Without the gall to second guess Jefferson, I doubt that he got the line wrong in the end. So the question is what the pursuit of happiness means and especially what one person's pursuit of it means in relation to that of other people. Thomas Jefferson's life shows that isn't a simple question, but it isn't the all-out invitation to piracy that today's conservatives intend.
Jefferson was a hypocrite, as anyone can see. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and kept slaves can't escape that judgment except by replacing him with a fiction. He, himself, said that his way of life couldn't be supported without slavery and there is the feel of shame in his words. Keeping slaves is not honorable. This is most true for someone who wrote the words of the Declaration and he knew it.
He didn't move to a small house he could support on his own work. History would call it unequalled greatness if he had and by doing that he had stopped keeping people as property. But he couldn't' do without his mansion, which was always being redone and always keeping him in debt. He designed a little house but his version of Walden was an enlightenment-era fad, a garden ornament built by other hands, not a rocket to transcendence.
Freedom was inalienable and given to slaves by their creator, he alienated those rights from his slaves out of selfishness and at the cost of his sacred honor. He knew that was true, he was a genius not an idiot. Jefferson was a prisoner of property and of luxury. It would be obscene to compare his life to the brutality of slavery but could he have really been entirely free himself?
Update: 2013. Since writing this I've read more of Jefferson's slave-based personal economics, especially this horrific and eye-opening article detailing how he intensified his dependence on slavery, scientifically systematizing his exploitation of them on the basis of his rational analysis.
But in the 1790s, Davis continues, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence.” And later, Davis finds, Jefferson’s emancipation efforts “virtually ceased.”
Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson.
The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.
We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”
Thomas Jefferson, the leading light, the brightest beam of The Enlightenment on North America, went from saying that "all men" were given their inherent rights, including life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness "BY THEIR CREATOR" as in inherent aspect of their being, to asserting the status of some people as commodities to be managed for the increase of HIS happiness, depriving them of their liberty and, in some cases, even their lives in so far as that was deemed desirable to support that slavery. And he did so by an exercise of mathematical reasoning, the quintessential enlightenment act.
The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may well have come in 1792. As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.
In another communication from the early 1790s, Jefferson takes the 4 percent formula further and quite bluntly advances the notion that slavery presented an investment strategy for the future. He writes that an acquaintance who had suffered financial reverses “should have been invested in negroes.” He advises that if the friend’s family had any cash left, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”
The irony is that Jefferson sent his 4 percent formula to George Washington, who freed his slaves, precisely because slavery had made human beings into money, like “Cattle in the market,” and this disgusted him. Yet Jefferson was right, prescient, about the investment value of slaves. A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s, when economists taking a hardheaded look at slavery found that on the eve of the Civil War, enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset in the United States. David Brion Davis sums up their findings: “In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” The only asset more valuable than the black people was the land itself. The formula Jefferson had stumbled upon became the engine not only of Monticello but of the entire slaveholding South and the Northern industries, shippers, banks, insurers and investors who weighed risk against returns and bet on slavery. The words Jefferson used—“their increase”—became magic words.
You can go back and see the difference between Jefferson's benighted enlightenment, informed by what would certainly have been considered practically scientific analysis and an only slightly earlier, implacable opponent of slavery, John Woolman.
To consider mankind otherwise than brethren, to think favours are peculiar to one nation, and to exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding : for as God's love is universal,
so where the mind is sufficiently influenced by it, it begets a likeness of itself, and the heart is enlarged towards all men. Again, to conclude a people froward, perverse, and worse by nature than others, who ungratefully receive favours, and apply them to bad ends, will excite a behaviour toward them unbecoming the excellence of true religion.
To prevent such an error, let us calmly consider their circumstance : and the better to do it, make their case ours. Suppose then that our ancestors and we had been exposed to constant servitude, in the more servile and inferior employments of life ; that we had been destitute of the help of reading and good company; that amongst ourselves we had had but few wise and pious instructors; that the relgious amongst our superiors seldom took notice of us ; that while others in ease had plentifully heaped up the fruit of our labour, we had received barely enough to relieve nature ; and being wholly at the command of others, had generally been treated as a contemptible, ignorant part of mankind ; should we, in that case, be less abject than they now are I Again, if oppression be so hard to bear, that a wise man is made mad by it, Eccl. vii. 7, then a series of oppressions, altering the behaviour and manners of a people, is what may reasonably be expected.
When our property is taken contrary to our mind, by means appearing to us unjust, it is only through Divine influence, and the enlargement of heart from thence proceeding, that we can love our reputed oppressors. If the negroes fall short in this, an uneasy, if not a disconsolate disposition will be awakened, and remain like seeds in their minds, producing sloth and other habits which appear odious to us ; and with which, had they been free men, they would not perhaps have been chargeable. These, and other circumstances, rightly considered, will lessen the too great disparity which some make between us and them.
Other examples of religious abolitionists could be chosen, the earliest presently known North American anti-slavery pamphlet "The Selling of Joseph" by the Calvinist minister, Samuel Sewell* or far earlier figures including St. Patrick, perhaps the earliest successful abolitionist.
Looking at Jefferson's devolution from the author of the glowing opening of the Declaration to the Scrooge-like calculator over the operation of his nail factory, capable of squeezing the last measure of use out of young boys for what can only be honestly considered his Enlightenment era decadence makes the property vs. happiness argument far more than just frivolous. During the same period people in non-slave states were making similar calculations about employees in factories and the system of law under the Constitution allowed and encouraged all kinds of evil. It does now. The Enlightenment, seen under the strongest light of honest appraisal doesn't look like it was at all enough to keep good men from doing bad things. That takes things that The Enlightenment sought to suppress. As the 19th century continued, it would prove to be inadequate. History has given that judgement in the Civil war. Today, the worship of Thomas Jefferson can only be done by ignoring large parts of the hard lessons of history, lessons consisting of the enslavement, misery and deaths of enormous numbers of people, slaves, those killed in the struggle to end it and the Civil War that is a direct consequence of thinking like that of the sage of Monticello.
*Sewall was a deeply repentant participant in the Salem witch trials. While his beliefs about Africans were not anything like a modern, egalitarian one, he was opposed to slavery. You can contrast this section of his 1700 pamphlet with Jefferson's calculation of the 4% per anum value of babies born into slavery ninety years later.
There is no proportion between Twenty Pieces of Silver, and LIBERTY. The Commodity it self is the Claimer. If Arabian Gold be imported in any quantities, most are afraid to meddle with it, though they might have it at easy rates; lest if it should be wrongly taken from the Owneres, it should kindle a fire to the Consumption of their whole Estate. 'Tis pity tere should be more Caution used in buying a horse, or a little lifeless dust' that there is in purchasing Men and Women: Whereas they are the Offspring of God, and their Liberty is, ----- Auro pretiosior Omni.
No doubt the enlightened Jefferson would scorn the idea that his "whole Estate" was in danger from his wrong doing, he was confident that he could get away with doing that without paying a price. Not in anything he valued, anyway.
Sewall was also the author of "Talitha Cumi," one of the earliest pamphlets advocating the rights of women,