Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream (1740-1776)

An introduction

In this sweeping work of narrative non-fiction, bestselling historian Peter Moore traces how Enlightenment ideas were exported from Britain and put into practice in America – where they became perhaps the most successful export of all time, the American Dream

‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ is the best-known phrase from the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important documents of the eighteenth century and the whole Enlightenment Age. Written by Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the text, it is frequently evoked today as a shorthand for that idea we call the ‘American Dream’. But this is a line with a surprising history. Rather than being uniquely American, the vision it encapsulates — of a free and happy world  owes a great deal to British thinkers too.

Centred on the life of Benjamin Franklin, featuring figures like 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. It takes us back to a vital moment in the foundation of the West, a time full of intent, confidence and ideas. It tells a whole new story about the birth of the United States of America  and some of the key principles by which we live to this very day.


“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 ArrowsmithThe Washington Post

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

[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

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 MalcolmThe Telegraph

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

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 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

A timely reminder that the origins of the three big ideas in the American Dream lay mainly in Great Britain, with a lively account of the principal actors and episodes in the developing drama, and Benjamin Franklin in the starring role: a great read ― LADY HALE, President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (201720) and author of Spider Woman

With flair and insight, Peter Moore takes 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 At the Existentialist Café

What 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. I loved it ― DAISY DUNN, author of Not Far From Brideshead

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

In this thrilling and expansive narrative, Peter Moore traces the ideas that kindled the Age of Revolution through the lives and passions of some of the eighteenth century’s signature figures – Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, John Wilkes, Thomas Paine – and the bustling, fast-evolving milieu of printers and journals through which Britain and America conversed, clashed and forged their distinctive futures― MIKE JAY, author of Psychonauts. Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind

Building on the pioneering work of Bernard Bailyn and John Brewer, Peter Moore offers a gripping account of the way in which British pamphlet wars of the 1760s fuelled American debates about independence. Mixing famous Founders with lesser known figures, especially Franklin’s long-time friend the Tory printer and publisher William Strahan, Moore’s book brings out the hidden roots of the Declaration of Independence ― STELLA TILLYARD, author of The Great Level

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

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness is that rarest of things: an ambitious history of ideas that is also deeply intimate and humane. Peter Moore has an eye for the kind of sparking detail that drags you into the past by the shirt collar. A work of astonishing insight, pathos, and literary elegance JOSEPH HONE, author of The Paper Chase

Deft, engaging and vivid, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness explores a vibrant, surprising and sometimes extraordinary period of history. Moore writes with such humanity and verve – I loved it ― LUCY ATKINS, author of Magpie Lane

In bringing five participants vividly to life, Moore gives us a warmly human account of the birth of American democracy. How pleasing that deep scholarship can be so enjoyable and thought-awaking ― MARTIN LATHAM, author of The Bookseller’s Tale


  • An Engelsberg Ideas/Goalhanger Podcasts Book of the Year
  • One of Waterstones’ History Books of the Year 2023
  • “[A] rollicking account . . . The book’s compulsive readability is a tribute to Moore’s skill at cracking open the pre-revolutionary period.” —Washington Post
  • Starred reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and Booklist

Available to order (UK) at Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles, Blackwell’s or

Available to order (USA) at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million,, Powells or Target.

For special edition prints and signed copies, visit Unseen Histories.

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