“Exploring the Pursuit of Happiness”: Book Talk with Prof. Carli Conklin


It does stand out a little, doesn’t it? If “life” and “liberty” seem cut from a cloth philosophically tailored for a declaration of independence, “happiness,” to borrow a phrase from MU Prof. Carli Conklin’s introduction to her May 9 talk, sits somewhat glitteringly on its own. In fact, theorists and citizens alike have long puzzled over Jefferson’s reason for including “the pursuit of happiness” among the Declaration’s three named unalienable rights, often arriving at one of two conclusions: that he was cribbing Locke’s right to property or that the phrase was purely decorative—a “glittering generality.” But as Prof. Conklin lays out in her recent book, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History, these conclusions un-satisfactorily skim the term’s surface and thus fail to un-earth the distinct meaning ‘happiness’ had for 18th-century legal and political thinkers.

That ‘happiness’ was spared the editorial guillotine as the Declaration went through round after round of revision affirms that the document’s authors attached significant meaning to it. Discovering what this meaning was is somewhat more complicated and requires tracing the term back into the multiple intellectual traditions that, according to John Adams, the Continental Congress “hackneyed” during the drafting process, namely—the English common law, Newtonian science, Christianity, and the history and philosophy of classical antiquity (as for the high crime of “hackneying,” Jefferson, in his defense, claimed that his job in authoring the Declaration was decidedly not to invent new ideas).

While these traditions draw on different terms in articulating it, the line of agreement that runs through them begins with the identification of a first mover. From here, Prof. Conklin showed, a step-by-step sequence of conclusions can deliver us—as it delivered the Declaration’s authors—to happiness as something that is true rather than fleeting, substantial rather than ornamental. Specifically: that the world was created leads us to the conclusion that it is governed by discoverable first principles; the discovery of these principles—whether via reason or observation—enables us to live in harmony with them; to experience harmony is to experience order, to experience order is to experience well-being, and to experience well-being is to experience happiness.

For Blackstone—the figure perhaps most central to Prof. Conklin’s new book—these conclusions are sewn together in an ethical relationship in which practicing eternal justice and experiencing happiness are the reflexive byproducts of adherence to the first principles of creation (synonymous, for him, with the foundation of natural law). For the United States’ founding generation, this translated into a causal link between living virtuously and living happily, though as Prof. Conklin noted in wrapping up her talk, virtue came by many different names for this generation, ranging from Jefferson’s binaries—“prudence not folly,” “justice not deceit,” “fortitude not fear”—to Adams’ punctuality and benevolence (among others), to the thirteen virtues on Franklin’s daily checklist, which included silence, order, frugality, justice, and humility, defined by the Philadelphian as “imitat[ing] Jesus and Socrates.”


Carli Conklin joined the law faculty at University of Missouri in 2011 and currently serves as Associate Professor at the Law School. After completing a B.S. in English and an M.A. in Education at Truman State University, she studied law and history at the University of Virginia through a joint J.D./Ph.D. program in American Legal History. Her dissertation at UVA was an intellectual history of the meaning of the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence. Professor Conklin’s research interests are in American legal history, with a focus on dispute resolution and rights dialogues in early America. At the MU School of Law, she teaches Lawyering, Negotiation, International Human Rights Law, Law & Social Science, and Non-Binding Methods of Dispute Resolution. Professor Conklin also serves as Kinder Institute Associate Professor of Constitutional Democracy and Director of Undergraduate Studies, coordinating, among other things, the Society of Fellows program and the four-course Constitutionalism and Democracy Honors College series. Her first book, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History, came out in March 2019 as part of the Institute’s Studies in Constitutional Democracy monograph series with University of Missouri Press.