by Tom Shachtman
Before Thomas Jefferson began to write a draft of the Declaration of Independence, the majority of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress were already on record as agreeing that “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the [British] crown should be totally suppressed,” the phraseology of a May 15 resolution, mostly written by John Adams, that stopped short of an actual declaring of independence. But the need for such a declaration had then become even more apparent, and the Congress had delegated its writing to a committee, which had assigned it to committee members Jefferson and Adams. Adams declined in Jefferson’s favor, for good reasons: “Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to be at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”
Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900, depicts (left to right) Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. Image is in the public domain, via Wikipedia.
Adams was quite reasonable because he knew, as Jefferson later pointed out, that his draft of the Declaration was “an expression of the American mind [whose] authority rests…on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right.” While Adams’ May 15 resolution used mostly the language of lawyers, Jefferson’s document relied on the language of scientists. As would an article in a scientific journal, his opening paragraph requested peer review from a “candid world,” required by a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” Its experimental method was induction, drawing a conclusion from observed facts. The document promised to provide “a long train of abuses & usurpations,” a series in which “no one fact stands in single or solitary to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest.” Jefferson here was following Newton’s Fourth Rule of doing science: “We are to look upon propositions collected by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined.”
“There is not an idea in [the Declaration], but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before,” Adams later asserted. Jefferson, in response to Adams’ comment, reiterated that his plan had been “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”
As for the concepts that “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” each word and phrase had a basis for which scientific verity as well as legal precedent can be claimed. Jefferson’s original draft read, “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable.” Various Europeans, including the reigning expert on the natural world, the Comte de Buffon, had embraced the opposite notion, that Africans, Asians, and Native Americans had become biologically inferior to Caucasians; Jefferson agreed with that bias in regard to Africans, but in composing the Declaration, his term “all men are created equal” was employed mainly to underscore everyone’s equality before the law.
Once men were understood to have been created equal—not born equal, but created equal by their Creator—it was logical to also believe that they possessed certain inherent and inalienable (or unalienable) rights, given to them when they were created and not to be taken away by any human being, including “life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.” Adams’s May 15 resolution had this as justifying actions “for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties.” Jefferson excluded the concept of property because ownership of property was not universally shared, as were the other rights to be defended.
The rights to life and to liberty were readily understood then and are now; but in the course of the past 200-plus years many Americans have puzzled over the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness.” In 1776, however, Jefferson’s contemporaries found little to quarrel about in his use of the phrase.
“The pursuit of happiness” had several meanings. One, usually overlooked because it has no modern counterpart, was common and perhaps best expressed in a book known to have been carefully read by Franklin and owned by Jefferson, Adams, and Washington: William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated. Wollaston wrote that the greatest happiness lay in the discovery of truth, and that “It is by the practice of truth that we aim at happiness.”
Another clue to Jefferson’s use of “pursuit of happiness” comes from a more rigorous scientific concept—that of infinity. Happiness is one of several goals that the Declaration considered to be desirable but at an infinite distance—as the document also positioned two other concepts, safety and property. While individuals might endlessly aim toward possessing unimaginably vast quantities of safety, property, or happiness, individuals would never be able to achieve perfect safety, property, or happiness. Men and women, in the Declaration’s assertions, had only the right to pursue these desiderata; accordingly, since it made no logical sense for the Declaration to attempt to guarantee those entities, the Declaration refused to do so. Jefferson and the Congress did not want a new government to promise what it could never deliver.
TOM SHACHTMAN has written or co-authored more than three dozen books, including Rumspringa, Airlift to America, and Terrors and Marvels, written and produced documentaries seen on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Smithsonian, environmental magazines, and such blogs as The Huffington Post, History News Network, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post’s “Book Beat. ” He lives in Salisbury, Connecticut. His latest book is Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries