Jonathon Delacour, writing about Japanese aesthetics, says the following:
One of the reasons for my strong interest in Japanese literature and aesthetics is this acceptance of sadness as an essential ingredient of life. And (perhaps mistakenly) I’ve always regarded Jefferson’s assertion that the pursuit of Happiness is an unalienable Right as a kind of denial of the rightful place of sadness in human experience—that in pursuing happiness we are simultaneously fleeing sadness.
This is a nice point, but I do think it is mistaken. Not because what he says about sadness isn’t profound, but because I don’t think Jefferson meant happiness in that way. Jefferson was really talking about property. In fact, he was paraphrasing Locke:
… we might note that Jefferson took this concept from, among other places, the writings of the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke by changing one very important phrase. John Locke’s formulation of this principle had been: “life, liberty, and estate”–the term “estate” being used then the way we would use the word “property” today. This was to be expected because the notion of private property was an underlying theme of British common law. It was one of the main mechanisms through which individual liberty was supposed to be protected, according to this legal and philosophic system.
But this, of course, raises an important question — why did Jefferson change “estate” (property) to “happiness”? One possibility is that, although Jefferson owned slaves, he was against slavery in principle and at the time slaves were considered “property.”
The slavery angle may have some relevance, but I think the most convincing argument for the change is that Jefferson saw the relationship between state and individual differently than did Locke. While Locke’s formulation suggests that the right to property helps create a better functioning state, Jefferson saw the state as granting the right to property in order to allow individuals to be free to pursue their own interests:
… the pursuit of happiness was seen as fundamental to human beings for their own interests, and not simply for the good of society or The State. When some people argue today for the right to freedom of speech and other freedoms of expression, their argument is often couched in terms suggesting that the right to freedom of speech and other civil liberties is to insure adequate debate so that The State, or government, can function properly. In other words, what they are suggesting is that the justification for freedom of expression is for the purpose of securing The State. However, according to the Jeffersonian formulation as it appears in the Declaration of Independence, the rights to freedom of expression rest innately within human beings themselves, and do not exist simply for the perpetuation of The State. According to the Jeffersonian conceptualization, states or governments rather are established to secure the perpetuation of these freedoms for individual human beings.
This is important, because this latter formulation means that government has a responsibility to address inequality in society. In the Lockian formulation, inequality is acceptable as long as government and the state continues to function smoothly. However, when we start arguing that people have a fundamental right to pursue happiness, then we have to do something about barriers to that pursuit! As Howard Zinn says:
To say that people have an equal right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, means that if, in fact, there is inequality in those things, society has a responsibility to correct the situation and to ensure that equality.
But don’t let the implications of Jefferson’s change fool you — he was an ardent supporter of property rights!
“The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.” –Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816