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George Washington and Family (detail), by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter, 1858-1860. Gift of Nanine Hilliard Greene, 2000 [H-4173]

The Pursuit of Happiness is a fascinating examination of what “the pursuit of happiness” meant to our nation’s Founders and how that famous phrase defined their lives and became the foundation of our democracy.

A book signing and reception with complimentary beer, wine, and hors-d'oeuvres will take place after the lecture. 

This event is part of the 2024 Michelle Smith Lecture Series. 

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In Person - 1 LectureVirtual

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The Michelle Smith Lecture Series is supported by an endowment established by a generous grant from the late Robert H. and Clarice Smith.

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$55 for members, $60 for non-members

$15 for members, $20 for non-members

The Michelle Smith Lecture Series

The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America

The Declaration of Independence identified “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our unalienable rights, along with life and liberty. Jeffrey Rosen profiles six of the most influential founders—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—to show what pursuing happiness meant in their lives.

By reading the classical Greek and Roman moral philosophers who inspired the Founders, Rosen shows us how they understood the pursuit of happiness as a quest for being good, not feeling good—the pursuit of lifelong virtue, not short-term pleasure. Among those virtues were the habits of industry, temperance, moderation, and sincerity, which the Founders viewed as part of a daily struggle for self-improvement, character development, and calm self-mastery. They believed that political self-government required personal self-government. For these men, the pursuit of virtue was incompatible with enslavement of African Americans, although the Virginians betrayed their own principles.

The Pursuit of Happiness is more than an elucidation of the Declaration’s famous phrase; it is a revelatory journey into the minds of the Founders, and a deep, rich, and fresh understanding of the foundation of our democracy.

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen is the President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit whose mission is to increase awareness and understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Rosen hosts the Center’s weekly We the People podcast, which brings together liberal and conservative voices for constitutional debate and teaches Constitution 101 classes for learners of all ages. Rosen is also professor at The George Washington University Law School and a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of six books including, most recently, Conversations with RBG: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law. His other books include biographies of William Howard Taft and Louis Brandeis.

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