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The Pursuit of Happiness: New Approaches to the American Revolutionary Past

by guest contributor Kevin Diestelow

By Kevin Diestelow

The American Revolution looms large in the historical consciousness of the United States. It has played a larger role than any other event in determining the political identity of the American polity. Who we are as a people, what purpose we ascribe to our government, what ideals we strive for in our conduct –– each is a reflection in some way of how we choose to interpret the founding moments of our country.

Throughout American history, a certain telling of the Revolution has dominated both the popular and scholarly imagination, leading to a reductive understanding of the Revolution’s intellectual dimension. This understanding highlights the supposed “libertarian” character of Revolutionary ideology. In this view, the fundamental cause of the Revolution was an effort to limit government. Notions of liberty, as this story goes, form the heart of American government as developed by the Revolutionary generation. That reading, while applicable to portions of the eighteenth-century experience, too often leads to a narrow consideration of what was an expansive intellectual exercise. As will be shown, a libertarian reading of the American Revolution does not offer a ready explanation for the work of men like James Wilson, and moving beyond that reading offers new avenues for synthesizing the American Revolution as an intellectual event.

Two works in intellectual history demonstrate how academics have engrained libertarian  understandings into historical scholarship: Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)and Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic (1969).  Bailyn’s work, generally treated as the start of the “republican synthesis” in early American history, overturned decades of progressive scholarship which posited that the American Revolution was driven by economic factors by carefully arguing for the importance of ideas in American history. Bailyn demonstrated that colonists’ revolutionary activity was driven by the development of a particular ideological approach to politics, grounded in the “country opposition” language of British politics. He argues that revolutionaries were concerned that there existed a conspiracy of British ministers against colonial rights and freedoms. His Ideological Origins thus concludes that revolutionaries justified independence from Britain in order to combat creeping British authoritarianism and preserve the liberty that colonists had long cherished.

Wood’s work can largely be viewed as a continuation of Bailyn’s –– he extends Bailyn’s argument in order to understand the dynamic process of constitution-making occasioned by the Revolution. Wood argues that in the process of writing constitutions, Americans developed new understandings of critical terms including sovereignty, representation, and the relationship between power and liberty. These new conceptions transformed political understandings, ending the “classical era” of politics which Bailyn argued defined thought during the 1760s. They instead occasioned a new liberal political understanding which focused intently on the individual and on the competition of interests and factions in society.

This conception of the Revolution, built on the need to limit government and fulfilled by the final promotion of the needs of individuals, has been enormously influential. It complements wider arguments, offered by scholars like David Wootton, regarding eighteenth-century thought, which hold that the Enlightenment subjectivized moral understandings to a point where morality as a concept became little more than competing arguments regarding what is pleasurable. When combined with Bailyn and Wood’s arguments regarding revolutionary causality and institutional formation, this approach imagines the American republic as an arena of pure individual freedom. Within this conception, men have the latitude needed to act as they choose, and government exists only to provide minimal refereeing and protection for the boundaries of action.

New approaches in both intellectual history and the history of the American Revolution question the absolute validity of this picture, while also suggesting avenues for new understandings of the conflict. The first concerns the Enlightenment. Traditional approaches to Enlightenment thought emphasize it as an “age of reason” in which thought became secularized and predicated on the dispassionate pursuit of empirical evidence. It is easy to see how this staid intellectual approach has molded the scholarship on events like the American Revolution –– Wood’s work in particular reflects this reading of the trajectory of Western thought. A recent work by Ritchie Robertson, however, suggests a new paradigm for synthesizing the Enlightenment, one predicated on human happiness and improvement. The Enlightenment contained a vast array of geographic and disciplinary strands of thought, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to conceptualize it with any sense of coherence. Tying all of these strands together, Robertson argues, was a collective desire to improve the human condition and increase worldly happiness. The various thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that by applying careful reason and study to the world around them, they could uncover its inner machinations and ultimately improve its functioning. Reason still plays a critical role in this process, but it is a means rather than an end. Inverting this traditional structure places happiness at the forefront of eighteenth-century intellectual ambitions.

