U.S. News

06.08.14

What Did TJ Mean By “Pursuit of Happiness,” Anyway?

Meditations on the pursuit of happiness while cleaning the chicken coop.

I was pursuing happiness the other day. Or I think so. I was shoveling shit. We keep chickens. Every spring and fall, the chicken coop in the barn must be cleaned.

Since we live in New Hampshire, where the temperate seasons last about eight weeks, the chickens spend a long and unhygienic winter. But please know that it is accepted chicken-keeping practice to let the chicken excrement accumulate during frigid weather, occasionally sprinkling it with cedar shavings. This renewable (I mean renewed every single damn day) bio-energy (otherwise known as fetid rot) helps keep the coop warm. If the chickens would prefer solar panels or wind-generated electricity, they haven’t said so.

We have only six chickens. I know you’re not wondering how much six chickens poop over the course of ten months. They poop an entire heaping, steaming tractor bucket’s worth. And this is not one of those toy lawn tractors. This is a big diesel farm tractor with a bucket large enough to fill with hard cider (after it’s been hosed out) and let a hundred farm hands pursue happiness by the Mason jarful until they pass out.

Alas I have just one farm hand, me. The missus and the kids pay intermittent lip service to living on a farm. (“The chicken coop stinks!”) But I’m the one who does the farming.

I purchased the farm 25 years ago, in pursuit of happiness. I’d give you a better reason if I could. But I’m an American. And we are, to my knowledge, the only nation that has hounding down joy written into our foundational documents. Declaration of Independence, second paragraph, first sentence —- we’re “endowed… with certain unalienable Rights… among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

I thought I’d be happy to have a farm. Wholesome outdoor living, fresh eggs, etc. Leaning on the shovel in the pen outside the chicken coop, I was wondering.

One thing about being up to your knees in crap, it’s not mentally taxing. It gives you leisure to think. Have we Americans let this “pursuit of happiness” thing get out of hand?

There’s the U.S. divorce rate to be considered. I speak from experience. Being up to your knees in crap literally is preferable to being up to your knees in crap metaphorically, let alone legally.

My present—and it is to be hoped permanent—wife is not off pursing a spouse more to her liking. Although she did hand me one of the dog towels to wrap myself in after insisting that I strip naked before entering the house that evening. But I take this as an act of love—for her clean kitchen floor.

I shoveled some more. And raked. And swept. Besides a tractor bucket of chicken shit, there was another tractor bucket of old hay from the laying boxes, soggy scattered chicken feed, stinking cedar chips, pen muck, and leftovers from the leftovers we leave for the chickens. (Rhode Island Reds will not eat melon rinds, banana peels, orange skins, pickles, or onions, F.Y.I.)

Are the Hangover movies parables about modern America’s pursuit of happiness? They seem to send a mixed message that I don’t find in The Declaration of Independence.

Yes, I would wake up with a hangover the next morning, after consulting Dr. Dewar’s about the pain in my lower back. But no face tattoo. Being up to your knees in crap literally is more comforting than being up to your knees in crap culturally.

And at least I wasn’t engaged in “adventure travel.” While I was shoveling shit, park rangers were searching on foot and by helicopter for four adventure travelers and two adventure guides who died falling off Mt. Rainier.

The Founding Fathers wouldn’t have understood adventure travel, not in a day when all travel was an adventure, and many travelers didn’t return. The Founding Fathers would not have included paying money to climb the icy north slope of Mt. Rainier as an example of an unalienable Right.

Nor do we have to go back to the Founding Fathers. My father would have been baffled. He’d had enough adventure in the Pacific in WWII.

My mother had had enough herself. She served in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve as a control tower operator in Cherry Point, North Carolina. She probably saw more carnage on the runway than Dad did in New Guinea and the Philippines.

Pursuit of happiness at our house involved a highball for Dad and an Old Fashioned for Mom. Plus big, well-oiled holiday dinners where the aunts and uncles played penny-ante poker after the turkey had been consumed and the cousins punched each other in the back yard.

As venturesome as travel got for us was a rented cottage at the lake. Dad constantly cooked burgers and hotdogs on the grill so that, for us children, the entire day was spent waiting an hour before we could go swimming.

