The Heart of the Declaration
The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government
The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016
Hardcover. ix+207 p. ISBN 978-0300216189. $26
Reviewed by Robert T. Jones
U.S. Army Command & General Staff College
Fort Gordon, Georgia
Yale professor Steve Pincus’ latest work offers a fresh perspective of the founders’ intent for the nascent United States created by the Declaration of Independence. It is sure to provide impetus and motivation for new interpretations by amateur and professional historians alike. In The Heart of the Declaration : The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government, the author counters the traditional and widely held view that the American Revolution was essentially a revolt against foreign rule and a statement for limited government. Instead, Pincus’ central argument is that the authors of the Declaration intended to create “an activist and interventionist government in the Patriot tradition”(1) . This activist government would promote consumerism, boost immigration, and be anti-slavery. This is truly a paradigmatic shift away from the consensus of scholarly interpretations. Even the author points out that “most concur that the authors of the Declaration celebrated limited government” . Although it is a relatively short book (three chapters plus an epilogue), The Heart of the Declaration raises thought-provoking questions on the causes of the American Revolution and the intent of the founders.
In the first chapter (Mount Vernon : Patriot Estate), Pincus outlines the three core proposals of the Patriot ideology: support economic prosperity, subsidize immigration, and the elimination of slavery. In sum, according to the Patriot ideology, the surest road to economic prosperity for all was through increased government spending. Such ideas were in direct opposition to the austerity policies set in place by the Walpole government to reduce Britain’s national debt. Throughout the chapter, Pincus carefully lays out the political economic principles underpinning the Patriot ideological program. To achieve the maximum benefit for all, Patriots desired an even distribution of wealth throughout the country as well as a progressive tax system . Patriot politics also opposed the institution of slavery for both moral and economic reasons. Slave-based economies did not boost consumerism, tended to concentrate wealth into the hands of elites, and potentially diverted resources away from the economy as a whole. As Pincus notes, “Patriots increasingly came to believe that, on balance, slave-based economies were detrimental to imperial prosperity” . A centerpiece of the chapter is the author’s use of the founding of Georgia as a case study to illustrate Patriot economic principles. Beginning with private funding and augmented with substantial subsidies from the public treasury, the Georgia trustees (including Edward Vernon’s older brother James) sought to create a consumer-driven economy . Economically disadvantaged persons in Britain received subsidized passage to America, as well as land, livestock, and other necessaries to establish themselves as productive members of society and active consumers. According to the author, “Georgia was founded on the principles of the redistribution of wealth and greater income equality” . Additionally, other European immigrants flocked to Georgia and slavery was outlawed . A weakness in using the example of Georgia is Pincus fails to explain reasons for its ultimate failure. Taken in context, with Georgia being one of the weakest and least populous states, it is difficult the gauge the influence of Patriot economics on other states in North America. As an interesting aside, the chapter explains the origins of the “Mount Vernon” name for the Washington family estate in Virginia.(2)
The middle chapter (Patriots and the Imperial Crisis) examines Britain’s “imperial crisis” in the 1760’s at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. As First Lord of the Treasury, George Grenville imposed spending cuts and imposed extractive tax policies throughout the empire to pay down the national debt. As an example, Grenville’s well-known Stamp Act exemplified a means to increase revenues and have the colonies “pay their fair share” . Protests and acts of rebellion were common responses to the Grenville tax policies not only in North America but elsewhere. A strength of this chapter is that Pincus looks at the entire British Empire to provide examples to bolster his argument. According to the author, “Patriots on both sides of the Atlantic identified Grenvillian economic policy as the prime cause of discontent” . Pincus’ insightful analysis of reactions to the Stamp Act and similar legislation adds depth to his argument. The chapter concludes with a recounting of the fall of the Grenville administration and the repeal of the Stamp Act. Pincus closes with an extract from a 1765 George Washington letter that reveals his support for free and unfettered trade with Britain.
In the third and final chapter (Making a Patriot Government), the author gets to the heart of his argument concerning the founders’ intent for an activist government. It is only by placing the Declaration in “the transatlantic and imperial contexts of Patriot political argument”  that is it possible to see the document in a new way. As the author sees it, the Declaration was certainly a call for state formation, but what kind of state? Pincus supports his argument for an activist state by viewing the Declaration through the context of the Patriot tradition. Using the “Committee of Five” as his basic construct, the author interprets their writings to be a call for an active, consumer-oriented form of government. He reiterates three Patriot ideological themes: unfettered free trade , support for immigration , and the abolishment of slavery . While not all will agree with his interpretation, the author makes a strong argument and justifies his position with meticulously cited source material.
Despite the excellent scholarship displayed in this work, there are a few areas of weakness. If one accepts the argument of the founders’ call for a strong, active government, then it is difficult to balance this against the weak national government created by the Articles of Confederation. Pincus addresses this in the Epilogue and acknowledges that it was a failed attempt to create a Patriot government . The treatment of Paine’s Common Sense is a bit selective, especially regarding that work’s anti-government aspects. The question of slavery was contentious in the colonies, with strong voices on both sides of the issue. While the anti-slavery position was central to the Patriot ideology, the anti-slavery clause was deleted from the draft version of the Declaration to achieve concurrence.
This book is a stimulating and thought-provoking addition to the political history of our nation’s founding. Steve Pincus’ work is sure to open fresh debates and encourage new scholarship on political economics during the colonial American period. This book should appeal to a broad range of historians and those interested in Britain’s imperial politics.
(1) For clarity, the term “Patriot” refers to the Patriot Whigs, an opposition group within the Whig Party of Great Britain opposed to the economic and foreign policies of Sir Robert Walpole. The group was active ca. 1725-1803 and boasted members on both sides of the Atlantic.
(2) George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence served with Admiral Edward Vernon during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, ca. 1739. Vernon was a prominent and outspoken member of the Patriot Whigs. Mount Vernon is named in honor of Admiral Vernon.
Cercles © 2017
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.