The Declaration of Independence:

“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 . . . .”

—The Declaration of Independence, 1776

One of the most famous lines from the Declaration of Independence is, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It used by numerous Americans to represent what this country stands for. Did this quote mean that our founding fathers wanted all citizens of the U.S. to chase their hopes and dreams? Or is the real truth of the situation another story?

Where did Thomas Jefferson get the phrase "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? Originally, the seventeenth-century British political philosopher, John Locke, wrote that governments are instituted to secure people's rights to "life, liberty, and property." In Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1689), he mentions this concept. More specifically, he mentions it in The Second Treatise, where he lists the natural rights of life, liberty and property. It is known that Jefferson’s intellectual heroes were Newton, Bacon, and Locke. Therefore, it's certainly possible that Jefferson took the phrase from Locke. (History News Week, 2008).

Quotes from John Locke in The Second Treatise :

As I have shown, man was born with a right to perfect
freedom, and with an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights
and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other
man or men in the world. So he has by nature a power not
only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and possessions (The Second Treatise PDF, on page 28)

Virginia Declaration of Rights:

In the first and second article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776, written by George Mason (1725–1792), only one month before the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, it is stated:

"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."

The language in the Declaration of Independence is obviously similar, and potentially inspired by the former. But why did Jefferson write "pursuing happiness" instead of "possessing property?" "Pursuing happiness," is quite a vague platitude that could mean just about anything on a legal level.

One of the historical theories is that Benjamin Franklin encouraged Thomas Jefferson to downplay the right to pursuing property.

"In the same month of June, 1776, during which the Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Jefferson had discussed this with his colleagues, and had submitted his draft to his fellow delegates. It seems that especially Benjamin Franklin was involved. According to the U.S. scholar Mark Skousen:"

"Benjamin Franklin was in league with Jefferson emphasizing the defense of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as the goal of government, and downplaying the right to ‘property’ (Skousen 2006: 413). ("

Did All Men Really Have the Equal Right to Pursue Happiness?

When Jefferson wrote "all men are created equal," in practice it seemed that "men" at the time referred to "white men." While Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he owned around 130 black slaves at his Virginia plantation and had no intention of freeing them. Of these hundreds of slaves he owned, only 2 were given freedom in his will, the two sons of Sally Hemmings, his slave mistress, who he began sexual relations with when she was 14 years old.

In fact, one of the possible reasons Jefferson wanted to leave the word "property" out of the Declaration of Independence was because he did not want to talk about equal rights when it came to property. Perhaps Jefferson did not want to give property ownership to slaves or native americans. By putting in the ambiguous term of "happiness," white leaders in the eighteenth century could continue to avoid the topic of equal rights.

From the eighteenth century until now, Americans are still being told to solve the problem of extreme income inequality by somehow "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and becoming billionaires," even if they are stuck at the bottom of the barrel of a broken system where they have few opportunities, and no social safety net.




The Origins of Happiness (University of Missouri School of Law, 2015)

Delving Into The Minds of the Founding Fathers (Social

Historical Sources:

The Declaration of Independence

The Virginia Declaration of Rights

John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (PDF)


The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant—And Didn't (The Atlantic, 2011)

Jefferson’s Happiness (

Why did Jefferson change “property” to the “pursuit of happiness”? (History News Week, 2008)

Jefferson’s “All Men Are Created Equal” (Beacon Journal, 7-4-2013)