If, on our way to the lake, the car broke down in the middle of nowhere and Dad had to hike to a farmhouse to call AAA while Mom looked for someplace to picnic free of the stuff I was shoveling (cow version), then my parents would say, “Well, that was an adventure.”

We were a happy family. And, typing that, it occurs to me how rarely we hear modern Americans use the word happy without an odor of irony. (Having spent eight hours in a dirty chicken coop, don’t get me started on odors.) “One big happy family.” “I hope that made you happy.” “Happy now?” And George W. Bush’s 1998 presidential campaign use of Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” made Mr. McFerrin otherwise.

My wife and I and our children are also a happy family. Pursuing that happiness magic, we gave in to the kids about going to the Magic Kingdom.

It’s easier to picture the Founding Fathers on Mt. Rainier than in Disney World (never mind that they dressed as outlandishly as any “Cast Member”). John Adams, in his Thoughts on Government, recommended laws against excessive displays of wealth. Our five four-day passes to the park cost $1500.

Adams wrote, “Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to [these laws], I know not; but the happiness of the people might be greatly promoted by them…Frugality is a great revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies, which are the real antidotes to all great, manly, and warlike virtues.” To be fair, Disney World gives discounts to military personnel.

In the Magic Kingdom, our vanities, levities, and fopperies (mouse ears!) were tempered by much whining and some crying while we stood in long lines waiting, for our amusement, to be violently shaken on rides. After which there was nausea, most pronounced in me.

Lacking great, manly, warlike virtues about being violently shaken, I’d volunteered to take our youngest to the Mad Hatter’s spinning teacups. Perhaps it hadn’t been a good idea, the stiff Bloody Mary I’d felt I needed that morning to face so many people pursuing so much happiness in the broiling Florida sun.

Well before the spinning stopped I would have rather been shoveling shit. Not in hell, but in my own chicken coop, which does not cost $1500 to enter.

And, really, what are the pursuit-of-happiness alternatives for a man in his sixties who’s got the day off when it’s nice outside?

Drink? I’d get to that.

Work? I mean work that I’d get paid for? Even John Adams wouldn’t go so far. Adams was swanning around in Philadelphia while Jefferson was drafting The Declaration of Independence, no doubt giving Tom helpful hints about George III’s vanities, levities, and fopperies. Adams’s wife, Abigail, was running the farm back in Quincy, Mass.

And it was a real farm too, unlike my hobby farm consisting of the six chickens and some hay fields where I’m allowed to smoke huge, aromatic (compared to chicken shit) cigars while mowing on my tractor. Plus we have a whole bunch of trees. We are a “Certified Tree Farm.” The crop’s gotta come in, rain, shine, or freezing cold, no matter the hardship—once every 30 years.

Golf? I come home sweaty, exhausted, and full of irritation about the three sleeves of Titleists lost in the rough. Whereas cleaning the chicken coop, I come home sweaty, exhausted, and full of pride about a clean chicken coop fragrantly strewn with cedar chips, fresh hay in the laying boxes, new feed in the feeders, clean water in the watering cans, pen raked to Zen garden perfection, and a pile of dry sand where the chickens can perform their morning ablutions.

But, as I was thinking these thoughts, I was far from these deeds. I was still up to my knees in crap. A tractor bucket of hen refuse remained to be hauled away to the compost pile (i.e. mound of vicious slime that no one goes near except when I dump another bucket-load on top.)

Jefferson was one of the great minds of the 18th century, and, if Sally Hemings is anything to go by, no stranger to pursuing this and that. In The Declaration of Independence, couldn’t he have been more specific than “Pursuit of Happiness”?

Jefferson has confused the whole nation about what we’re supposed to chasing. Other than Sally Hemings. And she’s dead. Plus my wife would have a fit.

Or, I should say, Jefferson has confused the whole middle-aged and older part of the nation. We who are expecting, finally, to catch a little bit of what we’ve been chasing, whatever it is.

I haven’t witnessed much capture. Our farm is on a hill. The graying ladies and gentlemen in goofy shoes running uphill look like they’re about to apprehend what the Spartans did in goofy sandals running uphill to Thermopylae.

The over-the-hill (but not quite there yet!) cyclists look even grimmer, with a facial expression like the bike seat just went up their butt.

