"I believe we have to have a great American debate about whether we are still Americans," Gingrich said, arguing that the Declaration promised the right to pursue happiness, not its attainment.
"There's no provision for a federal Department of Happiness, no provision for happiness stamps for the under-happy," Gingrich said. "There's no inherent right to sue if you're unhappy. And the Founding Fathers would have thought that a politician who walked into this room and announced, 'I am now going to take from the overly happy in this end . . . to redistribute to the under-happy on this side,' was [committing] an act of arrogance worthy of King George."
The former speaker, who has been considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, received the Lincoln Award from the Union League, which the club periodically gives to those it believes best embody American values.
Gov. Christie received the award in February, and past winners include former President George W. Bush, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Afghanistan who was nominated Thursday to become director of the CIA; and investment pioneer John Templeton.
Gingrich has been dropping hints that he is likely to run, and his status as the leader of the 1994 conservative revolution and deep ties to Republicans across the nation would put him in the top echelon of candidates if he does.
But it does not look as though Gingrich will participate in what was billed as the first major televised debate among GOP candidates next Friday in South Carolina. To qualify for the event, the state party requires candidates to have launched a campaign for president or at least established a formal exploratory committee by Tuesday.
Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said that won't happen in time. "He has outstanding contractual obligations, and once we fulfill them, we'll be ready," Tyler said. "Unfortunately the timetables collided."
Having a committee triggers federal requirements for disclosure of Gingrich's personal finances and for reporting of contributions and expenditures.
"The spirit of Philadelphia favors paychecks over food stamps, job creation over big government, decentralized government, . . . and balancing the federal budget with less spending and lower taxes," Gingrich told about 500 people at the Union League, which was founded in 1862 to support President Abraham Lincoln and the national Union.
Gingrich said he believed that unemployment insurance benefits should be tied to a requirement for job training, which would be provided by businesses looking to hire.
"This is the silly season," Gingrich said later, when asked about the faux controversy over whether President Obama was born in the United States, an issue fanned by Donald Trump. "I think we're going to get around to serious discussion."
Obama released a copy of his original long-form birth certificate from Hawaii on Wednesday, hoping to put the matter to rest. "I frankly thought it was more surprising to watch the president get involved in this particular circus," Gingrich said. "The president ought to be focused on the serious business of the country."
Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his national politics blog at www.philly.com/BigTent.