Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness

On this, the 237th anniversary of our independence, it is useful to reflect on what it means to be an American. Far too many of those in America, native-born and immigrants, focus solely on that last part: the pursuit of happiness. And, if one merely looks at the millions of (mostly) illegal immigrants, it is clear that their concept of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is pretty much constrained by the notion that they will keep themselves alive if they have the liberty to accumulate “property” in the form of wages earned from menial labor.

No one can possibly wish a man ill who is merely trying to better himself economically and provide for his family. But let us never confuse this kind of “liberty” with the true meaning of that word in the American context. It is freedom of conscience, freedom from government interferance, the freedom to think, assemble, worship, speak, vote, and write as one will. With constraints, of course, an ordered liberty, needed so that my “liberty” does not deprive you of yours.

That so many immigrants come here for economic gain is not on its face a bad thing, and it is a testament to our success as a nation. It is, however, not a sufficient thing, and we ought never to think it so. America is based on the very idea of freedom, not on any particular ethnicity or social class. That freedom, which is granted by Almighty God, belongs to each and every man, woman, and child in equal measure.

That freedom does not guarantee that all will reap equal rewards in their individual “pursuit of happiness.” It does mean that all have the same chance to do so. Or should have; we fought a bloody civil war, and continue to contest with each other on its full implementation to this very minute. Equality of opportunity is the theory, and I maintain we’ve done better than any other nation in history to achieve this as a reality.

To those who think that the pursuit of happiness is a sufficient rendering of the American idea, think again. Millions may flock to our shores because of the chance to make a few dollars, the chance to better themselves economically. But the true meaning was set by the Puritans and others who fled Old Europe in search of freedom of conscience, a freedom basically lacking in most of the Old World. In more recent times, there may be millions of illegal Mexican farm workers here only to make money. They are more than balanced by the Vietnamese boat people, Laotians, Cambodians, and Cubans, to name but a few, who risked their very lives fleeing tyranny for the chance to breath free air.

The lesson? Not to deny that we are a land of great economic opportunity, a land where the “pursuit of happiness” is built in to our very Declaration of Independence. But the truth is that we are not free because we are prosperous. We are prosperous because we are free.


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