Kansas City Dinner Symposium with MU Law Professor Carli Conklin


“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 . . . .”

                                                The Declaration of Independence, 1776


As part of the Kinder Forum’s Dinner Symposium Series, University of Missouri Law School Professor Carli Conklin gave a November 12, 2014, talk at the Kansas City Country Club exploring the legal, political and philosophical history of the idea of individuals’ right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Prof. Conklin’s lecture worked against many legal historians’ conclusion that this phrase, as it appears in the Declaration of Independence, is little more than a “glittering generality”: an aspirational and undefined articulation of privilege. Beginning with an examination of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, she instead argued that the “the pursuit of happiness” has distinct meaning within the context of Enlightenment-era literature and, moreover, that we might use this meaning to better understand its inclusion in the Declaration’s trinity of unalienable rights. Pointing specifically to Blackstone’s belief that true and substantial happiness emerged from humans’ ability to both know and choose to obey the laws of nature and of nature’s God, Prof. Conklin then traced this connection of “the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual” through four strands of thought that may have influenced the Founders during the drafting and editing of the Declaration: English Law and Legal Theory, Classical Antiquity, Christianity, and the Scottish Enlightenment’s focus on Newtonian science. Though, as she noted, these strands are by no means uniform–and are at times contradictory–in the ideas they present, they converge in their emphasis on understanding first principles and, as in Blackstone’s Commentaries, on the virtuousness and happiness that come with living (or ruling) in accordance with them. Given the Founders’ well-documented interest in authors ranging from Cicero to Locke to Newton–coupled with Jefferson and Adams’ claims that the Declaration contained no new sentiments–Prof. Conklin concluded that we might thus read the final language of the Declaration, at least in part, as reflecting how the Founders intermingled ideas from these four schools of thought for the purpose of laying out the first principles of a government under which individuals could flourish.

Carli Conklin joined the law faculty at the University of Missouri in 2011. 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 is 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 law school, she teaches Lawyering, Negotiation, International Human Rights Law, Law & Social Science, and Non-Binding Methods of Dispute Resolution. Professor Conklin serves as coordinator for the Forum’s undergraduate Society of Fellows program.


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The Kinder Forum’s Dinner Symposium series brings together people from inside and outside the university to discuss important topics related to American constitutional democracy. (Attendance is by invitation only, but we would love to have a diverse group of people from the community involved. For more information, or to express an interest in attending a future event, please send a note to KinderForum@missouri.edu.)