You are here
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream (Hardcover)
“Gripping . . . Vibrant . . . A wonderfully absorbing and stimulating book.” —Sarah Bakewell, NBCC Award–winning author of How to Live and Humanly Possible
“[A] rollicking account . . . The book’s compulsive readability is a tribute to Moore’s skill at cracking open the pre-revolutionary period.” —Charles Arrowsmith, The Washington Post
A spirited group biography that explores the origins of the most iconic words in American history, and the remarkable transatlantic context from which they emerged.
The most famous phrase in American history once looked quite different. “The preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness” was how Thomas Jefferson put it in the first draft of the Declaration, before the first ampersand was scratched out, along with “the preservation of.” In a statement as pithy—and contested—as this, a small deletion matters. And indeed, that final, iconizing revision was the last in a long chain of revisions stretching across the Atlantic and back. The precise contours of these three rights have never been pinned down—and yet in making these words into rights, Jefferson reified the hopes (and debates) not only of a group of rebel-statesmen but also of an earlier generation of British thinkers who could barely imagine a country like the United States of America.
Peter Moore’s Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness tells the true story of what may be the most successful import in US history: the “American dream.” Centered on the friendship between Benjamin Franklin and the British publisher William Strahan, and featuring figures including the cultural giant Samuel Johnson, the ground-breaking historian Catharine Macaulay, the firebrand politician John Wilkes, and revolutionary activist Thomas Paine, this book looks at the generation that preceded the Declaration in 1776. Everyone, it seemed, had “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on their minds; Moore shows why, and reveals how these still-nascent ideals made their way across an ocean and started a revolution.
Includes 16 pages of black-and-white images
About the Author
Peter Moore is an English writer, historian and lecturer. He is the author of Endeavour (2018) and The Weather Experiment (2015), which were both Sunday Times bestsellers in the United Kingdom. The Weather Experiment was also chosen as one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015. He teaches at the University of Oxford, has lectured internationally on eighteenth century history, and hosts a history podcast called Travels Through Time.
"Arranging [his subjects] into entertaining, Hogarthian tableaux, Moore shines a light on the personalities that dominated the Georgian 'attention economy' and the impact they had on the colonies . . . History can sometimes read like a steady procession of inevitable incidents. Not in Moore’s rollicking account. Setting aside the duels and the bad-tempered letters and some acid encounters between the era’s glitterati, the book’s compulsive readability is a tribute to Moore’s skill at cracking open the pre-revolutionary period and reanimating the contingencies that eventually drove the settlers to embrace independence." —Charles Arrowsmith, The Washington Post
"History is best written by the losers. In Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Peter Moore, a historian who teaches at Oxford, shows how Britain exported its highest ideals to the Americans who rejected it." —Dominic Green, The Wall Street Journal
"[A] stirring intellectual history . . . Vivid . . . In artfully tracing its history, [Moore] has helped explain why 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' has endured as an ideal for nearly 250 years." —Barbara Spindel, The Christian Science Monitor
"Moore is a splendid storyteller, who brings his distinguished subjects back to life." —Glenn C. Altschuler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"[An] engaging narrative history . . . Moore tells an old tale well." —T. H. Breen, Times Literary Supplement
"Fascinating . . . Absorbing . . . Moore has a keen eye for the sort of eloquent detail that enlivens biography, and he expertly evokes Franklin’s transformation from proud artisan to member of a new American elite. He’s particularly good on the quirkiness of Franklin’s early adulthood . . . Moore [is] a crisp writer and adept at narrative sweep." —Henry Hitchings, The Times (London)
"A well-researched and brightly written account . . . [Moore's] special talent lies in his ability to convert sometimes dry facts into a compelling narrative. He writes his story as if it were a novel, with cliffhangers and telling details to showcase his protagonists." —Diane Scharper, Washington Examiner
"[A] stirring, stylishly written account." —The Christian Science Monitor
"Like Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men and Leo Damrosch’s The Club, Moore’s vibrant group biography brings to life the intellectual and political currents, in Britain and Colonial America, that gave rise to the phrase 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' . . . An energetic and meticulously researched history." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A rich and immersive intellectual history . . . Moore’s fluid prose is infused with the 'boisterous' excitement of the era, when 'people knew they were living at a loaded moment in history.' This is a pleasure." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[An] engaging and thoroughly reader-friendly book . . . [Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness] is about how a crazed, paranoid kind of political rhetoric was spread from the England of Wilkes to the America of Franklin and Paine, making rebellion possible. This part of the story is not just convincing but, to a modern reader, positively chilling." —Noel Malcolm, The Telegraph
"The vivid descriptions of people, modes of communication, and social life are fascinating and give this well-researched history the readability of fiction." —Booklist (starred review)
"With flair and insight, Peter Moore takes on one of the most famous and deceptively simple lines in history—a line that founded a nation and changed the world. He digs into it to unearth a wealth of unexpected influences and connections, a trove of gripping stories, and a vibrant company of characters. A wonderfully absorbing and stimulating book." —Sarah Bakewell, NBCC Award–winning author of How to Live and Humanly Possible
"In Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Peter Moore reveals a rich trans-Atlantic network of thinkers and writers pursuing new ideas of freedom in an age of revolution. With deft insights and in clear prose, Moore restores the cosmopolitan origins of an American Revolution meant to liberate human potential. In this eloquent book, that revolution becomes more global and enduring and less parochial and limited." —Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804
"The British empire of the eighteenth century blazed with the world-changing ideas and projects of thinkers and writers on both sides of the Atlantic, for whom 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' became the essential conditions of modern existence and the 'unalienable rights' of all humankind. Peter Moore captures this intellectual ferment in a fascinating narrative of Benjamin Franklin and his transatlantic circle and recounts the vigorous debates, the personality clashes, and the political choices that would eventually polarize these notable figures into opposing camps. Was taxation 'tyranny'? Was colonization, built on African slavery and Native dispossession, an advance of civilization? Such arguments put Enlightenment dreams to the test, making the American Revolution appear in retrospect as much a cultural loss as a political gain. As the 250th anniversary of Independence approaches, this book will surely complicate the celebration." —Robert A. Gross, author of The Minutemen and Their World and The Transcendentalists and Their World
"In prose as fluid and engaging as Jefferson’s own, Peter Moore reveals how cherished American ideals originated not from the end of one Founding Father's pen but through conversations across the Atlantic between men and women thinking and writing about how to make the world a better place." —Kathleen DuVal, author of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution
"A scintillating read. Atmospheric yet analytical, well-paced yet deeply probing, Moore’s book delivers striking new perspectives with the stylistic grace of the Founding Fathers." —Daisy Dunn, author of The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny