Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Britain and the American Dream
by Peter Moore
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Pub Date 27 Jun 2023 | Archive Date 31 Jul 2023
A spirited group biography that explores the origins of the most iconic words in American history, and the remarkable transatlantic context from which they emerged.
The most famous phrase in American history once looked quite different. “The preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness” was how Thomas Jefferson put it in the first draft of the Declaration, before the first ampersand was scratched out, along with “the preservation of.” In a statement as pithy—and contested—as this, a small deletion matters. And indeed, that final, iconizing revision was the last in a long chain of revisions stretching across the Atlantic and back. The precise contours of these three rights have never been pinned down—and yet in making these words into rights, Jefferson reified the hopes (and debates) not only of a group of rebel-statesmen but also of an earlier generation of British thinkers who could barely imagine a country like the United States of America.
Peter Moore’s Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness tells the true story of what may be the most successful import in US history: the “American dream.” Centered on the friendship between Benjamin Franklin and the British publisher William Strahan, and featuring figures including the cultural giant Samuel Johnson, the ground-breaking historian Catharine Macaulay, the firebrand politician John Wilkes, and revolutionary activist Thomas Paine, this book looks at the generation that preceded the Declaration in 1776. Everyone, it seemed, had “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on their minds; Moore shows why, and reveals how these still-nascent ideals made their way across an ocean and started a revolution.
Includes 16 pages of black-and-white images
"A rich and immersive intellectual history . . . Moore’s fluid prose is infused with the 'boisterous' excitement of the era, when 'people knew they were living at a loaded moment in history.' This is a pleasure."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"With flair and insight, Peter Moore takes one of the most famous and deceptively simple lines in history—a line that founded a nation and changed the world. He digs into it to unearth a wealth of unexpected influences and connections, a trove of gripping stories, and a vibrant company of characters. A wonderfully absorbing and stimulating book."
—Sarah Bakewell, NBCC Award–winning author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Café
"In Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Peter Moore reveals a rich trans-Atlantic network of thinkers and writers pursuing new ideas of freedom in an age of revolution. With deft insights and in clear prose, Moore restores the cosmopolitan origins of an American Revolution meant to liberate human potential. In this eloquent book, that revolution becomes more global and enduring and less parochial and limited."
—Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804
"The British empire of the eighteenth century blazed with the world-changing ideas and projects of thinkers and writers on both sides of the Atlantic, for whom 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' became the essential conditions of modern existence and the 'unalienable rights' of all humankind. Peter Moore captures this intellectual ferment in a fascinating narrative of Benjamin Franklin and his transatlantic circle and recounts the vigorous debates, the personality clashes, and the political choices that would eventually polarize these notable figures into opposing camps. Was taxation 'tyranny'? Was colonization, built on African slavery and Native dispossession, an advance of civilization? Such arguments put Enlightenment dreams to the test, making the American Revolution appear in retrospect as much a cultural loss as a political gain. As the 250th anniversary of Independence approaches, this book will surely complicate the celebration."
—Robert A. Gross, author of The Minutemen and Their World and The Transcendentalists and Their World
"A scintillating read. Atmospheric yet analytical, well-paced yet deeply probing, Moore’s book delivers striking new perspectives with the stylistic grace of the Founding Fathers."
—Daisy Dunn, author of The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny
"In prose as fluid and engaging as Jefferson’s own, Peter Moore reveals how cherished American ideals originated not from the end of one Founding Father's pen but through conversations across the Atlantic between men and women thinking and writing about how to make the world a better place."
—Kathleen DuVal, author of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution