Kennedy on Property and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Declaration of Independence

July 23rd, 2013

Justice Kennedy gave a lecture in Dunkirk, New York on the relationship between Democracy and Freedom. The Observer reported that the Justice offered these comments, comparing the Virginia Declaration of Rights (authored by my alma matter’s namesake, George Mason), and the Declaration of Independence.

Over the next 40 minutes, Kennedy discussed the Virginia Declaration of Rights, comparing it to the Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted a month before the Declaration of Independence. It encouraged men to rebel against inadequate government.

“The Virginia Declaration of Rights said that there should be a right to life, liberty and to acquire and possess property, and to pursue and obtain happiness,” Kennedy said. “We could ask you, ‘Well, which do you prefer? The longer version or the Jeffersonian edited version?'”

According to Kennedy, the word property is extremely important.

“Property gives you the capacity to plan your own destiny in a world where government is all too eager to plan it for you,” he said. “Property is of immense importance.”

I’ve researched the question of why Jefferson dropped the word “Property” from the Lockean trio of life, liberty and property. There does not seem to be a clear answer, though the best answer I have found focuses on the word “unalienable.”

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

While life and liberty are certainly unalienable rights, property is not. In fact is is quiet alienable. The common law even offered a presumption against unalienability. So there’s that. But that’s the best I got.

Kennedy continued to offer his thoughts on the meaning of the word “pursuit” as opposed to Mason’s “obtain.”

Kennedy said he believed the word “pursuit” was as important as the word “happiness,” and hypothesized the Declaration of Independence deliberately left out the word “obtain,” stating happiness could be pursued, but not obtained.