The Gertrude Polk Brown Lecture Series: The Pursuit of Happiness
The Declaration of Independence identified “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our unalienable rights, along with life and liberty. Jeffrey Rosen, the president of the National Constitution Center, profiles six of the most influential founders—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—to show what pursuing happiness meant in their lives.
By reading the classical Greek and Roman moral philosophers who inspired the Founders, Rosen shows us how they understood the pursuit of happiness as a quest for being good, not feeling good—the pursuit of lifelong virtue, not short-term pleasure. Among those virtues were the habits of industry, temperance, moderation, and sincerity, which the Founders viewed as part of a daily struggle for self-improvement, character development, and calm self-mastery. They believed that political self-government required personal self-government. For all six Founders, the pursuit of virtue was incompatible with enslavement of African Americans, although the Virginians betrayed their own principles.
The Pursuit of Happiness is more than an elucidation of the Declaration’s famous phrase; it is a revelatory journey into the minds of the Founders, and a deep, rich, and fresh understanding of the foundation of our democracy.
Jeffrey Rosen is President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, where he hosts We the People, a weekly podcast of constitutional debate. He is also a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Rosen is a graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University, and Yale Law School. He is the author of seven previous books, including the New York Times bestseller Conversations with RBG: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law. His essays and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times Magazine; on NPR; in The New Republic, where he was the legal affairs editor; and in The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer.