‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’ Review: America’s British Creed

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From The Wall Street Journal:

The youth of the American republic is one of its oldest traditions. Its unique origins will always make it younger than any other nation. Yet the United States is also the world’s oldest democracy. Britain in the time of George III was a liberal monarchy, but Britain democratized only by degrees in the 19th century. France was neither liberal nor democratic before the revolution of 1789, and the French are now on their fifth republic. The American ideal of democratic self-governance looks ever more exceptional as it creaks toward its 250th birthday.

Britain has a kind of old-fashioned pseudo-constitution: an accumulation of legal precedent and patchwork legislation, standing on unwritten assumptions and topped by a hollow crown. Americans were the first to spell out their social contract and specify the rights of individuals in plain English. But what did the magic words of the Declaration of Independence—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—mean to their authors?

History is best written by the losers. In “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream,” Peter Moore, a historian who teaches at Oxford, shows how Britain exported its highest ideals to the Americans who rejected it.

Mr. Moore breaks the American creed into three sections and examines each in context. “Life” explores how Benjamin Franklin embodied colonial intellectual potential in the 1740s, and how he developed in London in the 1750s and 1760s. “Liberty” shows how the London rabblerouser John Wilkes catalyzed the politics of liberty in the 1760s, and why he resonated so loudly in the Colonies. “Happiness” explains what the Enlightenment blend of action and emotion meant in England in the early 1770s, and how Americans understood it on the cusp of their reinvention.

Bible reading made colonial Americans perhaps the most literate population on the planet, but the “life” of the American mind was rooted in London. In 1740, Philadelphia was the Colonies’ leading city, with a modern street grid and a handy location on the post road between Boston and Charleston, but its population of 10,000 was half that of Bristol in England. London’s coffee-house culture, and periodicals such as Addison and Steele’s short-lived Spectator, were the templates for Benjamin Franklin’s self-improving “Junto” book club, his Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Almanack that he published under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.

All American roads led to London, and back. A London printer, William Strahan, supplied British news for the Pennsylvania Gazette. Strahan’s protégé, David Hall, emigrated to Philadelphia and worked in Franklin’s print shop. In 1747, Franklin retired from trade, passed the shop to Hall, and commissioned his “coming-out” portrait as a gentleman. Franklin’s scientific studies were not just an expression of practical polymathy. England’s aristocracy of the mind were fascinated by science. When Franklin went to London in the 1750s, his electrical speculations were his calling card.

Meanwhile in London, Strahan was printing Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary” in installments. Johnson was writing his own one-man periodical, the Rambler. Franklin launched Johnson in America, publishing excerpts in “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” Though Strahan linked the leading minds of American and British letters, Franklin and Johnson’s “division of perspectives” anticipated the parting of imperial ways. Franklin presented himself carefully, playing the “Gentleman in Philadelphia” for his London correspondents, just as he would later play the noble savage for Parisian admirers during the American revolution. Johnson was a tic-ridden social bumbler. Franklin was irreligious but believed in progress. Johnson, a prayerful Anglican, thought that “all change is of itself an evil.”

Mr. Moore describes their differences in the 1750s as “liberalism against conservatism,” but neither of those terms existed in those happy days before everyone had an “ideology.” The only word that made the king and his ministers “sit up and think hard about America,” Mr. Moore writes, was “France,” and that made the colonists want “more of Britain than less of it.” The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) brought London and the colonists together, but the subsequent tax burden demonstrated how unequal the relationship was. Americans began to sour on the distant mother country, especially after George III and his ministers tried to ruin John Wilkes.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal