Students of the Declaration of Independence are often told that Jefferson changed John Locke’s classic formulation of the phrase “life, liberty and property” to the more transcendent “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is usually attributed to Jefferson’s high-mindedness. Now I learn from Bruce Littman, who is associated with the Burlamaqui Society in Geneva, Switzerland, that there may have been a more calculating political motive behind this change. (A top o' the hat to Rolf Carriere.)
According to the Society – a private dining club that organizes “pursuit of happiness” dinner debates – Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748) is “best remembered for his attempt to demonstrate the reality of natural law by tracing its origin to God's rule as well as to human reason and moral instinct. He believed that both international and domestic law were and should be based on this kind of “natural law.”
The Society states:
Thomas Jefferson heavily annotated his personal copies of Burlamaqui's works. Burlamaqui most probably was the inspiration for Jefferson’s citation of "the pursuit of happiness"as one of the inalienable rights of man that Jefferson included in the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. J-J Burlamaqui was also admired as a patron of the arts. He assembled one of the most beautiful private collections of paintings and drawings in the Geneva of his day.
Bruce Littman came across an unfamiliar explanation for why Jefferson, in the drafting of the Declaration, chose to omit “Property” as a “natural right” worthy of being enumerated and protected. He cites historian Peter Garnsey in his book, Thinking About Property:
This was an important and awkward issue, because nobody claimed that the American Indians, though primitive, had no natural rights. The admission of a natural right to property would have put under suspicion virtually all land held by descendants of European settlers in America (also contentious was the matter of a natural right to property in relation to the legitimacy of slavery.) Within the natural state of man, Burlamaqui made a distinction between the primitive, original state created by God, and adventitious states where man is placed by his own acts. The "property of goods" is one such adventitious state. If Jefferson and his colleagues realised that the designation of property as an unalienable human right would be politically unwise, it was Burlamaqui who had shown that it was also philosophically unjustified." (pp. 222-225).
So “property” may have been omitted lest it raise uncomfortable questions about the legitimacy of European settlers’ property rights in the New World!
I readily defer to any Jefferson scholars who may have contrary evidence to present. But I do find Littman’s explanation dismayingly plausible. After all, government can play a far more significant role in protecting “property” than in promoting “happiness,” making "property" the more logical object to name. On the other hand, to the extent that generations of Americans have readily ascribed to government the duty to promote happiness, what’s to complain about there? Let’s make the most of any political cynicism that unwittingly raises the bar for government performance!