Born on a Fourth of July

Independence Day: Pursuit of happiness helps Americans express their individuality.

July 04, 2000

TRY TRANSLATING the "pursuit of happiness" into almost any foreign language. It's not easy.

"Life" and "liberty" have universal meanings, but the "pursuit of happiness" is a singularly AmeriM-W can construction.

Yet this somewhat nebulous goal has given this country and its residents enviable vigor and vibrancy over the past 224 years. Whatever the Framers of the Declaration of Independence meant by it, today's reading of the phrase gives a license for Americans to apply themselves the best way they can.

People can do their thing, whether sensible or stupid. They can be inventive or slouches.

Foreigners have always been puzzled about this freedom of Americans to be constructive or destructive. Some see it as an invitation to disorder or anarchy. Many other democratic societies, after all, place more restrictive expectations on their citizens.

The official interpretation is that everyone has obligations to meet and that in any conflict of societal values, maximizing the collective good is more important than unlimited individual rights.

However mixed these feelings, outsiders from Alexis de Tocqueville to Ho Chi Minh have admired the noble goal-setting of the Declaration of Independence. Its powerful vision united a new nation against a colonial power. And while other multicultural countries have been torn asunder by ethnic and religious hatreds or by envy over wealth, the "pursuit of happiness" has given Americans a common goal that all can strive for in their different ways.

Since World War II, revolutionary changes have taken place in the United States. Some are due to technological advances. But mores and codes of behavior also have changed. A typical American may exist somewhere in this hugely complex and diverse land, but that person is difficult to describe.

In many other countries, Independence Day is an occasion for solemnity and reflection. Not here. Americans celebrate the nation's birthday in whatever way strikes them as the best.

In this, too, they are engaged in the "pursuit of happiness."

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