A common starting point for analyzing both the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights is a neglected earlier document: the Continental Congress’s Resolution of May 10 and 15, 1776.
It is common for scholars to assume that the starting point for interpreting the Declaration of Independence is the Virginia Bill of Rights. However, a common starting point for analyzing both documents is a neglected earlier document: the Continental Congress’s Resolution of May 10 and 15, 1776. John Adams (who wrote the resolution’s preamble) described it as “independence itself, but we must have it with more formality yet.” This May resolution is properly paired with the later Declaration of Independence as part of a unified ideological whole. Both documents pair the terms safety and happiness, and the May resolution hides definitions of these two terms in plain sight as part of a clever tautology that has eluded modern scholars (see the text of the resolution at the bottom of this article).
The background for the Resolution of May 10 and 15 was the need to provide government in colonies where authority under the king had broken down. Congress approved the May resolution in two parts. First came the brief main body on May 10. This act of May 10 urged the “respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies” to establish governments in a form that would “best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents.” Then John Dickinson, the leading foot-dragger regarding independence, took a leave of absence from Congress. With Dickinson gone, John Adams introduced the lengthy preamble on May 15. This new paragraph neatly placed Congress’s recommendation to set up governments into the context of suppressing all authority under the crown, which Dickinson would certainly have opposed. The preamble passed on a 6-to-4 vote.
A good starting point for understanding this May resolution is the English constitutional principle that the allegiance of the subjects to the king depends on the king’s protection of his subjects: the so-called “original contract” (as opposed to the Lockean “social contract,” where people in a state of nature join together to form a government). In October 1775 King George III declared the colonies to be outside his protection and authorized military force to subdue them. This royal act broke the original contract, which the Continental Congress formally observed in the May resolution.
There seems to be no reason to doubt that the Founders in 1787 as well as in 1776 drafted constitutions with the safety and happiness of the people in mind.
The May resolution was the impetus for writing the early state constitutions, several of which either paraphrased or directly quoted it. As Chief Justice Marshall wrote in Marbury v. Madison, “That the people have an original right to establish, for their future government, such principles as, in their opinion, shall most conduce to their own happiness, is the basis on which the whole American fabric has been erected.” This word “fabric” to describe the evolving American experiment in shared sovereignty was used by Mercy (Otis) Warren in a March 1776 letter to John Adams, expressing the concern that the “fabrick” that Congress had “the power of completing” would be left “half finished.” Warren used the word again in 1788, criticizing the new Constitution as “a consolidated fabric of aristocratic tyranny.”
Notwithstanding Mercy Warren’s disapproval, there seems to be no reason to doubt that the Founders in 1787 as well as in 1776 drafted constitutions with the safety and happiness of the people in mind. The natural starting point for discussing “safety and happiness” is Cicero, who wrote that “laws were invented for the safety of citizens, the preservation of States, and the tranquility and happiness of human life.” The Declaration of Independence likewise implies that the purpose of government is to “effect” the “safety and happiness” of the people. This phrase appeared in Massachusetts election sermons in 1760 and 1761, in the writings of John Dickinson in the later 1760s, and in several 1774 Virginia county resolutions calling for a continental congress. King George himself employed the phrase in October 1775 as he sent troops to suppress the rebellious colonies; and then Congress both used and defined “safety and happiness” in its May 1776 resolution establishing de facto independence.
The May resolution’s definition of safety (“defence of lives, liberties and properties”) echoes Clause 39 of Magna Carta, which states that “no man is to be arrested, or imprisoned [liberty], or disseized [property] or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined [liberty and property], nor will we go against him or send against him [life, liberty and property], except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
The May 1776 resolution’s definition of happiness contains three elements, “internal peace, virtue and good order.” Variants of these three elements appear in several works of philosophy and jurisprudence, starting with Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. This work states that “a soul at peace”—coming to terms with death—is “a valuable aid towards rendering life happy.” Furthermore, Cicero’s “chief conclusion” is that “virtue is self-sufficient for leading a happy life.” Regarding good order, Cicero writes that “the soul of the wise man . . . is never in a disordered state.” Cicero devotes an entire chapter to the four disorders of the soul: distress, fear, lust and ecstasy. As the young scholar Thomas Jefferson copied into his commonplace book, the man “whose soul is tranquilized by restraint and consistency and who is at peace with himself, so that he neither pines away in distress, nor is broken down by fear, nor consumed with a thirst of longing in pursuit of some ambition, nor maudlin in the exuberance of meaningless eagerness… is the happy man who can think no human occurrence insupportable to the point of dispiriting him, or unduly delightful to the point of rousing him to ecstasy.”
For Burlamaqui, as echoed by the Declaration of Independence, the purpose of government is to “secure” to the people “the full enjoyment of their rights.”
The three elements of the congressional definition of happiness also appear in Richard Cumberland’s Treatise of the Laws of Nature, the only full-length treatise on natural law ever published by an Englishman. Cumberland concludes that actions “principally conducive to our Happiness” are those which promote “the Honour and Glory of God” and also “Charity and Justice towards men” (echoing the two commandments of Jesus Christ) and emphasizes that promotion of the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own Happiness,” foreshadowing both the May resolution and the July 4 Declaration. Cumberland states that “Internal Peace . . . (meaning a clean conscience) is necessary to Happiness,” and assumes that the educated reader will take it for granted that “the Virtues necessarily bring Happiness along with them.” Furthermore, it is “the natural perfection of the Human Will” to “follow the most perfect Reason,” which produces “Order among those actions” that tend toward “every Man’s Happiness, or chief Good.”
Variants of the three elements of happiness also appear in Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law. For Burlamaqui, as echoed by the Declaration of Independence, the purpose of government is to “secure” to the people “the full enjoyment of their rights,” defining right as “whatever reason certainly acknowledges as a sure and concise means of attaining happiness.” The purpose of Burlamaqui’s work, stated in the very first paragraph, is to expound on the “noble pursuit” of “true and solid happiness,” with happiness understood in terms of “perfection”—completed virtue or mature moral development. As James Wilson—an original Supreme Court Justice who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution—told his law students in 1790, “The rule of His [God’s] government we shall find to be reduced to this one paternal command – Let man pursue his own perfection and happiness.”
The text of the combined May resolution follows:
Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, the crown of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcileable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies; therefore:
Resolved, That it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.
John Schmeeckle is an independent researcher who focuses on the intellectual milieu of the American Founders.