When discussing the incentives granted by government to people thinking about settling in America, Benjamin Franklin cited only those “derived from good laws and liberty.” Recent arrivals would have to roll up their sleeves and put their backs into it because, as Franklin noted, streets were not “paved with half-peck loaves,” houses were not “tiled with pancakes,” and edible fowl did not “fly about ready-roasted, crying ‘Come eat me!’” But if a person were “sober, industrious, and frugal,” he could “establish himself in business” and “enjoy securely the profits of his industry.” Pursuing
happiness could be hard and possibly very rewarding work.
A little more than a generation later, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and reported on the results of this policy of good laws, liberty, and secure profits in Democracy in America. Almost everyone was engaged in commerce, and every honest trade was considered honorable, “more or less laborious, more or less profitable. . . .”
He marvels at the scope of commerce, citing communications, tradeways, and railroads: “In the United States the greatest undertakings and speculations are executed without difficulty, because the whole population are engaged in productive industry. . . .” But he also admits to being “astonishe[d]... not so much [by] the marvelous grandeur of some undertakings as [by] the innumerable multitude of the small ones.”
Everyone seemed animated by what Jefferson in his first inaugural called “pursuits of industry and improvement.” Every family pursued its happiness.
The culture of business and industry had its problems, which de Tocqueville duly reported, but note the focus on his discussion between free and unfree nations:
On passing from a free country into one which is not free the traveler is struck by the change; in the former all is bustle and activity; in the latter everything seems calm and motionless. In the one amelioration and progress are the topics of inquiry; in the other, it seems as if the community wished only to repose in the enjoyment of advantages already acquired. Nevertheless, the country which exerts itself so strenuously to become happy is generally more wealthy and prosperous than that which appears so contented with its lot. . . .
When this pursuit of happiness was engaged politically, it was undertaken in keeping with the concept of the general welfare and the common good: “[I]t is not the exigencies and convenience of a single class for which provision is to be made, but the exigencies and convenience of all classes at once,” he writes.
When the pursuit was engaged commercially, it was undertaken with “a sort of heroism”— immense risks taken, gratification deferred, long hours suffered, and hardships endured for the prize.
Good laws, liberty, and the right to enjoy the fruit of one’s labors and ventures allowed an irrepressible enterprising spirit to prosper. Consequently, America flourished. Franklin himself might serve as an emblem of this volatile mix of freedom and possibility that goes under the now-clichéd and oft-maligned moniker, the American Dream: first a printer’s apprentice, then a printer, then newspaperman, writer, almanacist, postmaster, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and statesman. It allowed people settling this new land the room to try new things, to cut new paths through new terrain in the panoply of
pursuits open to settlers in the New World—pursuits that stifling governments back in Europe had prevented for most.
The enterprising spirit still flourishes today in America, but unlike people in Franklin’s day, many Americans see their efforts are frustrated by bad laws and the lack of liberty.
Much of that law comes about because one political player or interest group uses the power of government to substitute his own particular happiness for the general happiness, undermining the rule of law and the common good. Recalling de Tocqueville’s comment, provision is today made out of the “exigencies and convenience” of a particular class or subset. The immediate result of this substitution and subversion is discord and strife as interest groups must work to defend their endangered happiness. There can be little harmony between, say, Handgun Control Inc. and the National Rifle Association or between the Sierra Club and a consortium of logging and wood-based product interests. But this discord is only the first result.
-  Benjamin Franklin, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” The Autobiography and Selections from His Other Writings, ed. Herbert W Schneider (Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), 196-197.
-  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, ed. Phillips Bradley, Vol. 2 (Vintage, 1954), 162.
-  De Tocqueville, Vol. 2, 166.
-  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, ed Phillips Bradley, Vol. 1 (Vintage, 1954), 258.
-  De Tocqueville, Vol. 1, 259.
-  De Tocqueville, Vol. 1, 439-444—an instructive passage about America’s commercial success on the seas.
-  Edmund Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (Yale Nota Bene, 2003); Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Simon & Schuster, 2003).