True Right to Pursue Happiness
The third unalienable right mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is the “pursuit of happiness.” If “liberty” was meant to be restricted to the absence of physical restraint without due cause, the “pursuit of happiness” includes the broader range of liberties such as speech, assembly, entrepreneurial pursuits, association, owning property, and other creative ventures to fulfill one’s duty to the Creator as a mini-creator. As with all unalienable rights, the right to pursue happiness as one determines by his or her own talents, desires, conscience, is limited by the laws of nature and of nature’s God.
It is important to note that the Declaration of Independence was not written in a vacuum from history and experience. In 1776, the colonies had been under British rule for over 150 years and the principles within the Common Law of England were well understood and respected. Thus, if one is to understand some of the terms used in the Declaration of Independence, it is helpful to know what the English Common Law said about those terms. The most widely read and respected source for this purpose is William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.
Blackstone was an esteemed legal scholar and jurist. While not a supporter of the American Revolution, his Commentaries expressed many principles upon which the founders relied to formulate the American philosophy of government. Blackstone defined the “law of nature” as the “will of his [man’s] Maker” and the “law of revelation” as the “Holy Scriptures.” With respect to the pursuit of happiness, Blackstone said, “man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.” But what leads to happiness is not personal gratification or individual autonomy without limits. In fact, Blackstone said if “this or that action tends to man’s real happiness” it is just to conclude that it is “a part of the law of nature.” If “this or that action is destructive of man’s real happiness” the law of nature “forbids it.” In other words, if one lives according to the laws of nature, one will experience true happiness. If one violates or exceeds the boundaries of the laws of nature, it will be destructive of one’s real happiness. This is not to limit a person’s creativity and ambition, or to oppose change, but all advancements in the pursuit of happiness must respect the physical and the moral laws of nature.
Thus, the unalienable right of “the pursuit of happiness” was within the context of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The pursuit of happiness does not mean doing what feels good for a moment. Sin may be enjoyable at the moment, but it is destructive of true and substantial happiness, which the Creator has given as a gift to pursue. The duty of how we pursue happiness within the limits of the laws of nature is an unalienable right among others. In the pursuit of happiness, we are not free to lie, kill, or steal, etc. because such actions violate the moral laws of nature and of nature’s God.