Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, written largely by George Mason and adopted almost a month before the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed: “All men are by nature equally free and Independent and have certain inherent Rights . . . namely the enjoyment of life and liberty with the means of acquiring and possessing property and pursuing and obtaining happiness and Safety.” Clearly these words influenced Thomas Jefferson, who shortened our “unalienable rights” to include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
How did Mason’s “possessing property” turn into Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness?” Certainly they are not the same things. You can buy property, but you can’t buy happiness—or so the saying goes.
Americans have always believed in the value private wealth, in owning property and reaping the fruits of our labor. We also value our common wealth, resources that are shared for the good of society as a whole. The tension between these values manifests itself in debates over how much we should be taxed and how the government should spend our tax dollars.
Some see government spending—on everything from education to health care—as a path to happiness. Others think the best way for citizens to find happiness is for government to stay out of their lives. In our continuing pursuit of the third of Jefferson’s unalienable rights, we continue to debate what kind of wealth matters most.
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