Adam Smith and the American Founding: The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a Field Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness

by Sarah Morgan Smith for AdamSmithWorks

April 1, 2020
Americans (especially those with children of a certain age) may still recall the jaunty rhythms of Pharrell William’s 2014 hit song “Happy”
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.

Though largely nonsensical (what, after all, is a room without a roof other than a ruin?), the song not only in its lyrics but in its very infectiousness articulates a profound element of Americans’ collective identity. We are happy when we observe the happiness of others—and if we want to better understand how to be happy as a people, then we need look no further than Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to find a veritable field guide to the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness, Then and Now
In early 1790, John Adams, vice-president-elect of the United States wrote to his son John Quincy with advice about the reading he ought to be engaged in as a young lawyer just establishing his own practice. Praising the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment generally for having gifted humanity with “speculations in morals, politics, and law that are more luminous than any other I have read,” he singled out “Adam Smith in both his Theory of Moral Sentiments and his Wealth of Nations.” In the same letter, Adams advised his son to guard “at every risk” the virtues he had thus far cultivated: “honor, integrity, generosity, and benevolence, enlarged views and liberal philanthropy” as qualities essential to his professional success.

In advising his son to cultivate virtue in conjunction with his scholarly investigations of moral and political philosophy, Adams was unexceptional for a learned man of his generation. Likewise, his invocation of the writings of Smith would seem to be relatively unremarkable; Samuel Fleischacker and others have uncovered evidence of the ubiquity of Smith’s Moral Sentiments in the curriculum and libraries of the educational institutions of colonial and early republican America. Smith’s ideas were undoubtedly known to the leading lights of the founding generation and it appears, familiar enough that they are referenced in the kind of short-hand way that suggests ‘everyone knows’ what is meant by the allusion. [1] And while Adams mentions both Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations (probably the Smith title with which contemporary Americans are most familiar), he does so almost as if it were merely a continuation of Smith’s first significant work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which, in some measure, it is: the application of Smith’s theory of human nature to the practical problems of nation-building in an era of colonialism and international commerce.

Happiness and Virtue

So what was it that the elder Adams found so luminous in Smith? One suspects that it was his ability to articulate in a comprehensive way the inseparability of the happiness of the individual and the happiness of the greater society, and the connection of both to morality or virtue. Although Thomas Jefferson commonly gets the credit, Adams, we may recall, also served on the five-man committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, a document meant to convey “the common sense” of the matter. And at the heart of Americans’ existence as a unique people, we find, in the words of the Declaration, a commitment to the pursuit of happiness as coeval with our rights to life and liberty. As a “nation of nations,” what ties us together is not so much our shared genealogy as it is our shared political commitment to this trinity. Life and liberty, arguably, are relatively easy to define, binary conditions: one is either alive or dead, free or unfree. Happiness, on the other hand, appears to be both a spectrum and, on some level, a matter of taste: one may be more or less happy, depending upon one’s circumstances and preferences. Our happiness, in this sense, moreover, may well impinge on the happiness of others, as when my neighbors’ raucous party wakes up my sleeping toddler.

Surely neither Adams nor Jefferson nor any of their contemporaries were oblivious to the tensions inherent in this last element of their political trinity. Indeed, here it may be worth noting the hundreds of thousands of enslaved persons in the fledgling United States who were excluded from the complete realization of any these rights in principle. Jefferson’s own initial draft of the Declaration included language recognizing the slave trade as a crime against the humanity of enslaved persons; he could not have failed to perceive that his “pursuit of happiness” as a slave-holding planter veritably depended upon the misery of those human souls he held in bondage. (Smith, it should be noted, wrote against slavery in The Wealth of Nations III.ii, although he does not directly address the subject in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.)

And yet: the line remains in the Declaration, an aspiration towards which the young nation might aim her political sights. As a political commitment (even apart from the tragic injustice of slavery) the pursuit of happiness must have some inherent limitations that elevate it above the sort of zero-sum trading associated with personal measures of preference. It is not logical for a republic to predicate its existence on a commitment so individualistic that its realization sets its citizens at odds with one another. Happiness, as understood in the American founding, then, must be a reference to something more than merely circumstantial, something existential. In that sense only could the right to “the pursuit of happiness” be understood as something with the potential to unite, rather than to divide, the people of this new nation.

In Adams and in others present in the Continental Congress during that fateful summer, there are, indeed, hints that political or civic happiness was understood to be in a certain measure both absolute and transcendent. It is absolute, insofar as genuine happiness was understood to depend upon virtue, and it is transcendent in that it appeared conceivable, in the minds of the founders, for a people to be both in the midst of an armed conflict and happy, as long as their character and principles were just.

A mere six months before the Declaration was written, John Adams wrote to Mercy Otis Warren:
It is the form of government which gives the decisive color to the manners of the people, more than any other thing. Under a well-regulated commonwealth, the people must be virtuous and cannot be otherwise. Under a monarchy, they may be as vicious and foolish as they please, nay they cannot but be vicious and foolish. As politics is the science of human happiness, and human happiness is clearly best promoted by virtue, what thorough politician can hesitate who has a new government to build whether to prefer a commonwealth or a monarchy?

Happiness, at least so far as Adams understood it, depends on virtue, and virtue to some measure depends upon the mutual connections between the members of the commonwealth who, in governing themselves, have less incentive to vice and “foolishness” than those who are governed by monarchs. Adams had long associated virtue and happiness. On this question, he cited “all sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian” to have “declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.” It was evident, therefore, that the form of government “whose principle and foundation is virtue” must be best, and “better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form.”[2] Richard Henry Lee observed a similar connection between self-government, virtue, and public happiness when he wrote to Samuel Adams just weeks after the Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress: “The union that has accompanied the declaration will gladden the heart of every true friend to human liberty, and when we have secured this [union], by a wise and just confederation, the happiness of America will be secured, at least as long as it continues virtuous, and when we cease to be virtuous we shall not deserve to be happy.”[3] Virtue, for Lee, was the prerequisite both for keeping and deserving happiness.

