John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Pursuit of Happiness

Posted on July 2, 2015
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

"Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale, 1800)" by Rembrandt Peale - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In America, we pursue happiness.

As we declared in our independence from King George and his crony capitalists, the pursuit of happiness was a key part of the deal.

Thomas Jefferson liked to pursue happiness. He liked to drink wine, read books, invent cool things. He also liked to pursue Sally Hemmings. It is unclear if Ms. Hemmings liked to be pursued by Mr. Jefferson.

One man’s pursuit of happiness can sometimes lead to another man’s unhappiness.

Jefferson pursued his happiness at the expense of a bunch of other people.   He knew that owning slaves was wrong, but he didn’t let his guilt derail his efforts to be happy.

Jefferson was notoriously unhappy with Alexander Hamilton, who was recently targeted by the Obama Administration for removal from the ten dollar bill.   It is curious that they would target Hamilton, because he was a fierce abolitionist who hated slavery.

You would think the Obama Administration would have a special appreciation for Mr. Hamilton, given his stance against the slave trade.

Slavery, of course, has reared its ugly head again, in the context of the Confederate Battle flag.   Some Southerners (not all) believe that they can only be happy by waving a flag that celebrates white supremacy.

And if you read the history of the flag, that’s what it has always been a symbol of, of white supremacy. But America is not a white supremacist nation.   It is a nation of immigrants who have come to this country because of its promise that you can pursue happiness to your life’s content.

There has always been some tension in the proposition.   Life is not linear.

When the Pilgrims first came to America, they didn’t put too much stock in “happiness” in any modern sense. They came to build a “shining city on the Hill” that reflected God’s glory, not earthly material comfort.

H.L. Menken said of those first settlers, “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

And we shouldn’t overlook the wide swath of puritanism that has always pulsed through the veins of the American experience.

After all, we are the country that once banned the public consumption of alcohol through a Constitutional amendment.

This wasn’t just some law that could be easily repealed. It was a cumbersome and by design difficult process that changed our Constitution to first ban booze and then  used the same process to allow for it.

Drinking makes some people very happy, maybe too happy. For some other people, drinking is a sin.

There’s an old joke about Southern Baptists and fishing that somehow fits in here. Never take just one Southern Baptist fishing with you because they will drink all your beer. Take two, so you don’t have to share.

Of course, Southern Baptists aren’t the only religious folks who frown on drinking. The Mormons and the Muslims feel the same way.

It was Harry Truman who said, “never trust a man who doesn’t drink.”   Good advice.

Barack Obama famously had a beer summit with a Boston cop to paper over any differences that they might have had over the cop’s mistaken arrest of Obama’s friend, Skip Gates.

That was the first on many racial controversies that have afflicted this White House since the President gained the White House.

Pundits had hoped that Mr. Obama’s election would make America “post-racial.”

But as we know about our history, every action has a reaction.   And we are nowhere near being post-racial.

Things are getting better, but sometimes things have to get worse before they truly get better.

Dylann Roof thought he was going to start a race war by killing 9 innocent black people in an iconic African American Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Instead, he hastened the end of the flying of the Johnny Reb flag in polite company and hopefully, over any public building in America.

Mr. Obama’s election was a symbol to the wider world that we, as a society, had fulfilled our promise as a nation dedicated to the principle that everybody had a right to pursue happiness, no matter what their skin color, even if that pursuit led to the Oval Office.

Obama himself wasn’t a believer when it came to gay marriage.

It took his Vice President, an older Irish Catholic, to prod him in public to change his position.

Same sex marriage does not make everybody happy, obviously.

Some believe that it will lead to the end of our civilization, that God will suddenly frown on us, that our shining city on the Hill will go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah.

A lot of these same folks would also be more than happy to see Prohibition come back, and don’t like kids to dance in public (or in private).

I am talking to you, Mike Huckabee.

But the gay marriage decision is thoroughly consistent with “pursuit of happiness” doctrine that makes America a special place.

If it makes you happy, go for it.

Happiness is not a simple thing to define.

I am happy playing golf, although my golf game is frequently punctuated with several very unhappy moments.

I am happy when I am with my kids, although sometimes, when they break my stuff, they make me unhappy.

Happy wife, happy life, the saying goes, but that’s easier said than done.

And I guess that’s what is so wise about the Founding Father’s promise.

We don’t guarantee happiness in America. We give you the right to pursue it.

It’s up to you to figure out what makes you happy.

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