Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness: The Declaration of Independence's Intent

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, the ever astute G. K. Chesterton noted in his book What I Saw in America, is "perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature." It is a foundational document for Americans, and indeed may be said to have near dogmatic status in what Robert Bellah called the America "civil religion." G. K. Chesterton saw the same phenomenon and so he called the Declaration of Independence America's creed:

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.

G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (London: Hodder and Stoughton), 12.

Within America's creed is found perhaps its central kernel, its "incarnatus est," the central theme of the American political credo, at which all American knees genuflect:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Jefferson's Draft of Declaration of Independence

A central feature of the heart of the political creed is the "pursuit of happiness," that "glittering and sounding generality of natural right"* that gushed forth from the fertile mind of Jefferson, steeped as it was in the writings of the Greek and Roman classics, the writings of the Commonwealthmen, the French philosophes and the Scottish enlightenment. From his fertile mind, that phrase was scratched on paper by nib dipped into the crystal inkpot atop Jefferson's "plain, neat, convenient" desk in Mr. Graff's "new brick house three stories high" in Philadelphia's Market Street.** From that paper, that felicitous word was "fairly engrossed on parchment" made of lamb's hide by the practiced hand of the scrivener Timothy Matlack by order of the Second Continental Congress, only then to be graced by the signatures of fifty-six eminent representatives from the infant "thirteen united States of America," who may as well have been signing their own death warrants. From there it was proclaimed in public squares across the land by voices full of ebullient confidence, and, when heard by the American army in New York, incited an angry mob to destroy King George III's equestrian statue which was at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green in that city, the metal of which was molten into 42,088 bullets later aimed at the bodies of the King's redcoats, how many found their rest in the bodies and brains of those redcoats God only knows. In an apocryphal story which still makes the rounds, King George III allegedly wrote in his diary on July 4, 1776, "Nothing of importance this day." Si non è vero è ben trovato, since those fictional words express the benign neglect, the regal insouciance, nay, perhaps even the kingly opposition to to the rights of the colonists as Englishmen. When those words of Jefferson's eventually made it across the sea to the burning ears of George III--his regal blood unused to opposition set to boiling--naturally found them insubordinate and treasonous, a happiness to be opposed by the might of his army backed by the supposed divine right of Kings.

What, however, did Jefferson whose words started this historical course of America mean by the term "pursuit of happiness"?
That's a hard mystery of Jefferson's
What did he mean? . . . .
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.

Robert Frost, "The Black Cottage"

It is that "hard mystery" of "happiness"--the word as sacred to Americans as the tetragrammaton was to the Jew--that will the the subject of the next several postings. In exploring the mystery of Jefferson's happiness in the Declaration of Independence, we will take the clues imparted to us by Thomas Jefferson himself. In his letter to his fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson confessed that the Declaration "neither aim[ed] at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing." "It was," the Sage of Monticello recalled in his waning years, "intended to be an expression of the American mind." Its intention: "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject."*** This, then, seems to be the opposite of mystery: we have to look for something unoriginal, something, everybody then believed, something built upon common sense.

So what was the unoriginal principle or sentiment, the expression of the American mind, the common sense of the subject when it came to happiness? As Americans, we have lost our hold on the concept of happiness held so close by our colonial forefathers. "Sometimes," as Professor Howard Mumford Jones stated in his lectures on the Declaration of Independence, In Pursuit of Happiness, "we do not see a continuing idea . . . because of the transmogrifications it undergoes."† The concept of "happiness" has gone such a transmogrification. We shall see that the notion as held by Jefferson (and the overwhelming majority of all Americans) was one that recognized the importance of virtue and recognized, moreover, the existence of an objective natural moral law, one found in our nature and one supplied to us by the Creator of nature, nature's God. The modern notion of a happiness purely subjective and libertine, unattached and ungoverned by virtue or any objective moral code--an autonomous, self-defined happiness--was an entirely foreign notion. This has some importance in understanding the role of government: "When Jefferson spoke of pursuit of happiness," as Garry Wills reminds us, "he had nothing vague or private in mind. He meant public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed the test and justification of any government."†† If "happiness" is defined as something subjective, government will mean one thing. If "happiness" is defined as something objective, government means something else entirely.

If we are going to have any hope of drawing forth the notion of "happiness" contained in our foundational document, we are going to have to "reassemble a world around that text" and "resurrect beliefs now discarded," and we are going to have to hear the word "happiness" as it was intended, "ungarbled by intervening quarrels of sons with their fathers' language."†††

Thankfully, we have a clue to what that language meant. It is a clue given by Jefferson and found in another letter to another fellow Virginian, this time Richard Henry Lee. In that letter of May 8, 1825, Thomas Jefferson informed Lee that "All [of the Declaration of Independence's] authority rests then on harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc."‡

Detail, Jefferson's Letter of May 8, 1825 to Richard Henry Lee

We shall focus, then, on what these "elementary books of public right" tell us about "happiness." From Aristotle we must delve into his Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics. From Cicero we must turn to his De legibus (On Laws) and his De finibus bonorum et malorum (On Moral Ends). From Sidney, we ought to look at his Court Maxims and his chief ouvre, his Discourses on Government. From Locke, we can search through his Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his Second Treatise on Government, and we may take a jaunt through the "judicious" Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie which informed Locke's thought. Under the rubric "Etc." we might look at some of the legal books that were influential to Jefferson's legal education, namely Christopher Saint-Germain's The Doctor and Student and Sir Edward Coke's Institutes, and, most particularly, his opinion in Calvin's Case.

A review of all these sources which informed Jefferson's notion of happiness--an amalgam of classical, ecclesiastical, republican, Enlightenment, and legal sources--will quickly show that the notion of happiness envisioned in our Declaration of Independence was one which incorporated the notion of virtue and the existence of a natural moral law, a natural law that revealed, through the natural light of reason, objective norms of right and wrong. This was a natural law that participated in God's eternal law, the same God who created the natural order, and who had revealed himself in Christ.
*The phrase is Rufus Choate's ("glittering and sounding generalities of natural right which make up the Declaration of Independence") Samuel Gilman Brown, ed., "Letter to the Maine Whig Committee," The Works of Rufus Choate (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1862), Vol. I, 215).
**Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Mease, September 25, 1825 (quoted in Pauline Maier,
America Scripture (New York Alfred E. Knopf 1997), 186-87.
***Thomas Jefferson,
Political Writings (Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball, eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 148 (Letter to Richard Henry Lee, May 8, 1825).
†Howard Mumford Jones,
The Pursuit of Happiness(Cornell University Press, 1966), 1.
††Garry Wills,
Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 164.
†††Wills, 259, 369.
‡Letter to Henry Lee, May i, 1825, in Jefferson, 148.

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