The Pursuit of Happiness

How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America


A New York Times bestseller and an “enriching…brilliant” (David W. Blight, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Frederick Douglass) examination of what “the pursuit of happiness” meant to our nation’s Founders and how that famous phrase defined their lives and became the foundation of our democracy.

The Declaration of Independence identified “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our unalienable rights, along with life and liberty. Jeffrey Rosen, the president of the National Constitution Center, profiles six of the most influential founders—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—to show what pursuing happiness meant in their lives, and to give us the “best and most readable introduction to the ideas of the Founders that we have” (Gordon Wood, author of Power and Liberty).

By reading the classical Greek and Roman moral philosophers who inspired the Founders, Rosen shows us how they understood the pursuit of happiness as a quest for being good, not feeling good—the pursuit of lifelong virtue, not short-term pleasure. Among those virtues were the habits of industry, temperance, moderation, and sincerity, which the Founders viewed as part of a daily struggle for self-improvement, character development, and calm self-mastery. They believed that political self-government required personal self-government. For all six Founders, the pursuit of virtue was incompatible with enslavement of African Americans, although the Virginians betrayed their own principles.

“Immensely readable and thoughtful” (Ken Burns), The Pursuit of Happiness is more than an elucidation of the Declaration’s famous phrase; it is a revelatory journey into the minds of the Founders, and a deep, rich, and fresh understanding of the foundation of our democracy.

About the author(s)

Jeffrey Rosen is President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, where he hosts We the People, a weekly podcast of constitutional debate. He is also a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Rosen is a graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University, and Yale Law School. He is the author of eight books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America and Conversations with RBGJustice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law. His essays and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times Magazine; on NPR; in The New Republic, where he was the legal affairs editor; and in The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer.


"With insight and wit, legal scholar Rosen shows how classical philosophy inspired the Founders. . . . Rosen's noteworthy book offers a better understanding of philosophy and American history."

"[A] fast-paced romp through early American political thought. . . . An entertaining window on the American founders’ reading lives."

"A study of the Founding Fathers’ search for self-mastery. . . . In their distinguishing between being good from feeling good, the founders, Rosen hopes, may inspire readers to redefine the meaning of a good life. A thoughtful rendering of America’s history."

“Jeffrey Rosen found a ‘gap’ in his education, such as we all have. In filling it he has written a masterpiece of intellectual history about the Founders, renewing, we can hope, our reading of them and what they read.  Here is the enriching story of how ‘pursuit of happiness’ never meant pleasure or success, but the self-governing quest, always unachieved, of virtue. This brilliant work is very new about very old ideas that refresh the spirit.”

David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

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