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The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History, Carli N. Conklin

Reviewed by Adam Dahl

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The Declaration of Independence is one of those political texts, like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg or Second Inaugural Address, in which seemingly every phrase inspires thousands upon thousands of pages of debate and interpretation. Carli N. Conklin’s The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History joins this fray in its attempt to parse the meaning of its titular phrase. Conklin departs from previous interpretations of “the pursuit of happiness” that either emphasize its displacement of property in John Locke’s pronouncement of the natural right to “life, liberty, and estate” or cast the phrase as, in Rufus Choate’s 1856 description, a “glittering generality” (p. 5). For Conklin, both interpretations neglect the substantive content of the term. Instead, Conklin offers a meticulously researched historical contextualization of the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” by excavating the central intellectual traditions that informed the Founders’ use of the phrase. The book is sure to be of interest to both early American historians and students of American political thought. The inclusion of an extensive appendix with drafts of the Declaration, relevant selections of Bl

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