Bigots are really happy people

History Reloaded - What history teaches us

When the “American Dream” was still valid for immigrants: Mexican workers in 1942 on their way to the USA. (Photo: Bettmann, Getty Images)

When people talk about happiness today, it is mostly about research into when and under what conditions people say they are happy. These studies have their own merits, but at some point there is an eighteenth-century document: the American Declaration of Independence. In 1776, the second continental congress of the 13 English colonies in Philadelphia decided to break away from the motherland. The "inalienable human rights" proclaimed at the time included not only life and freedom, but also "the pursuit of happiness".

The "pursuit of happiness" is the most American of human rights. It is absent from the French Declaration of Human and Civil Rights of 1789, as well as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The idea that the pursuit of happiness is a right has shaped the DNA of American capitalism. It stands for boundless greed as well as ingenuity, daring and overwhelming generosity. It is like a formula that constantly inspires people to make their dream come true.

Jefferson's design and Franklin's finishing touches

How the “pursuit of happiness” was invented is a story in itself. The author of the Declaration of Independence was the then 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, a philosophically educated plantation owner from Virginia, who would later be elected President of the USA. Jefferson was based on the "Virginia Declaration of Rights" of 1776. It postulates the right of every person to "the enjoyment of life and freedom, the means of acquiring and possessing property and the pursuit and attainment of happiness and freedom Security".

The finishing touches to Jefferson's text came from Benjamin Franklin, one of the authors and signatory of the US Declaration of Independence. The entrepreneur, inventor and publicist was already 70 at the time and thus belonged to a different generation than Jefferson. Franklin did not change much of the design, but some changes are significant. In the first sentence of the Declaration, for example, Jefferson had written: "We hold these truths" (that all human beings are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights) to be "sacred and indisputable". Franklin made it: "We take these truths for granted." This made the declaration of human rights more secular and pragmatic.

Strengthen the individual

Some formulations from the American Declaration of Independence seem a bit old-fashioned today. However, the very right to pursue happiness is very fashionable. It sounds like the development theory of Harvard economist Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. Sens's central theme in life was and is to improve the situation of the world's poor. Their main problem, he says, isn't low income (that can be part of the problem). What the poor really lack is the chance to develop their skills. This applies to young women in the Third World, for example, when there is a “boy preference” in their families, as Sen writes - when money and educational opportunities only benefit the sons.

Development policy therefore means giving people access to their skills. Where «ability» stands for the freedom to «realize different lifestyles». This is none other than Jefferson and Franklin's "pursuit of happiness".

The right to happiness strengthens the individual. The founding fathers of the USA made a gift to mankind. The tragic thing is that they were not ready to do away with the shame of slavery. In fact, it was almost 87 years before President Abraham Lincoln finally freed America's slaves in 1863.

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