Sitting in his small two-room suite in the bricklayer Jacob Graff’s house at Seventh and Market Streets in Philadelphia — he hated the flies from nearby stables and fields — Thomas Jefferson used a small wooden writing desk (a kind of 18th century laptop) to draft the report of a subcommittee of the Second Continental Congress in June 1776. There were to be many edits and changes to what became known as the Declaration of Independence — far too many for the writerly and sensitive Jefferson — but the fundamental rights of man as Jefferson saw them remained consistent: the rights to life, to liberty and, crucially, to “the pursuit of happiness.”

To our eyes and ears, human equality and the liberty to build a happy life are inextricably linked in the cadences of the Declaration, and thus in America’s idea of itself. We are not talking about happiness in…

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