The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“The Pursuit of Happiness Rightly Understood”–Justin Dyer in Public Discourse

In an essay for Public Discourse titled “The Pursuit of Happiness Rightly Understood”, JWI-affiliated scholar Justin Dyer reintroduces the classical understanding of liberty that inspired the Declaration of Independence.  He challenges the deeply entrenched fallacy that American liberalism is a philosophy of license: hardly a synonym for property, Jefferson’s careful wording reflects the Aristotelian and Judeo-Christian commitments of the document’s signatories.  According to Professor Dyer, America’s founding charter flows from a conception of liberty bounded by the dictates of natural law.  Thus, he employs the writings of James Wilson and William Blackstone to recast the pursuit of happiness as freedom for a life of virtue, not from government interference in the satisfaction of desires.  Only through this understanding of liberty, Professor Dyer argues, can the American project proceed as its framers originally envisioned.

Some excerpts from the piece:

“[T]he ‘pursuit of happiness’ had a distinct and widely understood meaning in the eighteenth century. It ‘refers to man’s ability to know the law of nature as it pertains to man,’ Conklin concludes, ‘and man’s unalienable right to then choose to pursue a life of virtue or, in other words, a life lived in harmony with those natural law principles.’ This broadly Aristotelian understanding of the pursuit of happiness cut across the eclectic intellectual traditions that informed the American founding, including the classical Greek and Roman traditions, Christianity, the English common law, and Newtonian science.”

“Yes, Jefferson and some of the principal Founders―including the other members of the Committee of Five that wrote the Declaration, especially Benjamin Franklin and John Adams—held unorthodox religious beliefs. Nonetheless, all of these men publicly and privately affirmed a shared natural theology: that there is a Creator who has imbued the world with discernible natural laws, both physical and moral, and who governs the affairs of men with his sustaining and intervening providence.”

“The right was understood to be bounded by a God-given natural law that was affirmed by each of the various intellectual traditions that underpinned the American Founding.”

Read the whole article here.


Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790