Review: Steven Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration

Steve Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

At a time when political events seem to place the very meaning of American democracy under the microscope, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many recent works have looked to re-evaluate the American Founding. Books focusing on the mid-1770s in general have included Kevin Philips’s 1775, Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes, & Our Sacred Honor, and Joseph Ellis’s American Quartet. Recent books that have looked more specifically at the Declaration of Independence itself include Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration. Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause, too, has called for a re-evaluation of what motivated those who fought for Independence, though his work calls for a much less celebratory conclusion. Such a list demonstrates the importance of the mid-1770s to America’s national identity. With The Heart of the Declaration, Steven Pincus throws his hat into the ring, too.

Other books have tended to examine the Declaration of Independence either in its immediate context, or with an eye to its future interpretation. Pincus, by contrast, places it in a context extending from eighteenth-century British politics onward,seeing the Declaration as the triumph of a transatlantic Patriot ideology that existed on both sides of the ocean from at least the 1730s. These debates about the nature of the British Empire—and whether the colonies existed for consumerist or extractive purposes—formed the essential framework through which all debates over imperial policy were debated. Following the triumph (in Britain, at least), of the Grenvillian extractive view, Patriots then turned to state formation in America, with the Declaration the ur-text of their own political ideology.

For a book so directly framed around the Declaration of Independence, it takes a surprisingly long time to turn to the text itself. Instead, Pincus sketches an argument about transatlantic politics in which leading voices on both sides of the Atlantic seek the development of an interventionist government, willing to go to war to protect and develop British trading rights in foreign empires, and who will invest in the productive capacity of the Empire so that British consumers can contribute to its material wealth. These debates explain the popularity of Admiral Edward Vernon (the namesake of George Washington’s estate), the Parliamentary capitulation over the creation of the colony of Georgia, and by the 1760s, help explain why a ministerial turn towards a French and Spanish model of imperial taxation is so widely opposed not only by Americans threatened with the yoke of taxation, but their mercantile and consumerist brethren in England, too.

By the time the Imperial Crisis—the divisive product of the ongoing debate over political economy—gets to a breaking point, a well-developed Patriot mindset on government already existed. As such, in Pincus’s retelling, “the authors of the Declaration were simply crystallizing deeply held Patriot beliefs” (114). The Declaration represents a clarion call of state formation, a manifesto outlining the purposes of good government. Pincus describes this manifesto as advocating an “activist” government, in which future prosperity relied upon developing a consumer society with open immigration and an animus against slavery. The last of these claims is perhaps overly ambitious. In identifying proto-abolitionist rhetoric, Pincus could have spent more time discussing why antislavery sentiments were the first to be dropped from Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration. Nevertheless, in framing the Declaration as a document about state formation, Pincus makes a bold claim about the political nature of the Revolution, and invites further investigation into the underlying political economy that infused revolutionary statecraft.

One wonders, though, why the Declaration formed the particular hook for this argument. The myriad examples of activist government intervention in the Revolution lie most obviously in the state-level political activity of the 1770s—from the quasi-governmental mobilization of committees formed by the Association in 1774 to the coercion applied to those refusing to give supplies to the military during the Revolutionary War through to price-fixing committees in 1779. More time addressing the organizational and governmental manifestations of the Patriot mindset would have bolstered arguments focused mostly on the Declaration itself.

Similar questions could be raised regarding the pervasiveness of the Patriot mindset prior to the Revolution. Pincus convincingly and thoroughly outlines the core principles of the Patriots and of their political opponents, providing a firmly-grounded approach to Atlanticizing the political history of the eighteenth century. What’s less clear, though, is the extent of the support that Patriots could claim in the 1730s and 1740s. Statecraft in the formation of Georgia allows Pincus to sketch out the ideology of the Patriots very well indeed. But other literature on colonial government highlights the comparative marginality of Georgia to other, more established colonies. How far did Patriot ideology pervade the governments of New York or Virginia?

One wonders, also, if the language of an “activist” government adequately describes the argument Pincus is making. For if the development of naval power to open up new markets for trade and allow consumerist policies to generate revenue for the Empire, represents “activist” government, then doesn’t a Grenvillian extractive approach, which sought to increase the size of imperial bureaucracy, similarly represent “activism?” The core of Pincus’s argument rests around political economy and statecraft, and, on these topics, Pincus’s arguments are very clear. At times, however, the framing of “activism” seems more of a distraction.

For all of these considerations, though, Pincus raises a number of important questions that should reinvigorate the study of the political history of the Revolution. In grounding the ideology of the Declaration in imperial debates over political economy, Pincus invites historians to look with renewed vigor at the origins and causes of the American Revolution. If the Patriot mindset is of transatlantic importance from the 1740s onwards, then early Americanists need to look again at the colonial governments of the mid-eighteenth century. Even if the Patriots only reach their tipping point in the more traditional timeframe of the Imperial Crisis, Pincus’s argument suggests that state formation needs to sit at the heart of any revolutionary narrative. For a small book—barely more than 150 pages, epilogue included—Pincus frames key debates over political economy and revolutionary ideology very sharply indeed. The heart of the Declaration lay in staking political and governmental claims; one hopes this work will draw significant attention back to those subjects.

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2 comments on “Review: Steven Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration

  1. Alec Rogers says:

    Sounds like another case of a publisher pushing a misleading subtitle onto an author…so what else is new?

    Thanks for the review – this title sounds much more interesting than the title/subtitle would have suggested.

  2. […] on from Ken Owen’s review of Steve Pincus’s The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist […]

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