The American Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, contains these famous words: “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” (emphasis added).
Understanding the history and meaning of this sentence is worthwhile because it has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” (Lucas, “Justifying America,” 85) and “the most potent and consequential words in American history” (Ellis, American Creation, 55—56). And this three-article series has been written to show from the Bible that God has granted humanity considerable freedom—freedom which is highly valuable and which man should try to preserve, protect and use for godly purposes.
Another purpose of this article is to explain what Thomas Jefferson and the American founders were thinking when they wrote that one of our natural rights is “the pursuit of happiness.” In this 21st century, some people falsely assume that what the founders had in mind was a kind of shallow devotion to perpetual pleasure and emotional bliss. They use the noble phrase “pursuit of happiness” to justify self-centered hedonism.
What did Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, and the other founders have in mind by the word “happiness” and the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”?
(The meanings and significance of the words “truths,” “self-evident” and “unalienable” were explained in the first article in this series.)
Regarding people being “created equal,” the Bible reveals that all people have the same spiritual potential and ultimate opportunity, and God judges all in the same way. “God shows personal favoritism to no man” (Galatians 2:6).
This also means that human governments should follow the example of God in respecting the rights of every citizen and treating everyone fairly and equally under the law. No one should be “above the law,” not even the highest officials in the government. Additionally, the rights and freedoms of the weakest members of society should be guarded as zealously as the freedoms of the strongest members.
“Pursuit of happiness” doesn’t mean pursuit of pleasure
The right to pursue one’s own happiness (or similar wording) is a concept found in several documents from the 17th century forward, including the 1693 Essay Concerning Human Understanding by British political philosopher John Locke. Locke, who often referred to the authority of the Bible, was a major influence on Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and other American founders. But the emphasis in these previous writings was never on a shallow pursuit of sensual pleasure.
Today, many people consider the pursuit of happiness a high priority, but in a way much different than the American founding fathers had in mind. Today’s self-centered, touchy-feely society is dominated by materialism, humanism and hedonism—hedonism being the “pursuit of or devotion to pleasure, especially to the pleasures of the senses” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).
In a parable about the sin of covetousness, Jesus warned against a craving to “take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:15-21).
The apostle Paul wrote, “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money…without self-control…headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4). In these “last days,” anyone can see that these problems are rapidly getting worse.
True, lasting happiness can only be obtained by living a virtuous life and having a close relationship with God. In most Bible translations, the beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-10 begin with “Blessed are…” However, the Greek word translated “blessed” can also be translated as “happy.”
Much more than happiness, the Bible emphasizes joy. Happiness can be viewed as a temporary emotion based on what is currently happening, whereas joy can be a permanent state of mind. “God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight” (Ecclesiastes 2:26).
It’s natural to enjoy pleasure, but many people have their priorities upside down. They are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” when it should be the other way around. The United States has been blessed to have been founded by men and women who, in most cases, loved God more than they loved pleasure.
Pursuit of happiness overlaps with life and liberty
To understand the right to pursue happiness, let’s first consider its most elemental meaning—the freedom to pursue whatever you think will make you happier. In this last sentence, “happier” is more appropriate than “happy.” The founders were probably all mature enough not to think in terms of “I’ll be happy only after I acquire or accomplish something.”
The right to pursue what you think will make you happier is a broad extension of the God-given rights to life and liberty. The founders wanted to make it clear that our liberties go well beyond being free from tyrannical rule or imprisonment.
It can be helpful to think of the relationship between the words “happy” and “happen.” Rather than a person considering himself (or herself) to be a hapless and helpless victim, he can realize that he has freedom and potential to make things happen.
The right to own property
To the founders, the right to the “pursuit of happiness” included certain specific things, including the right to acquire and own property. They believed that the powers of federal governments should be largely limited to protecting what John Locke considered the three great natural rights—life, liberty and property—from threats from within (crime) and without (invasion).
Private property is fundamental to liberty. John Adams, second president of the United States, saw private property as the most important single foundation stone undergirding human liberty. He said, “Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.”
Dr. Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) of Austria, one of the world’s foremost economists and proponents of libertarianism, wrote, “All civilizations have up to now been based on private property. Only nations committed to the principle of private property have risen above penury and produced science, art, and literature.”
Private property includes everything a person owns, including what he or she creates. But in most discussions, the focus is on land and what that land can produce. If a person has a house and a piece of land with room for a garden that are debt-free and tax-free, he or she could get by with very little income. Additionally, land can provide an opportunity for a profitable farm or cottage industry. And land can be collateral for needed capital.
All of one’s property and wealth can be called “capital.” There is much truth in the statement, “It takes money to make money.” Therefore, the basic idea of capitalism is the use of capital (available money, property and other assets) to produce goods or services that will be financially rewarded. It’s unfortunate that the word “capitalism” is sometimes used to refer to greed and unethical tactics. The general meaning of capitalism is the combination of private property and a free market economy. These are principles taught in the Bible, and we see examples of capitalism throughout the Bible.
The Bible encourages private ownership of property
God’s commandments that forbid stealing and coveting presume the right of private property. In addition, the system of justice demanded reparation and restitution to the victim of theft rather than fines paid to the state. If the thief had insufficient money and goods to make restitution, he or she was not off the hook. The thief could “sell” him or herself into debt servitude to the property owner until the debt was paid. But the maximum time of servitude was six years.
