Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Constitutional Right to "Pursue Happiness"?

When someone like David Barton makes a statement like what we see next, the tendency is to pounce on it and make him look stupid. Carl Trueman wrote:
One of the great traits of many Americans is that they want to be kind and they want to be affirming. They even have a constitutional right to pursue happiness.
Trueman is actually, in my opinion, a brilliantly good scholar. Not joking. I've also witnessed Andrew Sullivan, another very smart British expatriate make the same error. And in a similar context (LGBT rights; though Sullivan was discussing same sex marriage if I remember it right).

Of course the US Constitution doesn't say that men have a "right" to pursue happiness, like it says we have a right to freedom of speech or free exercise of religion. Rather the Declaration of Independence asserts it.

But I do see some truth to the assertion. It's the notion that the D.O.I. is part of the organic law of the United States and has some authority as law in constitutional interpretation.

This is a contentious assertion. And as such it requires an argument. Timothy Sandefur makes the argument. Others have made it before him. I think the fact that smart folks like Trueman and Sullivan could have something like that roll off their tongues so instinctually supports the argument. Something was in the "air" back then. I think that's what it means to be "organic."


jimmiraybob said...

"...our Constitution was written not to empower democracy, but to secure liberty. In fact, the word 'democracy' does not occur in either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence." "Liberty comes first and order arises from it," states Sandefur.

I assume that we're talking about an honor system form of voluntary government maintained to organize some basic go-by rules or maybe uncoerced life, liberty and happiness suggestions, where no one has undo advantage? A government that just sits back and watches the order grow and grow as its happy citizens embrace their unfettered liberty free of the shackles of democratic representation? Cool. Will we still need guns?

JMS said...

Jon – I agree with your “pursuit of happiness” interpretation completely. In the 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke wrote: “The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty.” I think it has been expounded upon the best in the 17-page article “The Declaration of Independence as Part of an American National Compact” by Donald S. Lutz in Publius, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1989), pp. 41-58. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3330564, Lutz posits, “The position to be argued here is that most of the Declaration of In-dependence derives directly from the early state constitutions-early state compacts to be more precise-and thus from the American constitutional tradition that was built upon the covenant/compact tradition, English com-mon law, and Whig political theory.” He concludes that the Declaration of Independence was both a statement of American values and part of the social compact/covenant with the U.S. Constitution that forms the USA’s “national compact.”

About happiness, Lutz stated: “[Jefferson’s] alteration of Locke's formula "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and happiness" did not represent a partial rejection of Locke any more than it was a basic copying of Locke. George Mason had the formulation, although in a longer phrasing, and it was an old and widespread one. The idea that happiness is the end of government could be found in the writings of Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, John Adams, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, and James Otis, to name a few. John Adams said, for example: ‘Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government. . . . From this principle it will follow that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.' The idea was also found in the writings of those from whom these Americans drew, including Algernon Sidney, Burlamaqui, Vattel, Wollaston, Beccaria, Bolingbroke,” etc.

Art Deco said...

'Fraid the 'pursuit of happiness' is a game of thimblerig, for the most part. If you do not appreciate your circumstances, new circumstances generally do not improve your sense of well-being for very long.

The Dien Thoai said...

George Mason, and James Otis, to name a few. John Adams said, for example: ‘Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government. . . .