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Historian Allitt on the pursuit of happiness

2011 January 6
by Hal Jacobs

In the Jan-Feb 2011 issue of The National InterestPatrick Allitt (Cahoon Family Professor of American History) writes about the theological changes that took place in the U.S., beginning with those words about the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.

Here’s the opening paragraph of his article “Prayers of Our Fathers”:

THE DECLARATION of Independence is a little odd. It claims not only that all people are created equal but also that they have a self-evident, God-given right to the pursuit of happiness. If it is indeed self-evident, why did no one even mention it until 1776? God did not guarantee anyone the right to pursue happiness in the sermons of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford or the great Puritan ministers Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, and it is impossible to imagine any of those stern preachers arguing its merits. Just read the gruesome text of Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and you’ll agree. The challenge there is to avoid the everlasting torments of hell; Edwards certainly does not think that you’ll escape them by spending your days on earth chasing after happiness.

Read the full article to learn more about the connection (or disconnect) between religion and happiness, from Jefferson to Hitchens. Spoiler alert…. Allitt concludes:

Despite all the polemics, it is as impossible now as it was in Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine’s day to say whether religion does or does not lead to happiness, just as it is impossible to know whether God regards our pursuit of it as an inalienable right.

Related Media


Dr. Allitt is one of the panelists of “Civil Discourse and the Politics of Confrontation in America” (Nov. 8, 2010), discussing how universities can help foster public and scholarly dialogue, and how that dialogue is affected by mass media and political divisions.


Dr. Allitt describes his Fall 2009 freshman seminar class on the history of American conservatism.

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