A similar ethos pervades Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments which opens with the audacious statement “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” (I.ii.I) The happiness of others, in other words, makes us happy—and who among us does not desire our own happiness? When Smith writes that the happiness of others is somehow “necessary” to all human persons, and, moreover, that having the sympathy of others “enlivens joy and alleviates grief,” he provides the first clue about the use of this concept in the American founding: as government is the means by which we organize our relationships with others, just so the end of government is the happiness of man, which depends upon our connections with others.

Smith’s social understanding of “happiness” depends in no small measure upon his conception of man as a creature not primarily of reason, but of affection. “The chief part of human happiness,” he writes, “arises from the consciousness of being beloved.” (I.ii.5.1) Indeed, Smith frames his entire argument for social (and by extension, political) ethics in light of an overarching human duty to the pursuit of happiness in this sense. We experience happiness both individually and in the company of others, but even our most private happiness depends in some measure on our connection to others, of our awareness of their approval and esteem. For Smith as well as for the American founders, it is evident that although the capacity towards happiness is a fixed aspect of human nature, its realization depends upon our interactions with others. Yet our bent is such that we must actuate these capacities – we humanize (and therefore, free) ourselves, in a sense, as we become more social creatures, engaged in the give and take of social reflection, discovery, and refinement.

Public Happiness as a Civic Education Project

Our natural need to see the happiness of others is refined and accentuated, Smith writes, by even the “most vulgar education” which teaches us to act towards others with at least as great a concern for their good as for our own if for no other reason than that we desire to be loved by our fellow citizens and recognize that they are unlikely to love us if we act only out of self-love. (III.3.8) And although we are not always (or even often) benevolent enough to pursue the happiness of our fellow citizens as an end in and of itself, we are further inspired to seek their happiness when we recognize that if we measure the success of a system of government by its ability to “promote the happiness of those who live under [it],” it is our civic duty to promote the happiness of our fellow citizens. (IV.1.11) We recognize too, that no matter how much we value individual liberty and limited government, we cannot restrict the powers of government merely to those things that relate to public safety, but much entrust our leaders with “promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree.”(II.ii.1.8)

Writing in what one might call a revolutionary spirit, Smith goes on to say that studying politics can “animate the public passions of men and rouse them to seek out the means of promoting the happiness of the society.” (IV.i.11) (One wonders what Smith would say of the current state of politics, where what is said on the House floor, in the White House briefing room, or, heaven-forfend, the presidential twitter feed bears little resemblance to anything one might call “happiness-promotion.”) Yet when we truly understand “love of our country,” Smith argues, we will recognize that it is not simply a matter of supporting an institution or a system, but that it involves “an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow-citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can.” (VI.ii.2.10, emphasis added) Citizenship, in other words, depends not merely on our loyalty and obedience to the government, but on our loyalty to—our love for—our fellow citizens: “He is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens.” (VI.ii.2.10) One must remember, however, that in Smith’s system of moral philosophy, human welfare depends on happiness, and happiness depends on both giving and receiving affection.

What Smith suggests sounds radical—perhaps more akin to the theory of Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” than the cool, dispassionate, island-like Lockeans so many imagine the American founders to have been. And yet, this duty, as Smith describes it, has substantively the same result as Locke’s rights, and similarly depends upon an ultimate appeal to heaven and man’s obligation under both “God and Nature” to ensure his own preservation. [4] For both Locke and Smith, the political principles of liberalism are only secure when grounded in a commitment to something outside and above the individual man—to his sense of belonging to a society that engenders his own happiness and allows him to contribute to the happiness of others.

If human nature works the way Smith suggests in TMS,it seems foolhardy to imagine—even for a moment—that Jefferson (who revered Locke) and Adams (who would extol the virtues of Smith) understood happiness as entirely individualistic or even as focused only on the “common good” insofar as it would benefit one directly. There would be no happiness for anyone independent of a concern for not only the good which citizens hold in common, but also for the individual goods of one’s fellow citizens individually. Our happiness is inextricably intertwined. The success of my pursuit of happiness depends on your success in obtaining your happiness, and vice versa. The government of consent extolled in the Declaration then, may well be meant to provide an ultra-minimalistic set of guardrails protecting the sacrosanct rights of individual citizens, but the context for said government is a robust political community in which each citizen has some measure of concern for the wellbeing of the others.

[1] Samuel Fleischacker, "Adam Smith's Reception among the American Founders, 1776-1790." The William and Mary Quarterly 59, no. 4 (2002): 897-924.

[2] John Adams, Thoughts on Government: Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies in Writings, 287-288. It is interesting to note the striking similarity between Adams, Smith and Locke on this point: in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke stated that “God [had], by an inseparable connexion joined virtue and public happiness together, and made the practice thereof necessary to the preservation of society.” John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 1. Chapter: CHAP. III.: No Innate Practical Principles. Available online at:

[3] Richard Henry Lee to Samuel Adams, July 29, 1776, Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Vol. 2 (1830), 211.

[4] See John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 149, 155, 168, 207-10, 220-31, 240-43. For more on this point, see Robert A. Ferguson, “The Dialectic of Liberty: Law and Religion in Revolutionary America,” in Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century, David Womersley, ed. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, 2006), 125.