I paused in my shoveling and picked up the broom. I had to chase the chickens back into the coop and close the door so I could finish with the Augean Stables of the chicken pen. I swatted. They squawked and fluttered. This was fun—poultry polo.

Certainly it was more fun than yoga, which is, as far as I can tell, Kama Sutra for the lonely.

Or playing tennis. My wife is on a tennis team. Average age of women on the team: 50. Average attitude of women on the team to “playing” tennis: attitude of Bobby Knight to “playing” basketball.

I understand there are people my age snowboarding, surfboarding, wakeboarding. Waterboarding will probably be next. Often these people end up on a special kind of board with legs that fold out, a gurney.

Speaking of lost people my age, almost every time I go out to enlarge my carbon footprint with chainsaw and fireplace logs, I encounter wrinkled hikers who have no idea where they are.

I give them directions in practiced classic Yankee style, “Old skidder track’s grown in now. Can’t tell it from the rest of the woods. Follow that ‘till you get to the Johnson place. Burned down in 1956. Go straight through the swamp and you’ll be right there at the power lines.”

Chainsaw noise seems to attract the hikers—the first sound of civilization they’ve heard in hours, other than each other bitching. I don’t hear much bitching on the farm. In fact, what with the effects of chainsaw noise, tractor, hay mower racket, and shooting skeet in the upper field, I don’t hear much at all.

A farm comes with all sorts of things to add a little frisson to the pursuit of happiness, give it an edge. The edges of the chainsaw chains and the mower blades, obviously. The tractor is liable to tip over the edge of our hill. I have a Jeep that can tip over backwards. Then there’s the wedge on the hydraulic wood-splitter. And a sharp chicken beak is nothing to be trifled with either.

I suppose, if I wanted mild danger, I could have had it in the usual mid-life crisis way, buying a boat for about what the farm cost. I guess you can saw up a boat for fireplace logs, but then where would you keep the chickens?

This, however, was not getting their pen expurgated. I needed to do more heavy lifting. Such as thinking about Jefferson working on The Declaration of Independence. He had only 17 days to write the most important political document since the Magna Carta, and he had to write it in his spare time due to a busy day job as member of the Continental Congress.

In his “unalienable Rights” passage, Jefferson was openly cribbing from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1689. But Locke’s phrase was “life, liberty, and estate,” meaning property.

What made Jefferson go off script? Professor Forrest McDonald, in his magisterial book Novus Ordo Seclorum—The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (tree farming gives you a lot of time to read), argues that Jefferson may have gotten the alternative wording from British jurist and proponent of natural law, William Blackstone. Or from John Adams, who was hovering over his shoulder and was big on property if not the vanities and levities of showing off about it. Or, says McDonald, Jefferson may have been expressing an “Aristotelian idea.”

I doubt it. I don’t think Alexander the Great’s tutor kept chickens. Socrates, yes. His last words were, “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius.” Aristotle, no.

Maybe Jefferson simply spotted a flaw in Locke’s logic. If “life, liberty, and property” are “unalienable Rights” then property can’t be alienated. That is, property can’t be separated from an individual. You can’t buy the farm, the way I did. And you can’t sell the farm, the way I may have to if the kids get into a decent college.

So Jefferson, going “Life, Liberty, and… and…” pulled “Pursuit of Happiness” out of his wig. To give a modern reading: “Life, Liberty, and WTF.”

The second tractor bucket of WTF was full at last. I departed for the compost heap happy that I was almost done cleaning the chicken coop. Also happy to get some fresh air (and a huge, aromatic cigar at a safe distance from the barn). And happy with the notion that the meaning of “happiness” has shifted since 1776.

The word did not then have the connotation of “jumping up and down with joy” (even on the bed with Sally Hemings) and certainly not the connotation of “jumping up and down with ironic joy” (Brooklyn vintage clothing store snap-brim fedora find).

Jefferson was familiar with Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (farming with slaves gives you a lot of time to read). Dr. Johnson defined happiness as “state in which the desires are satisfied.” (Okay, okay, jumping up and down on the bed with Sally Hemings after all.)

But Jefferson was also familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man. This is cited by The Oxford English Dictionary in its slightly archaic definition 2 of happiness: “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good.” For the chickens.