Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence is arguably one of the greatest legal documents – and the greatest break-up note – of all time.

Its opening, well-known to every American schoolchild, states:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. …

Among the many listed transgressions of the King, justifying the Declaration, are the cutting off of trade, the imposition of taxes without consent, and the deprivation of the “benefit of Trial by Jury.”

Oddly, and perhaps ironically, courts that have addressed the issue have concluded that there is no private right of action to enforce the Declaration of Independence. See, e.g., Nguyen v. Bank of America, 2015 WL 58602 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2015) (“[W]hile th[e] [rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] certainly represent important American values, they are not part of the Constitution, and there is no private right of action to enforce the Declaration of Independence.”); Coffey v. U.S., 939 F.Supp. 185, 191 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 7, 1996) (“While the Declaration of Independence states that all men are endowed certain unalienable rights including ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness[]’ …, it does not grant rights that may be pursued through the judicial system. Although the Constitution provides many important protections, a specific guarantee for the pursuit of happiness is not among those granted by the Constitution or its amendments.”).

Of course, the Declaration’s laudatory call for freedom would eventually be given (enforceable) form and substance in the Constitution. The debate about how, exactly, that is (or should be) done rages on to this day.

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