The New Pursuit of Happiness

Public Interest 86 (Winter 1987), 65–76.


Landing in New York in May 1831, Gustave de Beaumont was struck by the “busyness” of the place. “It’s a remarkable phenomenon,” he wrote his father, “a great people which has no army, a country full of activity and vigour where the action of the government is hardly perceived.” His companion, Alexis de Tocqueville, said much the same thing in a letter to his father:

Everybody works [he wrote], and the mine is still so rich that all those who work rapidly succeed in acquiring that which renders existence happy. The most active spirits, like the most tranquil, find enough to fill their life here without busying themselves troubling the state. The restlessness which so wracks our European societies seems to co-operate toward the prosperity of this one. It aims only at wealth, and finds a thousand roads which lead there.

An inactive state and an active, prosperous people; or more precisely, an inactive state and therefore an active, prosperous, and free people. What Beaumont and Tocqueville saw in America was not the result of chance.

National Affairs [pdf]