The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

The Unhappiness of Happiness

William M. Chace

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

In 1763, young Thomas Jefferson wrote a College of William and Mary classmate about being rejected by a woman on whom he had set his hopes: “Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I have steadfastly believed.”1 That happiness was not guaranteed, but could be sought, was part of Jefferson’s credo, not only when he was a romantically inclined youth but when he was a middle-aged man who, having read John Locke (“life, liberty, and estate”), envisioned the nation whose principles he was helping to form. Thus, in 1776 he could write, “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 sentence in the Declaration of Independence, particularly the word “pursuit,” fixes happiness near the center of this nation’s self-understanding. While he didn’t say that our happiness is guaranteed—the hopeful Jefferson was not the foolish Jefferson—his words imply that happiness is part of our patrimony. Without it, we would be less than we can or must be; with it, we confirm ourselves as citizens of the Republic.

Jefferson’s words pose fundamental questions for us today. First, to what extent has his envisioning of a “right” to pursue happiness been realized? Or, more simply, how happy are we as Americans? Second, does the “right” he proclaimed conflict with other principles on which a democratic society could be founded; what, if anything, gets shouldered aside as we seek individual freedom? In short, did Jefferson unwittingly bequeath us a vision of happiness that could, alas, never be fulfilled?

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  1. “From Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 15 July 1763,” Founders Online, National Archives, Accessed April 22, 2016.

William M. Chace is Honorary Professor of English, Emeritus, at Stanford University. He was president of Wesleyan University from 1988 to 1994 and president of Emory University from 1994 to 2003. His books include The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (1973) and Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics, and Justice Denied: The Black Man in White America (co-editor, with Peter Collier).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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