© Original content written by James R. Carlson
The Rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
…that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The principles outlined in the list of rights of mankind were borrowed from John Locke who wrote about the rights of life, liberty, and estate in his, Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689. The Virginia State Legislature first established these rights in their Declaration of Rights one month prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence (June 12, 1776). Let’s explore each of them in the context of the Framer’s world view.
John Locke’s Two Treatises had the following to say about the famous triad of freedoms:
That being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker…
But after that [son growing to adulthood] the father and son are equally free as much as tutor and pupil after nonage, equally subjects of the same law together, without any dominion left in the father over the life, liberty, or estate of his son whether they be only in the state and under the law of nature, or under the positive laws of an established government…
And will anyone say, that the Mother hath a legislative power over her children, that she can make standing rules, which shall be of perpetual obligation, by which they ought to regulate all the concerns of their property, and bound their liberty all the course of their lives?…
To take away all such mutual grievances, injuries and wrongs, ie. such as attend men in the state of nature. There was no way but only by growing into composition and agreement amongst themselves, by ordaining some kind of government public, and by yielding themselves subject thereunto, that unto whom they granted authority to rule and govern, by them the peace, tranquility, and happy estate of the rest might be procured…
…nobody can transfer to another [legislature] more power than he has in himself; and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another. A man, as has been proved, cannot subject himself to the arbitrary power of another; and having in the state of nature no arbitrary power over the life, liberty, or possession of another, but only so much as the law of nature gave him for the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind…
The rights to life, liberty, and property were basic human rights in Locke’s and the Framer’s minds. Let’s review each of these basic rights one at a time.
The Right to Life
The first of these is the right to life, which in the context of the 18th century meant the freedom to exist free from harm. Today we understand it in terms of abortion. Life was given to us by our parents and the right we have to life is a freedom to choose the course our life will take. When we are children, we are not responsible for the decisions we make but when we become adults we should follow a moral course in our lives by the choices we make. Having learned right from wrong as children, we take responsibility for our lives and decisions as adults.
God is the ultimate author of life and we are taught to preserve the right to life of all persons. Government is an institution of God meant to preserve right behavior and officers of the law are supposed to protect our day to day lives. However, following one Supreme Court ruling in 1973, the right to life for babies was dismissed in favor of the right of a mother to have an abortion.
In the context of the American Revolution, the right to life was not in the sense of abortion but in the freedom one had in their life to pursue their choices on a day to day basis without the government putting undue burdens on them. The government should protect everyone, young and old, in the choices they make. But for those whose lives are cut short by abortion, they do not have the opportunity to make even the simplest choice for life itself. It is the responsibility to make right choices, be accountable for wrong ones, and preserve the life of unborn children. The right to choose also means making right choices and being responsible for them as adults.
Liberty under Law
Liberty is not easily understood. As children we understand liberty in doing whatever we please. As adults, we understand liberty in the context of responsibility. The difference between children and adults is that adults are responsible for their decisions – children are not. Children should be trained to make good choices but until they’re adults, the parents are ultimately responsible for their choices.
The right to choose, associated with abortion, is often touted as a key right found under the umbrella of the right of liberty. But on closer examination, the right of liberty does not provide a foundation for abortion; liberty is a right that requires the prevention of abortion and other irresponsible and immoral decisions.
The genius of America’s Declaration of Independence is the idea of ‘liberty under law.’ The idea of God’s law being above man’s law is the means by which liberty is preserved and government has limits. ‘Liberty under Law,’ ‘liberty and justice for all’ are mottos that provide meaning for American liberty. Without the law, there is no definition of liberty in America.
Revolutionary France pursued a form of liberty without law. The French Revolution quickly devolved into anarchy from which a new form of tyranny developed – Napoleon. The world around us is undergoing numerous revolutions for their own liberty. However, they will never know the liberty we enjoy in America unless their governments provide justice for their people according to the rule of law.
Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1804 not only wrote about the ‘wall of separation’ but concluded that same paragraph stating that he was “convinced that there was no private right contrary to one’s public duty.” The rights we have, including liberty, are not without public moral responsibility.
The idea of self-governance once again is an idea of behaving oneself. The notion that one can do whatever one wants to do no matter who it harms is contrary to the American idea of liberty and it is childish. While adult men and women have the right to make decisions for their lives, they also have the responsibility to choose what is right. The supposed ‘right to choose’ without taking the responsibility to ‘choose what is right’ is an idea of anarchy and not liberty.
Pursuit of Happiness
Perhaps the most misunderstood of all the phrases in the Declaration of Independence is the idea of the right to pursue one’s own happiness. Like the right to liberty, the right to pursue happiness is not without moral constraints. And as a principle, the pursuit of happiness was meant to convey the idea of pursuing one’s own economic happiness – a right of property.
Thomas Jefferson was a Virginian close to the Virginia state assembly where they debated about the principles that John Locke outlined. They would establish the rights of life, liberty, and property in the Virginia Bill of Rights on June 12, 1776, in the following terms:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
John Locke wrote about the pursuit of happiness in the following terms:
…that unto whom they granted authority to rule and govern, by them the peace, tranquility, and happy estate of the rest might be procured…
The right to pursue one’s own economic liberty to secure one’s own happiness was a basic right to Virginians and all Americans. Jefferson simply took the phrase “right of property” (from Locke’s list of rights of life, liberty, and property) and changed it to read, “pursuit of happiness.” In a modern context, we need to add one word so that we understand what the founders originally meant. The phrase should read, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of economic happiness.”
The phrase, “pursuit of happiness” has been used to suggest the right to do such things as practice abortions, homosexuality, and recreational drug use. Libertarian philosophy often misquotes this passage suggesting that they have a right to do whatever makes them happy, even if it is immoral. Libertarian philosophy advocates pseudo-anarchist viewpoints as it advocates an end to the law that prevents these immoral activities. Not only is the idea of ‘do what you want when you want’ contrary to the idea of ‘liberty under law,’ it has nothing to do with this passage in the Declaration.
In the context of the original document, Jefferson meant to convey the idea of the pursuit of ‘economic’ happiness. Lawlessness is a perverted idea of liberty that cannot be found anywhere in the Declaration of Independence. As the meaning of this passage has been lost in time, we can restore our understanding of what it really means and apply it as it was originally meant to be applied.
The Spirit of 1776 included the ideas of liberty. Self-government means behaving one’s self. We have lost the Spirit of 1776 and what it means to live a moral life free from government coercion. Today, we face persecution from the government in standing up for what is morally right. We need to reclaim the rights that God gave us and the Spirit that came from the Declaration of Independence, which included making right choices in our lives. Liberty under the law; liberty and justice for all were central to America’s freedom.