There is a growing sense that our political system isn’t functioning as it should. There were similar feelings in the 1760s and 1770s, when the British overlords strayed onto a course that eventually led to political upheaval and revolution. Public-spirited colonial leaders, as part of their quest for workable solutions to the crisis of their time, repeatedly expressed the well-known standard for good government: the safety and happiness of the people.
Even King George III used the phrase safety and happiness. In October 1775, he informed Parliament that he was raising troops to suppress the rebellious traitors in the American colonies, while assuring all that “the most earnest wishes of my heart tend wholly to the safety and happiness of all my people.”
Congress responded in the Resolution on Independent Governments of May 1776, recommending that all royal government “should be totally suppressed,” and that the colonies should establish governments that “conduce to the happiness and safety” of the people. This resolution cleverly embodied definitions of both safety and happiness. It defined safety as “defence of lives, liberties, and properties,” and it defined happiness as “internal peace, virtue, and good order.” This definition of happiness in terms of virtue reflected the age-old natural law tradition, which saw happiness as the byproduct of the “perfection” (mature development) of virtue, which includes habitually acting out of love for our fellow humans. Thomas Jefferson dutifully wrote this natural law doctrine into the Declaration of Independence, declaring the right of the people to alter or abolish government that fails to promote their safety and happiness.
The phrase safety and happiness goes back to the Roman philosopher Cicero, who wrote that “laws were invented for the safety of citizens, the preservation of States, and the tranquility and happiness of human life.” In the 1760s, John Dickinson — then the leading spokesman for colonial opposition to Parliament — wrote that “Men cannot be happy, without Freedom; nor free, without Security of Property; nor so secure, unless the sole Power to dispose of it be lodged in themselves; therefore no People can be free, but where Taxes are imposed on them with their own Consent, given personally, or by their Representatives.”
In other words, safety — the protection of life, liberty, and property — is a prerequisite for happiness, but it isn’t happiness itself. The pursuit of happiness is a futile quest if we aren’t safe, and the promotion of both safety and happiness is a function of good government. Furthermore, as the Founders emphasized, the survival of a republic depends on the cultivation of virtue among the populace. Therefore, the individual’s right — and responsibility — to pursue happiness corresponds to society’s responsibility to promote an environment that encourages the mature development of healthy, well-adjusted citizens who are in turn motivated to promote the well-being of the entire community. When John F. Kennedy exhorted his fellow Americans to “ask what you can do for your country,” his words echoed the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
These days, the nation is challenged by new technologies that enable our elections to be hacked, by a globalizing world that has unpredictable effects on the national economy, by the persistent threat of international terrorism, by growing income disparity within our borders, by the chronic issues of overspending and increasing public debt, and by a dysfunctional political system dominated by special interests that are inclined to disregard the aspirations of the American people. While these problems are radically different from those faced by the Founders, the quest for workable solutions can easily be framed in the same terms as before.
The safety and happiness of the people should still be the standard for good government, which in turn depends on public-spirited citizens who are motivated to promote the general welfare. To quote Kennedy once again, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing.”
John Schmeeckle is a researcher who focuses on the Declaration of Independence. email@example.com