Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness


Originally published in Political Studies Review , Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 64.

by Thomas Jefferson (edited by Eric S. Petersen), New York: Random House, 2004, 154 pp.

Eric Petersen has done something quite challenging and potentially quite risky with the writings of the paragon of American and human virtue, Thomas Jefferson. He has selected sentences from the many volumes of Jefferson's correspondence and writings and has strung these sentences together into paragraphs on various themes. Such cherry picking necessitates the extraction of passages out of their original context so that the reader does not know when, where or to whom Jefferson was writing, or even why. (The diligent reader can flip to the 'Notes' section to find the date and name of the person to whom Jefferson was writing and track down the source and context from there.)

The remarkable achievement of this work is that this does not matter! It is a tribute both to Jefferson's genius and Petersen's skill that Jefferson's reflections can be so compiled. The words of wisdom are so self-consistent, universal and even immortal that they hold fast irrespective of context, target, time period or even original purpose. Indeed, when Jefferson shares his insights with his extensive list of correspondents he seems to be talking to and about humanity not just in his time but for all time. His eloquent words of wit and wisdom seem to shine brightly from each sentence, each paragraph and each page of this book, in a flow of consciousness that illuminates the character and nobility of Jefferson the leader, patriot, humanist, and nature lover. The sentiments, carefully compiled, are elevating and inspiring, leaving the reader in awe not only of Jefferson's brilliant intellect but also of human life in general.

In the book, Jefferson is seen extolling the virtues of humility, sincerity, sacrifice, simplicity and many other qualities under chapters with these themes. Readers can feel the nobility of Jefferson's soul and can find new energy in these positive, life-affirming sentiments of faith, gratitude, cheerfulness, enthusiasm and hope. Also the quieter, more contemplative approach is highlighted: the power of silence, living in the present, truth seeking and a peace prayer. Petersen also reveals Jefferson's deep connection with nature and his appreciation of nature's beauty and its rejuvenating powers. Of course, the volume also elaborates on the qualities listed in one of the most famous expressions in English language: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Petersen has seamlessly stitched together sentences into paragraphs that flow as if they were the original text, staying true to the meaning of Jefferson's words and ideas. It is a remarkable accomplishment that does justice to one of America's greatest presidents and one of the world's greatest humanists. Indeed, given Jefferson's hope that these "ideas should spread from one to another over the globe," one cannot help but feel that this is a work that would bear Jefferson's own stamp of approval.