Just what did Thomas Jefferson mean when he wrote that our inalienable rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Modern Americans are pretty sure they knew what he was talking about: our freedom to build our families and make our fortunes, free from governmental interference.
But according to UC Berkeley historian Richard Candida Smith, Jefferson was not endorsing our private pursuits of love or wealth or designer jeans. In lecture #2 of his course Intellectual History of the United States since 1865 (audio feed, video feed), Smith describes a set of ideas commonly held in the 18th century which historians now call the “republican synthesis.”
When 18th century intellectuals spoke of happiness, they meant happiness of a well ordered community, which could rightly demand the sacrifice of individual happiness for the public good.
Furthermore, the inhabitants of British North America, who lived primarily in small, mostly self-sufficient communities, were repelled by the urban, rapidly commercializing society of Great Britain. Smith explains,
“They wanted to preserve the world of small self-sufficient, self-governing communities where people knew each other… This revolutionary movement was opposed to change. Rather than creating a world that was always changing they wanted to create a world in which change was controlled.”
So how did we become the individualistic, commercial society that we are today? Stay tuned for further lectures. Smith promises to tell the tale as the course continues.