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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness (Part Two)


(Editor’s note: This is the second segment in a three part series.  The first segment traced happiness to Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence.  It outlined Alexander Hamilton’s vision in implementing a financial system of capitalism for the republic with the new constitution.)

Yes, Hamilton’s plan conceived a new class of speculative wealth and money-making, created out of thin air and to be endorsed by the full faith and credit of the US government.  Members of Congress, as well as the bankers and speculators, all more or less positioned on the inside, were the earliest plan subscribers and beneficiaries.  By and through its undertaking the new federal government created a system of preference for the so called moneyed class over the remaining classes of society that were not moneyed.

Nevertheless, understanding that this model had achieved unsurpassed economic dominance on the world stage through the British, Hamilton’s financial plan placed the new nation upon a solid economic foundation.  Moreover, the plan placed the new nation on a course for more than two centuries worth of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity for the masses of ordinary citizens.  It certainly turned out to be a wise decision --- for empire.

But, almost immediately upon enactment, Hamilton’s financial plan was the subject of intense criticism and attack.  On the one hand, there could be little doubt that it was a practical plan.  The nation needed a stable, secure banking system, without which the established European powers would supply neither loans nor credit.  It was also expedient.  Its proponents pointed for validation to a proven model.

But on the other hand, it was self-serving, Hamilton being a resident of New York with a multitude of personal and professional connections in the financial arena.  It unfairly and disproportionately rewarded Northern bankers at the expense of Southern farmers, thereby heightening sectional differences.  It created a preference for two distinct economic classes: the haves – and have nots.

It may come as no surprise, then, that Jefferson himself, the Secretary of State in President Washington’s cabinet, was the primary objector to what he viewed as Hamilton’s perversion of the idyllic pursuit of happiness.  But his objection had little to do either with numbers, economics or speculation.

According to Jefferson, the essence of the pursuit of happiness commenced with the removal of all forms of arbitrary, artificial or hereditary distinctions, influences or preconceived ideas.  The desire was to attain full, unencumbered intellectual and religious freedom of the mind, unconstrained by previous efforts to set authoritative delineation using lenses and filters.  Absent these external influences and thus empowered, the mind would exist in a completely and intellectually free state: to master its environment and attain its natural potentialities.  Central was the belief in the improvability of the human mind and the limitless progress of human knowledge.

The author of the document which set forth that “all men are created equal” viewed with consternation a plan which would not treat all men equally under the law.  Such a plan violated the unfettered freedom of the individual citizen to pursue happiness.  It flowed from principles adverse to liberty, accomplished by creating an influence of the US Treasury over members of Congress, inherently susceptible to corruption.  With the grant of inherent privileges artificially conferred upon certain of its benefactors, the plan tended to narrow the government into fewer hands and approximate it to a hereditary form.

In a later period, Andrew Jackson would declare war on and victory over Hamilton’s federal banking system.  In the throes of battle, Jackson astutely observe that “If the people only understood the rank injustice of our money and banking system there would be a revolution before morning.”

For his own part, Theodore Roosevelt had an interesting insight as to what was happiness:

But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.  It may be true that he travels farthest who travels alone; but the goal thus reached is not worth reaching.  And as for a life deliberately devoted to pleasure as an end – why, the greatest happiness is the happiness that comes as a by-product of striving to do what must be done, even though sorrow is met in the doing.


(Next week’s third and final segment will explore The Pursuit of Happiness from the realm of Eastern Civilization, dating to a time period centuries prior to the American founding fathers.)

-Michael D’Angelo

2 comments:

  1. Jefferson seemed to view the idea of the "pursuit of happiness" through the Rousseauian lense of his First and Second Discourse. Did man only have the key to happiness in his natural state? Is the pursuit of happiness really the dream to return to the Garden? Even in a state of nature there are have's and have nots, how or why would anyone want to try and level the field artificially? This road only provides disappointment. Maybe happiness lies in the chase or pursuit? Not in the final destination.

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