My annual reading of our Declaration of Independence reaffirmed our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, which Karen and I recently undertook with a driving vacation to and from Denver. Karen enjoyed driving most of the 2700 miles knowing I wouldn’t be distracted while driving. I enjoyed navigating, reading and quoting interesting tidbits she’d enjoy, she alerting me to vistas I’d enjoy. That vacation blended insights about the War of 1812, the Tuvan language, and the Louisiana Purchase into an elixir for the pursuit of happiness.
The June Smithsonian enlightened us on the disastrous War of 1812. Congress’ Declaration of War had the slimmest margin ever against opposition that forced underfunding an already under-equipped army. Some states refused to send a militia to “Mr. Madison’s War.” Three invasions failed to conquer Canada despite Thomas Jefferson predicting victory “would be a mere matter of marching.” Karen agreed naïve expectations sounded familiar.
We eventually signed a treaty recovering lands we’d lost in return for abandoning every declared ambition and without reparations for the capital Great Britain destroyed. Citizens unhappy about a useless war sounded familiar also.
Vince Vaise, chief interpreter in the War of 1812 Museum at Fort McHenry, said, “It’s easy to be down on the present because we romanticize the past, but I’d say what we’re living through now is the norm rather than the exception.” Gordon Woods, an historian of those years, said, “History should teach humility and prudence, but America doesn’t seem to learn.”
Why is it so hard to learn how to pursue happiness? Partly because Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans before he learned of the treaty, allowing most citizens, including me, to romanticize we defeated the British. People were happier we abandoned the war to build infrastructure and industries, beginning two centuries of constructive relationships with Canada and Great Britain.
Adopting terms from the language of Tuva, a republic in the Russian Federation, might help. Their language refers to the past as what is seen, therefore in front of us, while the future is what cannot be seen, therefore in back of us. The metaphor implies we back into the future only seeing what we have done in the past. That perspective might infuse us with the humility to see realistic memories of succeeding and failing, averting wasting lives and resources on needless wars.
Realistic memories would remind us we’re normally unhappy with democracy’s constant confrontations. Even Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase was opposed, almost impossible to understand after Karen kept alerting me to observe the magnificence of the acquired lands. US negotiators had authority to buy New Orleans and adjacent lands for $10 million, but euphorically accepted Napoleon’s offer of all lands east of the Continental Divide for $15 million, doubling the size of the nation for three cents an acre.
Opponents said it violated the Constitution which has no provisions for acquiring land and eroded state’s rights, reminding us of the controversies over the Affordable Care Act.
Opponents said Napoleon had no right to sell it, because the French Chamber hadn’t approved it. Besides it belonged to Spain, threatening a war with Spain and never recovering the money we paid France. Slave and slave-free states worried opposing states would gain more power. People feared the provision giving voting rights to French, Spanish and Free Black citizens in New Orleans who didn’t understand our democracy.
The controversy boiled into a resolution in the House to deny the purchase, barely defeated 59-57. Jefferson announced the treaty on July 4, 1803 and the Senate ratified it in October. Today we’re deliriously happy about it.
My pursuit of happiness is easier knowing citizen unhappiness with a contentious Congress and administration is normal, given a realistic view of the past in front of us as we back into the unseen future.
And I’m happy Karen is happy driving and alerting me to vistas while I’m happy to read, share and occasionally navigate as national politicians fight for our right to pursue happiness.