God, of course, is the ultimate Owner of “the world…and all its fullness” (Psalm 50:12). However, when God created Adam and Eve, He gave them and their descendants “dominion” (rule and stewardship) over the earth and all its creatures (Genesis 1:28). As the psalmist put it, “The earth He [God] has given to the children of men” (Psalm 115:16). This implies God’s desire for each family to “own” a debt-free piece of property (like a permanent lease of God’s property). This is highly significant.
When God formed His own nation—the nation of Israel—He gave the citizens a wonderful start. God had promised to give the children of Israel “large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). That was all debt-free and tax-free!
Another prosperous time was during the reign of King Solomon when “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).
During the coming Millennium, under Christ’s rule, “Everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).
Furthermore, God commanded a “land Sabbath” every seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-7). This law had several benefits. One was that anytime land was sold, such as to pay a debt, the original owner or one of his relatives had the right to redeem it (buy it back) at any time (Leviticus 25:24-27).
And a most remarkable law was that of the “Jubilee” (Leviticus 25:8-19). This 50th year was a holy year that was an additional land Sabbath. More importantly, it was the year when all land was returned to the original owners or their descendants. Thus, if a family had not been able to buy back their land before the Jubilee year, they would still regain possession of that land in the Jubilee year. Thus, Israel’s land titles were inalienable (never to be permanently transferred).
The Jubilee’s announcement was an exciting event: “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family” (Leviticus 25:10).
God explained, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). In a sense, land was not actually sold—it was leased for a maximum of 49 years. The property value of a lease was a price proportionate to the time lapse until the Jubilee (verses 15-16).
The Jubilee law had many implications and benefits. It helped to prevent the rich from taking advantage of the poor and the escalating problem of “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It largely prevented cyclical economic depressions. But most obviously, it showed God’s desire for families to own private property in perpetuity.
Some people have mistakenly claimed that the new Christians gave up their right to private property in exchange for communal socialism based on these verses: “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:44-45; see also 4:32). However, keep in mind that they could not sell what they did not own. These were examples of voluntary charitable sharing with fellow believers, not communism!
The account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) proves that these were voluntary acts of generosity. They were not punished for refusing to sell their land, but for their lying. Peter asked Ananias, “While it [their possession] remained [unsold], was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?” (Acts 5:4).
If space permitted, much more biblical evidence could be presented to show that, in God’s plan for mankind, God places great importance on the private ownership of property. A major purpose of government should be to protect property rights.
Views of the founders regarding rights to private property
As stated previously, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and other colonists had been strongly influenced by the writings of John Locke, whom history remembers partly for his emphasis on the triad of “life, liberty, and property.”
Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1690, begins with references to the Bible. It later states, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which…teaches all mankind…that being 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; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure... Every one...may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another. God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men.”
In 1772, Samuel Adams, wrote a short piece entitled “Rights of the Colonists as Men.” His words included the following: “Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.”
Later in the same document, Adams wrote: “Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty, in matters spiritual and temporal, is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to by the eternal and immutable laws of God and nature…”
The 1772 wording by Samuel Adams influenced the choice of words in the “Declaration of Colonial Rights,” a resolution adopted on Oct. 14, 1774 by the First Continental Congress, and the wording of the Declaration of Independence adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
Therefore, many colonists expected the phrase “life, liberty and property” to be in the Declaration of Independence. However, Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson (the primary author of the Declaration) in downplaying protection of “property,” replacing the idea with “happiness.” This broader concept (the right to pursue happiness) is traceable through the Federalist Papers of John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
However, “happiness” is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, while “property” is. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that no citizen can “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The Fourteenth Amendment adds “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
The first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Of utmost importance is the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
One’s vocation is related to “property” because it is a person’s way of obtaining an income (wealth). An American legal case decided in 1884 defined the right to “the pursuit of happiness” as, “The right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give them their highest enjoyment.”
Hence, America would not have a class system whereby some professions could only be pursued by certain privileged classes of people. Theoretically, any American can pursue any lawful vocation.
Although the “pursuit of happiness” is much broader than mere protection of private property, we have seen from history and the Bible how important is the freedom to own property. That freedom has many important implications.
Much more could be written about what the American founders had in mind when they wrote about the God-given right to the pursuit of happiness, and what principles should guide God’s people today when they “pursue happiness”!
Will all humanity ever have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
The answer is “yes”! Because God is not fickle or capricious, the rights that He gives human beings are immutable and inalienable. What God gives, only He has the authority to take away, and He will never take away the rights of those who voluntarily submit to His loving and beneficent rule over our lives.
The purpose in human life is to build godly character to achieve a Christ-like mind (Philippians 2:5). That process of spiritual growth—continually resisting temptations and choosing what is right—requires the free moral agency that God has given us. And the ideal environment for spiritual growth is one in which neither people nor governments deprive us of the freedoms that God has given us.
The good news—the wonderful news—is that Jesus Christ someday “will come again” to earth to set up His world-ruling government (John 14:3; Mark 13:26-27). Then the influence of the arch-tyrant Satan the devil will be completely removed, and the Kingdom of God will replace all the oppressive human governments! (Revelation 20:1-2; 11:15).
Then all humanity will enjoy God’s gifts of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Much more importantly, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Christ will give every human being the opportunity to learn God’s truth and “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
And only when we are spirit and have God’s nature (when we no longer have human nature and human weaknesses) will we have life to the full, liberty to the full, and happiness to the full!
For more on the subject of why God has given you these inalienable rights, request our free booklet What Is Your Destiny?.