The “pursuit of happiness” today in popular culture is not the kind of happiness America’s founders declared as an inalienable right. If we are to have a flourishing society in the twenty-first century, we must raise a generation that knows what it truly means to pursue happiness. When the Founders referred to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, they were not advocating a license to simply pursue pleasure. It was understood to be the pursuit of a virtuous (morally upright) life under the authority of God.
The Pursuit of Virtue
The Founders understood true happiness was the result of living a virtuous life. Therefore, in order to pursue happiness one must pursue virtue. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, later wrote, “Virtue [is] the foundation of happiness.”
Benjamin Franklin, who assisted Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence wrote:
“I believe [God] is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he created; and since without Virtue Man can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleas’d when he sees me Happy.”
The Founders were also greatly influenced by Christian philosopher John Locke. He wrote of “the necessity of pursuing happiness [as] the foundation of liberty” and explained that God “joined virtue and public happiness together, and made the practice thereof necessary to the preservation of society.”
To act on the Founders wisdom, we must return to the formula they outlined in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787:
“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
While public schools cannot establish any particular religion, they need to educate students in the important principles that religion brings to society in helping its citizens live virtuous and fulfilling lives.
When the Founders wrote about “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” they were referring to the three key elements for a virtuous and flourishing society — thus, a happy society. This Independence Day is a great opportunity to remind ourselves that to pursue happiness we must pursue virtue.