Why must the “inalienable right” be the pursuit of happiness rather than just happiness?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "pursuit of happiness" is one of the more nebulous phrases in the Declaration of Independence. It was stated as a fundamental right belonging to all people, but it is not elaborated on or fully defined in the document. We might note here as well that John Locke, the English philosopher who heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, asserted that "life, liberty, and property" were the unalienable rights that governments were established to protect. So what did Jefferson and his colleagues mean by "pursuit of happiness?" One recent scholar has suggested that the word pursuit to Jefferson did not mean "chasing" happiness, but rather "experiencing" or "living" it. He claims that the Declaration asserts that protecting "the good or flourishing life" for all its citizens should be a fundamental aim of government. In her work Historian Pauline Maier has pointed out that happiness as a political goal is "everywhere" in American political writings and occurred quite frequently in European writing as well. Maier concludes that happiness "demanded safety or security...to be at peace under their vine and fig tree with none to make them afraid [this was a common biblical allusion in colonial times]." Of course, this meant that people needed to possess some kind of property, but since property could be sold or otherwise disposed of, it could not be said to be unalienable. So according to scholars, the "pursuit" of happiness, however defined seems to have fit the eighteenth-century conception of what rights belonged to every individual in a society. The signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the numerous  authorities they drew from to create the document, recognized that happiness itself could not really be guaranteed, but the ability to attain it could be.

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