Told  /  Etymology

Who Really Wrote ‘the Pursuit of Happiness’?

The voice of Doctor Johnson, archcritic of the American Revolution, was constantly in mind for the Declaration of Independence’s drafter.

In 1964, Schlesinger wrote a striking short essay titled “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’” in which he offered a new interpretation. For years, he argued, people had been reading that line incorrectly. Schlesinger believed that when Jefferson wrote pursuit, he was using it in the word’s “more emphatic” meaning—as lawyers used to talk about “the pursuit of the law” or doctors spoke of “the pursuit of medicine.” This did not mean questing after or chasing down. Instead, it implied a person’s engagement with a practice or vocation already in their possession. Jefferson was not at odds with the other Founders at all, according to Schlesinger, but in his reading of the line, the shift in meaning was significant: Some of the romantic sense of mission, some of the novelty of its idea of itself, was gone.

“The pursuit of Happiness” may be pure rhetoric, as Choate believed, or it may have a lost meaning, as Schlesinger argued, but there is a third interpretation we should consider. The age of Enlightenment out of which the United States arose was abuzz with discussions of happiness. What was it? How best to acquire it? Debating clubs churned over these issues. The philosopher Francis Hutcheson came up with complex formulas involving human qualities such as “benevolence” (B), “ability” (A), “self-love” (S), and “interest” (I) to create the conditions for what he termed the “moment of good” (M). (One part of his workings went M = B + S x A = BA.) Others relied on experience more than theory. Having encountered the Indigenous people of New Holland (modern-day Australia) for the first time, Captain Cook sailed away mulling, ungrammatically, whether they were “far more happier than we Europeans.”

But the author who wrote with the most intensity about happiness during the Revolutionary period was Samuel Johnson. Johnson was someone all of the Founders knew well. Ever since the reproduction of parts of his poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” in Poor Richard’s Almanack for 1750, his work had found a ready audience in the colonies. As the historian James G. Basker has pointed out, “Johnson was a part of the consciousness of every literate American during the Founding Era.” And for Jefferson, he notes in particular, “the connection was unusually subtle and sustained.”