The Rights of the Colonists
To understand where the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights come from, it helps to know about a Town of Boston document from 1772, “Rights of the Colonists.” Written almost four years before the Declaration of Independence and nearly 20 years before the Bill of Rights.
The “Rights of the Colonists” managed to foreshadow both of those documents that eventually became far better known.
The Declaration of Independence, in 1776, said that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Back in 1772, a committee appointed by the Town of Boston had written in their own declaration that “Among the Natural Rights of the Colonists are these First. a Right to Life ; Secondly to Liberty; thirdly to Property; together with the Right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.”
“Property” evolved into “pursuit of happiness,” but the concept of natural, God-given rights to life and liberty was at the core of both American Revolution and of the nation it spawned. It wasn’t strictly an American invention; its roots ran back to the Bible and to ancient Greece, and more recently to the English writer John Locke and his 1689 Second Treatise on Government. But the Americans made it their own through their words and actions.
The Declaration of Independence said that “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.”
Back in 1772, the “Rights of the Colonists” document had spoken of the right of men “in case of intollerable Oppression, Civil or Religious, to leave the Society they belong to, and enter into another. — When Men enter into Society, it is by voluntary consent.”
The Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the Constitution, drafted in 1789 and adopted in 1791 — included a First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It included a Fifth Amendment that “No person…shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” And it included a Tenth Amendment, asserting that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
The 1772 “Rights of the Colonists” contained all three of these ideas, too. It stated “every Man living in or out of a state of civil society, has a right peaceably and quietly to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience.” It asked, “What liberty can there be, when property is taken away without consent?” And it said, foreshadowing the Tenth Amendment, “Every natural Right not expressly given up or from the nature of a Social Compact necessarily ceded remains.”
The 1772 document was relatively quick work. On Monday, November 2, 1772, in the Boston Town meeting, the political activist, newspaper columnist, and member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives Samuel Adams had moved to create a “committee of correspondence” with 21 members “to state the rights of the Colonists and of this Province in particular, as men and Christians and as subjects; to communicate and publish the same to the several towns in this province and to the world.”
Perhaps skeptical of the project, high-profile patriots such as John Hancock and Thomas Cushing declined to serve on the committee. Adams moved ahead anyway, and the statement was approved by the Boston Town Meeting on Friday, November 20, 1772.
As notable as are the continuities between “Rights of the Colonists” and the later American foundational documents, the discontinuities are worth paying attention to as well. “Rights of the Colonists” recommended that religious tolerance not be extended to Roman Catholics, whose allegiance to the pope rather than their local government was claimed to lead “directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war and bloodshed.” That anti-Catholic bigotry was not present in the Declaration of Independence nor in the Bill of Rights, though it did remain a stubborn factor in American politics for many years to come. And while “Rights of the Colonists” argued its case on the basis of the status of the colonists as men, as Christians, and as British subjects, by the time of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights the particularistic appeals to Christian and British rights receded in favor of a more universal message (at least for free men).
In its time, “Rights of the Colonists” caused a sensation. Benjamin Franklin reprinted it in England. In Gorham, near what is now Portland, Maine, the town meeting on January 7, 1773, adopted a report, “That it is clearly the opinion of this town, that the rights of the colonists, and the several infringements of those rights, are fairly and justly stated by the inhabitants of Boston, in their printed pamphlet sent to the several towns” and “That it is the opinion of this town, that it is better to risk our lives and fortunes in the defence of our rights civil and religious, than to die by piece-meals in slavery.”
The Gorham statement, in turn, was reprinted in the Pennsylvania Packet of March 1, 1773, so that the Boston statement of the Rights of the Colonists was reverberating more than three months after it was issued, from Gorham 100 miles north of Boston to Philadelphia 300 miles south of Boston.
As it does to this day, all over the world, whenever people realize that, as “Rights of the Colonists” puts it, “the right to freedom” is “the gift of God Almighty.”