The pursuit of happiness in historical context
Conklin, Carli Nicole, Department of History, University of Virginia
McCurdy, Charles W., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
This dissertation explores the meaning of the phrase the "pursuit of happiness" in its historical context.
In William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), the pursuit of happiness is defined as a method by which man could know the law of nature as it applied to humans. To know if a positive law was in conformity with the law of nature, man only had to ask himself if the positive law led to his ownrealand substantial happiness. Thus, Blackstone focused on the "happiness" portion of the phrase. Blackstone sought to replace Roman models of legal education and jurisprudence with English models at the university level, and the pursuit of happiness was instrumental to his goals. He believed the pursuit of happiness to beasimple and certain method of jurisprudence by which English university students (future lawmakers and judges) could identify legal first principles and then apply those first principles in their efforts to perfect and preserve the English Common Law.
In the Declaration of Independence (1776), the pursuit of happiness is listed as an unalienable right bestowed by the Creator upon all men, who are created equal. Men like Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration, focused on the "pursuit" portion of the phrase. They understood the pursuit of happiness as man's unalienable right to choose to live in harmony with the law of nature as it pertained to humans. When man was ruled by tyranny, such choice was impossible. This understanding of pursuit of happiness reflects a Founding Era philosophy of first principles that existed at the convergence of English law and legal theory, classical history and philosophy, Christianity, and the Scottish Enlightenment's focus on Newtonian Science.
Both Blackstone and Jefferson defined "happiness" as eudaimonia¬—the ancient Greek concept of human flourishing or well-being. Similarly, both Blackstone and Jefferson understood that to pursue happiness was to choose to live in harmony with the law of nature as it applied to humans—and, thereby, to flourish. It was in this sense that the phrase was understood in its eighteenth-century historical context.
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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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