An American dream for the world

An unusual history lesson about happiness

Jay Walljasper | May 2006 issue
When I became a father 11 years ago, I expected it would lead to many unfamiliar and even unsettling experiences. But I never dreamed that one day I would dress up as the American patriot Thomas Jefferson and field questions from 5th and 6th graders about Revolutionary War battles,18th-century fashions and my African-American mistress, Sally Hemings.
Creating a colonial-era costume was actually pretty easy; I made it out of an old tuxedo I bought at a rummage sale and a pair of knee-high boots left over from my younger days as a stylish dresser. Figuring out what exactly to say about Jefferson to a roomful of kids was more difficult.
He was a man of considerable contradictions. An eloquent opponent of slavery, he never freed his own slaves. A champion of hard-working farmers, he lived the life of a lord on his Virginia estate. Yet Jefferson inspired people around the world with his vision of authentic democracy, best expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Two hundred and thirty years after Jefferson penned them, these words still offer a bold vision of what human societies could achieve. “All men are created equal” is obviously an ideal we have yet to live up to when millions of people across the planet die each year from hunger, treatable disease and other side effects of poverty.
And I am particularly struck by the power of “pursuit of happiness” as a political goal. Jefferson might have used many other words instead. Pursuit of wealth. Pursuit of security. Pursuit of order. In fact, he was rephrasing English philosopher John Locke’s dictum of “life, liberty and property.” But Jefferson—a man who loved reading books, drinking wine, riding horses through the woods and later on, playing with his grandchildren—chose the word happiness.
If people’s widespread happiness was embraced by today’s leaders as their most important priority, the world would look much different. We would not spend so many billions on weapons and wars and armies. We would not sacrifice the health of our natural environment for short-term gains. We would not be expected to spend so many hours on the job. We would not tolerate such ugly, dispiriting surroundings in so many of our cities and towns. We would not feel afraid to say what we really think.
What we would do—with hearty encouragement from presidents and prime ministers, bosses and co-workers—is put people first in every action we undertake: friends, family, neighbours, strangers on the street, people we will never meet 10 time zones away. Before making any decision, as a society or as individuals, we would stop a minute to consider the effects on the happiness of others.
Of course that’s an overly simple and naïve goal, especially in endeavours as serious as politics and business, some might say. “Absolutely not,” Thomas Jefferson, a notoriously soft-spoken man, would have roared in response. What could be more important to politicians and business executives, as well as the rest of us, than offering people everywhere the opportunity to lead their lives with a full and joyful sense of possibility? It’s my American dream that leaders in Washington, D.C., and everywhere else will learn to heed Jefferson’s message that the pursuit of happiness is the essence of democracy.
 

Solution News Source

An American dream for the world

An unusual history lesson about happiness

Jay Walljasper | May 2006 issue
When I became a father 11 years ago, I expected it would lead to many unfamiliar and even unsettling experiences. But I never dreamed that one day I would dress up as the American patriot Thomas Jefferson and field questions from 5th and 6th graders about Revolutionary War battles,18th-century fashions and my African-American mistress, Sally Hemings.
Creating a colonial-era costume was actually pretty easy; I made it out of an old tuxedo I bought at a rummage sale and a pair of knee-high boots left over from my younger days as a stylish dresser. Figuring out what exactly to say about Jefferson to a roomful of kids was more difficult.
He was a man of considerable contradictions. An eloquent opponent of slavery, he never freed his own slaves. A champion of hard-working farmers, he lived the life of a lord on his Virginia estate. Yet Jefferson inspired people around the world with his vision of authentic democracy, best expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Two hundred and thirty years after Jefferson penned them, these words still offer a bold vision of what human societies could achieve. “All men are created equal” is obviously an ideal we have yet to live up to when millions of people across the planet die each year from hunger, treatable disease and other side effects of poverty.
And I am particularly struck by the power of “pursuit of happiness” as a political goal. Jefferson might have used many other words instead. Pursuit of wealth. Pursuit of security. Pursuit of order. In fact, he was rephrasing English philosopher John Locke’s dictum of “life, liberty and property.” But Jefferson—a man who loved reading books, drinking wine, riding horses through the woods and later on, playing with his grandchildren—chose the word happiness.
If people’s widespread happiness was embraced by today’s leaders as their most important priority, the world would look much different. We would not spend so many billions on weapons and wars and armies. We would not sacrifice the health of our natural environment for short-term gains. We would not be expected to spend so many hours on the job. We would not tolerate such ugly, dispiriting surroundings in so many of our cities and towns. We would not feel afraid to say what we really think.
What we would do—with hearty encouragement from presidents and prime ministers, bosses and co-workers—is put people first in every action we undertake: friends, family, neighbours, strangers on the street, people we will never meet 10 time zones away. Before making any decision, as a society or as individuals, we would stop a minute to consider the effects on the happiness of others.
Of course that’s an overly simple and naïve goal, especially in endeavours as serious as politics and business, some might say. “Absolutely not,” Thomas Jefferson, a notoriously soft-spoken man, would have roared in response. What could be more important to politicians and business executives, as well as the rest of us, than offering people everywhere the opportunity to lead their lives with a full and joyful sense of possibility? It’s my American dream that leaders in Washington, D.C., and everywhere else will learn to heed Jefferson’s message that the pursuit of happiness is the essence of democracy.
 

Solution News Source

SIGN UP

TO GET A Free DAILY DOSE OF OPTIMISM

Optimist Subscriber
Delivery Frequency *
reCAPTCHA

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously. Privacy Policy