Regarding the American Revolution, the most innovative new approach has been pioneered by Steve Pincus and Justin Du Rivage. They argue that although colonial rhetoric concerned itself with the limits of power and the promotion of liberty, there were far more significant concerns regarding the proper application of power. This “imperial approach” to Revolutionary causality argues that colonists engaged in a far-reaching debate about the purpose of government and British imperial policy which shaped their critique of the imperial relationship. What was important was not just that citizens be free to act as they pleased, but rather that citizens be supported by the government in their pursuit of individual and collective happiness. Rather than perceiving it as a mere referee to safeguard liberty, Pincus and Du Rivage argue, colonial denizens expected the government to act in favor of supporting the collective good. Much as new Enlightenment scholarship inverted the role of reason in the process, this approach inverts the relationship between liberty and happiness. Liberty, while important, was one component of a wider quest for individual and societal improvement. Reading the Revolution in this way reveals that it was less about limiting government and more about ensuring that government acted in a way which was beneficial to those it governed.

The work of one founder in particular, James Wilson, illustrates how marrying these new historiographical strands can shape the way we approach the American Revolution. Wilson was born and educated in Scotland and signed the Declaration of Independence, helped draft critical sections of the Constitution as a delegate to the Federal Convention, and served as a Supreme Court Justice in the 1790s. As a thinker, he uniquely devoted himself to happiness as a philosophical ideal –– he reiterated numerous times throughout his career that “the promotion of publick happiness [was] the end originally proposed by the people for government.” Wilson’s treatment of the term “happiness” as a philosophic concept mirrors enlightened devotion to improvement. His definition joined together both moral concerns regarding virtue and material concerns of wealth and prosperity with a fierce philosophic optimism and belief that the human condition trended towards improvement. To be “happy,” in Wilson’s mind, was to be constantly striving to better oneself, to be more virtuous, more prosperous, more moral, more enlightened.

This belief strongly influenced his work as a revolutionary and constitution-maker during the 1770s and 1780s. Throughout the imperial crisis, he advanced a doctrine of revolution built around joining consent of the governed with government policy designed to meet citizens’ needs and interests. Because British colonial policy denied American colonists a voice in government and did not benefit their needs, Wilson believed revolution to be justified. Later, as he helped craft constitutions in both Pennsylvania and at the Federal Convention in 1787, he fought for a centralized government imbued with enough power to act decisively in favor of supporting citizens’ material and moral development. The main contributions he made to the Federal constitution –– a fierce argument in favor of popular sovereignty and the “necessary and proper clause” –– provide an example of government-for-happiness in practice.  The “necessary and proper clause” in particular dramatically expanded the latitude given to Congress to legislate on a variety of issues and represented the fulfillment of critiques launched against British policy during the imperial crisis. By the 1790s, Wilson possessed an expansive view of what government could or should do to support citizens that was fundamentally shaped by his devotion to happiness as a political and philosophic concept.

Historians have long struggled to assess Wilson as an individual. In different works that address his career, he has been characterized as variously “nationalist or conservative or democrat…radical, moderate, liberal, aristocrat, pragmatist, realist, optimist, and combinations thereof.” I would argue that the difficulty historians have in labeling Wilson’s thought is a reflection of the limiting language which historians have previously adopted when approaching the Revolution. By considering politics in positive moral terms, and by being open to a more expansive set of purposes both for revolutionary political thought, it could be possible to conceptualize the whole of Wilson’s intellectual career across the 1770s and 1780s.

 This seeming discord also mirrors wider issues which persist in the intellectual history of the American Revolution. Historians have long argued over whether a disconnect exists between the beginnings of revolutionary ideology in the 1760s and the creation of the modern American nation-state through the Constitution in 1787. This is largely the consequence of the disconnect between the strong centralized government favored at the convention with a revolution supposedly fought in the name of limited government. If we adopt new ways of looking at the Revolution, and instead consider it as part of a wider Enlightenment discourse regarding improvement and happiness, it is much easier for us to cast a cohesive narrative across the Revolutionary period. The American present is itself a reflection of the American past. For too long, that understanding has been hampered by a reductive understanding of the American Revolution focused on limited government and an overemphasized elevation of the role of liberty in our political canon. Re-centering our discussion of the Revolution around new approaches to studying the Enlightenment and to considering the active role colonial thinkers ascribed for government rather than just the way they believed government should be limited to protect freedom will help us broaden our understanding of the Revolution. In doing so, we will expand the intellectual language needed to understand both American thought and the American nation in a more inclusive and fulfilling way.


Kevin Diestelow graduated from the College of William & Mary with a B.A. in History and Government. As an undergraduate, he completed his senior honors thesis “The Republic of Happiness: James Wilson, Political Thought, and the American Revolution,” which was awarded “Highest Honors.” He has previously published work on republican formation in Pennsylvania during the 1770s and the intersection of baseball and citizenship norms during World War I.

Featured Image: Robert Edge Pine and Edward Savage, “Congress Voting Independence.” 1801. Courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia History Museum).

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