We celebrate America’s birthdate on July 4. For the great document declaring our independence to become a new kind of nation, we say “thank you” to Thomas Jefferson, author, and Benjamin Franklin, editorial consultant.
During a seminar years ago at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, I was fortunate enough to participate in a lengthy discussion with historians about the legends and tales surrounding the drafting of that document. They reminded us of the hot and humid weather in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. And they described the interactions of the delegates from the thirteen original colonies and dissected the intense differences among them. Whenever the fierce and sometimes acrimonious debate during the day gave way to a temporary recess, friends associated within their small networks of delegates and often avoided those with whom they disagreed.
The story goes that Jefferson was drafting and redrafting the famous document and Franklin was conferring as his friend, colleague, and constructive critic.
Jefferson wrote “Life, Liberty and Property” in an early draft. He and Franklin then discussed that language. Some beverage or another often accompanied those discussions.
Jefferson was troubled by the word property because it meant different things to people in different colonies. In the southern colonies, property included slaves. In the northern colonies, it did not. Though he owned slaves himself, Jefferson didn’t want the Declaration of Independence of this new United States to sanction slavery. That fact is confirmed in some of his many private letters and other archival documents. So, how could he handle this issue? We can only speculate about the conversation between the two men.
The story goes that Jefferson drew a line through the word property in that draft and wrote in the word happiness above it. Additional beverage was consumed while he and Franklin discussed this new language. (Jefferson preferred fine wines from Bordeaux, sauternes among them, while Franklin might have mixed up a “milk punch,” a favorite cocktail of brandy, milk, and lemon juice.)
In this tale told to me at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, it was Franklin who suggested the solution that Jefferson finally used in the famous document we now hold with respect and awe. We might close our eyes for a moment and try to picture this conversation late in the evening, when the heat of the day had given way to a respite and inhibitions were dulled by alcohol. The two men, whom we now revere, were a little “lit” but not sleepy. Their shirts open at the collar, they engaged in an intense intellectual dialogue. They understood the profound role they found themselves playing.
Perhaps Franklin said, “My dear Thomas, it is the human condition not to be happy but always to desire happiness.” (Franklin would use the “my dear” when he needed to emphasize an important philosophical point.) He continued: “Human beings are designed to chase happiness. People must be driven by that pursuit, or else they wouldn’t behave the way they do. If they were not driven by a desire to achieve happiness, perhaps they would get bored and achieve nothing at all. But what man can define the goal for any other?” He took a last swig from his silver cup. “Possibly, happiness itself is a fantasy, an empty cup of an idea that our esteemed colleagues fill with their own concoctions. We cannot build this new nation on a fantasy. But the pursuit? That is everything.”
The rethinking of this human drive that is to be defined as an unalienable right led to the use of the word pursuit. The historians suggested that Jefferson now dipped his quill into the inkwell and scratched out the word happiness, inserting the word pursuit instead. But pursuit of what? Legend has it that is how we got “Life, Liberty and Pursuit,” with the word pursuit finally modified by the prepositional phrase of Happiness.
How accurate is this tale? I don’t know. I can vividly imagine it, but I wasn’t there. Did the scholars at our seminar believe it to be accurate? Some said it was probably close. Does it make a difference if the legend is not exact? No. Its existential themes, suggested by our American history, our shared humanity, and the language of the Declaration, remain deeply woven into our national conversation today.
In America, in 2020, we revere the words of the Declaration while we still debate them. Life? Who decides? And how do we live it or end it? Liberty? (We have to fast forward now from 1776 to the 1789–1790 constitutional framework debate and the official launching of the rule of law.) Liberty begins with the Constitution’s First Amendment protections and those that follow. Pursuit? Yes, in a free society, as long as our pursuit does not harm others criminally or incur a civil liability. Where and how are those lines to be drawn?
Happy Birthday, America.
David R. Kotok
Chairman of the Board & Chief Investment Officer
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