The American Dream: A Post Independence Day Reflection

What does America mean to you? What does America stand for? Over Independence Day, I read the Declaration of Independence as a sacred practice. If there is one phrase in the Declaration of Independence that defines the American way it is that we are “endowed by (our) creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. What a remarkable intuition about what America is. As I think about where our country is today – our political and cultural polarization, the unprecedented inequality and economic hardship for millions, and the deep mistrust running through the body politic – this unalienable right to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” seems terribly fragile. If we don’t want this right to decay into a hollow fantasy, we need to deepen our understanding of it.

This weekend I also found two inspiring quotes from Thomas Jefferson, the writer of The Declaration of the Independence. In commenting about the education of children Jefferson wrote:

“Their own greatest happiness… does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Ed. William Peden, New York: Norton, 1972)

And these words Jefferson wrote to Amos Cook in a letter dated Jan. 21, 1816:

“And if the Wise be the happy man… he must be virtuous too; for, without virtue, happiness cannot be.” (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Eds. Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Washington, D.C. 1903)

Here, in just a few words, is a profound understanding of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty is not merely the freedom to pursue our desires. Happiness is not simply enjoying material pleasures. Liberty means freedom to do what is consistent with a moral sense and happiness is what flows from being virtuous. Freedom is the ability to discern and discipline rather than be enslaved by our impulses and desires, and happiness is the enduring experience of being decent and authentic people.

In other words, true human freedom and genuine human happiness require awareness of and obedience to a higher/deeper reality within and above oneself – what we would call conscience. Our freedoms of speech, assembly, thought, and religion as well as our material conditions are meant not as ends in themselves, but as means to pursue our happiness – understood as our search for the truth about what makes for a good life. This search we do together as Americans – one of the main purposes of life – and it’s never finished, as it is better to search for the truth than to claim we have found it. But the progress we make on the search and our experiment in living our lives in light of what we discover is a source of joy.

How is this different from what we usually call the American Dream? What does independence mean in light of Jefferson’s understanding of liberty and happiness?

I hope you enjoyed the barbecue and fireworks and a Happy belated Independence Day.

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