Scarborough, ON: Nelson Thomson Learning. ISBN 978-0-17-616792-9.