The most famous words in American culture are these: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The phrase, of course, is from the Declaration of Independence. But what did “happiness” mean for Thomas Jefferson?

Democracy gives us the right to pursue happiness. It also gives us the right to discuss what constitutes happiness. The best way to celebrate our freedom is not merely to recite Jefferson’s words but to challenge ourselves intellectually, to inquire into the meaning of happiness. Jefferson himself reflected deeply on what happiness means. Let’s follow his path and see what he thought.

Contrary to the now popular view that the founders of the United States were hyper-confident white males, filled with prejudices, Jefferson’s reflections on happiness reveal that he was a cosmopolitan observer. He was attuned to the variety of cultures and the variety of approaches to happiness that one can find in the world. Most of his serious reflections on happiness come from the period when he lived in France, in the 1780s. He was then struck by the difference between European and American ways. His thoughts on happiness are connected to his efforts to sort out what Americans can learn from Europe, and what they should avoid.

In a letter he wrote on August 18, 1785, Jefferson commented on the sophisticated manners and refined pleasures of elite society in Paris. However, he noted that their “happiness” is not as “lasting” as that of Americans. He then comments on the breakdown of “domestic bonds” in France—meaning that marital infidelity was widespread. “All the passions are at sea without rudder or compass.” He observes that sexual affairs and other entertainments give French people a release from the severity of their government; France was then an absolute monarchy. But he finds that such joys are too discontinuous. They cannot compensate for the wretchedness of living continuously under a bad government.

Happiness, then, is dependent on liberty. People who live in absolutist regimes become creative at inventing new varieties of pleasure. Their personalities may seem more complex and supple than ours. But their pleasures are perverse: they are always the flip-side of a basic lack of dignity and choice.

Jefferson repeated the theme that good government is a precondition of happiness in a letter of August 13, 1786. “If anybody thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send him here [France].” However, Jefferson also emphasized that liberty alone is not happiness. Instead, happiness comes from exertion, or what he called “industry.” The opposite of industry is “indolence.” In a letter to his daughter, dated March 28, 1787, Jefferson explained: “Of all the cankers of human happiness none corrodes with so silent, yet so baneful a tooth, as indolence. Body and mind both unemployed, our being becomes a burden?No laborious person was ever yet hysterical.” (The word “hysterical” here means something like what we now call “depressed.”)

Jefferson goes on to highlight the importance of physical exercise and intellectual focus. Young people should read difficult books and study music. The aim is to learn to entertain oneself. “In Europe there are shops for every want: its inhabitants therefore have no idea that their wants can be furnished otherwise. Remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and to execute; to find means without ourselves, and not to lean on others.”

So far, it looks like Jefferson rejected European models of happiness. But there is more. One of his most profound pieces of writing is a letter he wrote to Maria Cosway, on October 12, 1786. Cosway was a beautiful Italian woman whom Jefferson met in Paris. This was after the death of Jefferson’s wife. Jefferson fell in love with Cosway, who was married to a famous English painter. His outpourings to her brought his thought to its highest emotional and intellectual pitch. In the letter in question, he contrived a dialogue between his “head” and his “heart” about the meaning of happiness. The head, representing practicality, says: “Everything in this world is a matter of calculation.” To get happiness, you just have to examine every situation in terms of whether it produces more pleasure than pain. This is utilitarianism. It was becoming a popular philosophy in the British Enlightenment, and it would go on to become a dominant conception of happiness in America. It is the basis of most analysis in the field of economics today.

Jefferson rejects it. The character of the “heart” represents his viewpoint. Jefferson refuses to accept that pain and pleasure are separable. Here he draws on a different current of thought in Europe, the theory of the “sublime.” A sublime experience is one that mixes an unpleasant emotion, such as fear, with something positive, such as revelation. On this basis, Jefferson says that we cannot scientifically avoid pain. We must take account of the paradoxical nature of human sentiments. Even the grief we experience over the death of a loved one, Jefferson points out, has positive dimensions: good memories of the person, a sense of living in fullness. Jefferson suggests that the happy person is not the one who minimizes pain but the one who cultivates many forms of “sympathy” and “enthusiasm.” He notes that there would have been no American revolution if the patriots had worried too much about the chance of being captured or killed. Instead, the revolutionaries embraced the idea of liberty and they found joy in their risky commitment.

Jefferson’s ideas aren’t perfect. I detect at least one contradiction in his theory of happiness. He rejects the French for being sexually loose, but he is clearly trying to seduce Maria Cosway, a married woman, with his brilliant dialogue on the head and the heart. Also, it’s remarkable that most of his reflections on happiness are in letters that he addressed to women. All of the letters I have quoted here were written to females. Happiness was a “gendered” topic in Jefferson’s day. It was a personal and subtle topic, belonging more to private exchanges with women than to the robust dealings among men.

But then, it’s amazing that Jefferson crossed from the female to the male world: he included the term “happiness” in the Declaration. He could have used the more common formula in his time: “life, liberty, and property.” By going with “happiness” instead of "property," he brought his feminine side into the public sphere. He enriched our political discourse with an intimate expression, a psychological concept whose ambiguities he understood very well. The phrase "the pursuit of happiness" is an encouragement to all of us to be macho—to do what we wish. But it’s also feminine, in the sense of conversational: we should discuss with each other what we ought to wish for. It’s a tremendously elevating concept. It holds up the possibility of an America that is energetic, and thoughtful about the usages of its energy.

Jefferson had certain flaws, but after everything negative that can be said about him has been said, he will still stand out as the most creative, the most acutely self-conscious American of his time. Our own happiness may well depend on our willingness to recognize that he was at least our equal.

–Daniel Gordon, Professor of History, UMass Amherst