When we were discussing the Enlightenment thinkers who inspired Jefferson in his penning of the Declaration of Independence one question stood out in my mind more than anything else: Why did Jefferson change Locke’s original quote of …”life, liberty, and property” to “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? It could be argued that Jefferson was attempting to update Locke’s century-old ideas of government and its duty to the people and apply it to the unique dilemma which presented itself to the Continental Congress for the first time. The idea of a free nation, in which one could pursue their own personal happiness without having to bend under the weight of imperial rule is one that is uniquely American at the time.
I did some additional research into the topic expecting to find that this was the case, but as it turns out it is most likely a phrase borrowed once again from Locke. It is interesting that many of the ideas on which this nation was founded stem from the philosophies of English political thinkers. Despite the weight that the “American Experiment” held for England and the rest of the world, the ideas behind its foundation are surprisingly English.
Locke’s concept of the pursuit of happiness rises above the purely selfish or hedonistic ideas that many draw to mind and is described as “the foundation of liberty”. The freedom which Locke describes is one that stimulates the mind of the populace and frees them from the enslavement of their unfulfilled desires.
Just because the ideas contained within the Declaration of Independence may not be native to the U.S. doesn’t mean that they are any less American. The colonies’ decision to free themselves from British imperial rule was something that had never been attempted at the time, and the foundations of the nation were based on the individual freedoms that they felt were ignored under the rule of Britain. Although the ideas and writings of Locke were British, the actions that they inspired and continue to inspire are ones that have no border.
One thought on “Jefferson and Locke”
Glad you looked more closely at the Lockean history of that famed phrase! When you do outside research you always want to cite your sources – even in a blog post, so that your readers can go look at what you looked at. It’s a way of inviting people into your thought process as much as it is a way of offering credit for outside ideas. If you haven’t read Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, that’s the go-to source text for much (though certainly not all) of his thinking that so heavily influences North American rights discourse in the eighteenth century.