Is the Pursuit of Happiness a Legal Right?

Does the Declaration of Independence protect your right to party?

Adam Freedman
4-minute read

First, your daily dose of legalese: This podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

The Declaration of Independence and the Pursuit of Happiness

This week, in honor of the 4th of July, we ask: does the Declaration of Independence actually protect your right to pursue happiness?

The short answer is that Declaration itself has no binding effect in courts; however, the concept of the “pursuit of happiness” has been enshrined in a number of state constitutions and in judicial interpretations of the US Constitution. So go ahead and pursue happiness -- and I hope you’ll start by listening to the rest of the podcast.

On the 4th of July, we celebrate barbecue, cold beer, fireworks – and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, even though (and not to be know-it-all) the document was actually signed on July 2nd.

What is the Declaration of Independence, Exactly?

As we explained in an earlier episode, the Declaration has no binding effect on US courts.

And that’s because the Declaration was never intended to set forth domestic law; rather, it was meant to be an instrument of international law. The Declaration was an assertion that the British Crown had forfeited its sovereignty over the American colonies and that those colonies now formed an independent nation. In the hope of persuading other countries to recognize the new nation, the Declaration lists some 30 grievances against King George.

And yet the stirring words of the Declaration’s preamble -- drafted by Thomas Jefferson -- have had a lasting influence on American law. As you’ll recall, the preamble states 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.

The Constitution and the Pursuit of Happiness

After the American Revolution was won, and it was time to draft the Constitution, the founders latched on to the “life and liberty” bit of the Declaration, and then added “property” to the mix. Thus, the Constitution guarantees the rights of “life, liberty, and property” in the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, and then again in the 14th Amendment, which protects those rights against interference by the states. But the “pursuit of happiness” sort of got left on the cutting room floor.

Nonetheless, the “pursuit of happiness” did find a home in a number of state constitutions, including those of Massachusetts, Virginia, and Wisconsin. That right is rarely litigated; however in one case, a Massachusetts Court held that the ability to work as an undertaker is part of the “pursuit of happiness.” It might be hard for some of you to believe that working with corpses can bring “happiness,” but the judge in that case actually stated that there were “grave reasons” to support his conclusion. Who says judges don’t have a sense of humor?

What Does the Pursuit of Happiness Mean?

There is evidence to suggest that when Jefferson referred to the “pursuit of happiness” he did mean things like working, which were assumed to contribute to the individual virtue.

Jefferson himself observed that “virtue is the foundation of happiness.” But this was also a standard use of the term “happiness” in the late 18th Century.

The US Supreme Court did belatedly discover the “pursuit of happiness” when interpreting the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In the 1923 case of Meyer v. Nebraska, there was a challenge to a state law prohibiting the teaching of foreign language to elementary and middle school children. Speaking for the court, Justice McReynolds stated that the liberty guaranteed by the 14th Amendment includes not only freedom from restraint, but also, the right to work, to raise a family and, “generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” 

You’ll note that the court referred not to an unfettered pursuit of happiness, but to the “orderly” pursuit of happiness; in other words, you can’t pursue happiness to the point of breaking the law or violating other people’s rights. Fair enough.

Is Summer Homework Unconstitutional?

The Myer decision was cited just a few years ago by a Wisconsin high school student and his father, who tried to get the courts to declare summer homework unconstitutional. The case was tossed out, but summer slackers must not abandon all hope. There was a movement in the 1970’s to pass a so-called “Happiness Amendment” that would have given Constitutional protection to the right to wear bell-bottom jeans, listen to disco, and whatever else people did in the 1970s. Granted, it didn’t pass, but maybe it’s time to revive that Amendment as kind of emotional stimulus package. In the meantime, do your best to pursue happiness this 4th of July!

You can send questions and comments to legal@quickanddirtytips.com or call them in to the voicemail line at 206-202-4LAW. Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this podcast only.

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