Public Comment

Commentary: The Pursuit of Happiness: Jefferson, I Think We’re Lost

By Michael Katz
Friday July 07, 2006

This is the week when, in between barbecues and fireworks, we sometimes spare a few thoughts about our founding dead white guys. Guys like Thomas Jefferson, who’s had a hard run recently. 

Last year this time, Jefferson’s name almost fell off a Berkeley school. Before the Berkeley School Board narrowly blocked them, students, families, and staff of Jefferson Elementary School voted to disassociate themselves from the old slaveholder.  

In Los Angeles, a Jefferson High School has become a closely-watched shorthand for all inner-city schools’ burdens: underfunding, overcrowding, underachievement, and racial brawling. 

The first of these tales out of school speaks to Jefferson’s failings; the second to our own. 

Our third president was a famous bundle of contradictions. In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson “crafted the most inspiring egalitarian promise in modern history while living his entire life among 200 slaves,” wrote prominent biographer Joseph J. Ellis in American Sphinx.  

Jefferson was a wealthy planter who died virtually bankrupt. A master organizer of nations who crammed an estate with disorganized clutter. A Deist—like other prominent founders, a dissenter from organized religion—who led a society animated by religious fervor.  

But although Jefferson has plenty to answer for, we shouldn’t understate his, and his fellow rebels’, radical achievement in establishing a nation pledged to the Declaration’s principles: 

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed...with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ... That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new effect their safety and happiness. 

Of course, it took centuries to invest those noble words about equality and unalienable rights with real meaning. We don’t even know yet how many centuries. When our nation really lives up to Jefferson’s democratic ideals, we’ll know. 

Jefferson didn’t originate these principles: Natural rights were in the air of his Enlightenment 18th century. He even copped the general phrasing from George Mason, an uncompromising freethinker who was sort of Jefferson’s Jefferson. Mason’s remarkable Virginia Declaration of Rights also prefigured much of the eventual U.S. Bill of Rights. 

But Jefferson made it all sing. He also added an extended denunciation of the slave trade—which the Continental Congress removed from the final Declaration, to appease Georgia and South Carolina. 

And Jefferson and company did something genuinely new in declaring that their new nation’s government should bow to human happiness, rather than the reverse. Official utterances in those days were all about obligations upward, to crown and heaven: God save the King. I pledge allegiance to the nation under God.  

Sorry, that last bit of backsliding wouldn’t be drafted until 1892, by a Socialist. Congress wouldn’t drag in God until 1954. 

And backsliding was on my mind this July 4, because we’re back in the yoke of old and regressive ideas. Jefferson’s most cherished values are in retreat, along with him, these 230 years later: Restraints on the power of absolute rulers named George. The flourishing of reason. The legitimacy of scientific evidence. Secularism. Free immigration. The cultivation of public education. Perhaps the whole Enlightenment project itself.  

Especially endangered is the pursuit of happiness. The hornet’s nest of reaction and religious zeal that’s stung at Jefferson’s America for the last generation has been consistent about precisely one thing: They want to save us all from our happiness.  

Today’s oppressors would save gay Americans from enjoying the loving marriages they themselves can’t achieve. (And they have the nerve to call their lobbies “Liberty Institute” and “Defense of Marriage.”) They’ve long insisted on dictating which stimulants we may consume. Now they would also dictate just what we may read, write, say, and even believe—and what official abuses and atrocities we may know.  

They would free our children from the adequately funded public education that leads to a happy, productive life. They would free us all from the happiness of a secure, dignified retirement.  

The Tories who now run Congress—descendants of the slaveholding planter elite that Jefferson and Mason tried to destroy from within—even refused to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. 

Their moralistic fervor has a common result: promoting isolation and unhappiness. Just as the original Puritans transformed Massachusetts from a sanctuary into an oppressive colony of witch-burners, modern-day Puritans’ good intentions have the odd result of serving the Devil. 

So how are we doing on happiness? Apparently, not so well. In the 2005 World Values Survey—a fascinating international poll—the U.S. ranked only 15th in respondents’ self-declared happiness. Beating us were several Latin American countries with more sunshine than transparent government (corrupt, war-ravaged Colombia was No. 8) and northern democracies with better social policy than weather (Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Canada). 

Five of the same northerly democracies helped edge us to No. 10 in last year’s U.N. Human Development Index—an annual ranking of countries’ “livability” based on objective criteria like life expectancy, literacy, educational enrollment, and per capita income. 

The cool northern societies that beat us in both subjective and objective measures of well-being share an organizing principle: Limit the economic advantages of those at the top, through progressive taxation and generous income supports; but maximize the freedom that those on the bottom have to determine their own lifestyles, expressions, and beliefs. This model is too pragmatic to even be summarized by an ideology—unless you want to call it Jeffersonian. 

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s new nation has moved toward a model that one might call Singaporization, after the city-state that combines vigorous capitalism with repressive dictatorship: Maximize the economic prerogatives of those at the top, by compounding soaring executive pay with tax giveaways; minimize the economic, political, and behavioral freedoms of those on the bottom. 

Singapore, which some American wag once dubbed a “fascist Disneyland,” is infamous for imprisoning political dissidents, fining gum-chewers, and caning petty vandals. How far are we from that? Several U.S. employers will now fire you for smoking, or for even refusing a random tobacco test. And you can bet that Wal-Mart, now America’s largest employer, will fire you for trying to organize a union. 

Singapore’s mix of economic openness and political control is an explicit model for the dictators running nearby China. So Jefferson’s heirs, and the emerging superpower that now makes most of our stuff, are converging on a model Jefferson would abhor. 

Except, the Chinese dictatorship hardly represents China’s 1.3 billion people. And the Bible-thumpers who covet and confiscate others’ happiness don’t represent all Americans. Their fevered moralism is fundamentally a Southern thing, dutifully legislated into policy by a GOP repaying the Bible Belt’s solid allegiance. 

While lecturing blue states about “defending marriage,” much of Dixie has a divorce rate 50 percent higher than the national average. Several other Southern social indicators don’t look much better. The rest of us are largely innocent victims, caught in the crossfire of the South’s own endless cycle of moral scolding and moral failure. Like its distinguished son Jefferson, the nation’s most eloquent region has never quite gotten itself under control or lived up to its own ideals. 

WWJD (What would Jefferson do) about a nation backsliding into inequality and “monkish ignorance and superstition"? That last phrase comes from Jefferson’s letter to the Declaration of Independence’s 50th anniversary celebration. After acknowledging the world’s unfree and unhappy, he hopefully addressed their prospects: 

All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately… . 

Each July 4, Jefferson hoped, would “forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” That was his last public statement. Remarkably, he and fellow founder John Adams both became dead white guys on July 4, 1826. 


Michael Katz is a charter member of the Anti-Federalist Society.