REVIEW: Steve Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration

This is a small book with a big argument. Steve Pincus, a noted expert on seventeenth century British history, claims in his new book, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (Yale UP), that scholars have fundamentally misunderstood America’s founding document. Rather than a call for limited government, the Declaration of Independence was actually an appeal for an energetic federal power. The litanies against King George III were more critical of what he failed to do rather than what he actually did.

To justify this paradigm shift, Pincus argues that the Glorious Revolution in 1688-89 introduced a new, modern imperial state that was both energetic and participatory. As the empire became rich through economic dominance and diversification, it also became more invested in improving the lives of its subjects. While some maintained that the best way to retain national prosperity was to free wealthy landholders from property taxes, others wished to capitalize on the federal debt by cultivating growth in the manufacturing sectors. These were modern issues. Pincus traces the origins of what he calls he “Patriot politics,” which insisted that the government subsidize immigration, develop colonial infrastructure, and stimulate economic exchange. Focusing on economic consumption rather than production was key. (The state-sponsored project of Georgia was the best example of this initiative.) Problems arrived when imperial powers decided to reverse these principles and instead attempt to pay off the national debt through austerity and extraction. That is, the patriots eventually rebelled because the British government flipping their imperial priorities by merely raising taxes rather than playing the role of a modern, energetic state that invests in the local economy. In other words, the problem was when Britain ceased to be a “progressive” state, if one were to impose modern language. 

If this sounds like a political argument, you’d be right. Pincus is up-front with his belief that the Declaration was one of the first and most powerful documents to inaugurate a modern government, and many of the issues it addressed are just as relevant today. Most notably, the role of government in promoting immigration, confronting the implications of the African diaspora, and artificially instigating economic growth. Rather than forcing more historical distance between us and the founding document, Pincus urges, we should insist on less. Switching the modern roles typically assumed in today’s culture wars, progressives should attempt some form of originalism. This book is nothing if not provocative. 

Historians might get uncomfortable with what might be seen as presentism. And indeed, there are points in the text where Pincus seems overly eager to recast founding figures in progressive roles. This is especially in stark contrast to recent scholarship on the American founding, which present founding elites as anything but exemplary. Pincus’s argument about the patriots pursuing a more energetic argument doesn’t fully square with the fact that the Articles of Confederation, which they drafted shortly after the Declaration, implemented a profoundly weak government, as David Hendrickson’s book details. Pincus’s epilogue takes a shot at this dilemma, and he claims the Articles “created a much stronger confederal government than any that had gone before” (146), but the argument is not totally convincing. (The book’s attempt to downplay the anti-government ideas in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is similarly limited.) Also relevant is Eric Nelson’s provocative work that argues Americans rejected (or at least ignored) the lessons of the Glorious Revolution, and rather than celebrating parliament’s power were instead keen on returning the king’s prerogative as a disinterested umpire. And then, of course, there is the mountain of scholarship that portrays the Revolution as a conservative affair in which elites, especially in southern colonies, rebelled to preserve their rights to expand westward, retain local dominance, and maintain the slave institution. (The book’s overstatement of the patriots’ antislavery actions is one of its weakest sections) Pincus’s book is, of course, physically small and it would be impossible to address all of these competing contexts, but at times the text seems to make the Declaration appear in a vacuum cordoned away from these other crucial instigators. For instance, he specifically challenges the “local reaction” focus of scholarship (like that of Pauline Maier and TH Breen) in order to tell a much grander narrative of the Declaration (92). This might be pushing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.

But there is certainly substance to the book’s argument. Pincus’s greatest skill is in utilizing the latest scholarship on the birth of the modern British state. Over the past decade, the best work on colonial America has been those that work to integrate it into the literature of the British empire; it makes sense, then, that the next generation of American Revolution scholarship should do likewise. (Jack P. Greene is perhaps one of the few that have been long calling for this; in many ways, Pincus is the inheritor of Greene’s historiographical message.) Further, one of the most fascinating sections of the book is the comparison between British, French, and Spanish economic reforms in the wake of the Seven Years War. So even if Pincus doesn’t fully satisfy the demands of revolutionary America’s subfield, he is asking important questions that deserve to be addressed. 

And that’s the role I see this book primarily playing: that of a scholarly provocateur. The world of revolutionary America has mostly forfeited the tricky topic of origins, and Pincus is challenging us to revisit the topic. Works of provocation are not meant to hold all the answers, but they do ask the right questions. 

And one final note about provocative scholarship: they work best in the classroom. I plan to assign The Heart of the Declararion to my undergraduate students to grapple with, dissect, and debate. The issues of presentism, origins, and intent are often items that promote dialogue, and the fact it is concerned with America’s founding document is all the better. (The page count works for this setting as well.) Even though I at times found myself frustrated with the book as I read, I realized that I was frustrated in interesting ways. And that’s often the sign of a good book. 

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