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George Ball, Published July 03 2012

A happy, sparkly holiday

The Fourth of July is the sparkliest, most jubilant and expansive of all our holidays, secular or religious – a celebration shared by families, neighbors, communities and the entire nation. On earth, there are picnics in parks and gardens; in the heavens, flower-like fireworks. Perched between them, spangled on a million blankets, are gaggles of contented Americans of all ages, all of them young, like their country. Happiness is in the barbecue-scented air.

Happiness is inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. It’s right there, in Jefferson’s hallowed preamble:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One of the most influential statements in modern history, this declaration within the Declaration conjoins nobility of thought, peerless eloquence and clarity. It represents the first time in history, as Christopher Hitchens points out, that the concept of human rights provided the basis for a republic. It was likewise unprecedented that the pursuit of happiness should be established as a people’s god given right. This exceptional phrase is the wellspring of American exceptionalism.

The pursuit of happiness is as essential to the American Experiment as life and liberty and deserves our scrupulous parsing. Today, as we celebrate our nation’s 236th birthday, is as good a time as any to pursue the pursuit of happiness.

An earlier draft of the Declaration read “Life, Liberty and pursuit of Property,” a tripartite desiderata inspired by philosopher John Locke. There was a practical aspect to the alteration. As Benjamin Franklin observed, if property were established as an inalienable right, levying taxes on private property to support the work of the government might prove undoable. The pursuit of happiness represents a right both more sublime and substantial than mere property, though property is surely part of it.

“Pursuit” has two meanings. The first connotes something like a chase, suggesting we are endowed with the right to chase after happiness as Captain Ahab did Moby Dick. The secondary meaning of “pursuit” implies occupation or calling, as if Americans’ God-given daily task is happiness. Americans certainly are industrious. We approach our work with an enthusiasm and, yes, happiness that are altogether exceptional.

Jefferson used the word “happiness” in its 18th century context, to mean wealth, prosperity, health – what we call well-being. One of the two English dictionaries in Jefferson’s library, Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” (1775), supplies three definitions for happiness: 1. Felicity; state in which the desires are satisfied; 2. Good luck; good fortune; 3. Fortuitous elegance; readiness.

Once we put the various implications of happiness together, we see Jefferson meant “chance” and “opportunity,” but chose a nuanced word fragrant with poetry, sparkling with cadence and deeply resonant. A master gardener and horticulturalist, Jefferson gathered all of these old and new forms and presented them to us like a composite flower – the universal symbol of happiness and opportunity.

Jefferson, it just so happened, died on July 4, 1826; John Adams died the same day. Jefferson’s last words were, “Is it the Fourth?” To which we can happily reply, “Yes, it is, Mr. President, and thank you.”


Ball is past president, The American Horticultural Society, and chairman, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.