The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government
by Steve Pincus.
Yale University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 207 pages, $26.


Steve Pincus’s The Heart of the Declaration promises a “new perspective” on the Founders and the intent of the Declaration of Independence—what Pincus calls “the nation’s founding document.” Pincus argues that the Declaration does not advocate limited or minimal government but rather an “activist” government with extensive powers to promote public welfare. Such an activist government, Pincus insists, is in keeping with the Founders’ claim that the British state had, since 1760, done too little to promote prosperity.

To defend this reading of the Declaration, Pincus draws the reader back to British political thought between the Glorious Revolution (1688–89) and the 1770s. Pincus argues that debates about political economy (rather than religion or royal prerogative, for example) came to dominate pamphlets coming off the press in the early eighteenth century. The advance of commercial society, particularly manufacturing in Britain and agriculture in North America, encouraged Whigs to advocate the creation of a powerful but participatory state. Whereas Tories led by Restoration monarchs considered land the basis of property, Whigs victorious in 1689 emphasized labor and preferred government support for manufacturing to tax relief for land owners. Pincus cites the Bank of England (1694) and the board of trade (1696) as instruments of Whig policy financing both commercial and imperial policy—the latter including huge military expenditures. In the 1720s and 1730s, however, “establishment Whigs” split with opponents who called themselves “Patriots.” Patriots prescribed support for manufacturers and eschewed tax advantages for wealthy landholders who relied on slave labor. The transatlantic debate over these conflicting visions of political economy extended from the House of Commons to coffeehouses and publications on both sides of the Atlantic.

Americans who ultimately supported independence, Pincus argues, were more sympathetic to Patriot political economy: developing and protecting markets for British manufactured and agricultural products and facilitating a consumer base with subsidized immigration and the abolition of slavery. Whigs, Pincus argues, adhered to an older version of the labor theory of value, according to which labor created value whether free or slave; this gave advantage to British Sugar Colonies where wealthy landowners produced valuable commodities with low labor costs. Patriots retorted that commodities, however valuable, did not create consumers and that slavery stunted purchase of both commodities and manufactured goods. With the goal of creating more consumers with stronger purchasing power, Patriots not only opposed slavery but preferred a progressive land tax to regressive excise and sales taxes. Patriots saw the value of West Indian possessions not as sites for plantations but as staging areas to sell British goods to Spanish America. Georgia, Pincus contends, is a case study in Patriot policy because of the 100,000 pounds spent by the British government on its colonization, prohibition of slavery there, and the encouragement of immigration to the colony.

Military spending was an essential part of the Patriot program because it expanded and protected the market for British goods. Imperial policy could not be implemented on the cheap, of course, and when Robert Walpole and other Whigs pinched pennies (or so the Patriots charged) to balance the budget, Patriots cried foul. Whereas Walpole argued that war “was the bane of trade, and the parent of idleness,” Patriots feared the Bourbon monarchy as an imperial and commercial competitor and advocated aggressive offensives against it. British military spending, which is cast as a kind of proto–military industrial complex supporting the economy, is frequently cited by Pincus to defend his claim that American Patriots wanted activist government.

After the expensive Seven Years’ War, Whigs insisted on austerity in the face of staggering British debt. Patriots again cried foul. George Glenville reasserted British authority over trade, implemented unpopular austerity programs including the Stamp Act, and prohibited issuance of paper currency in the colonies. Glenville and Francophiles in his administration reversed the gains of the Seven Years’ War by concluding new treaties with France, constricting settlement in North America (the Proclamation Line of 1763), and seeking better terms with American Indians. Hemmed in by the coast on one side and the Proclamation line on the other, colonists could be better controlled by newly installed British military garrisons. To raise more revenue, Grenville squeezed those least able to threaten his parliamentary majority—British America and British India. Pincus rightly puts the American crisis into global perspective and calls revenue extraction and regulation of trade “a coherent and global vision for the British Empire.” Such austerity policies were unpopular everywhere—whether British, French, or Spanish. All three empires faced resistance from subjects at home and from colonists abroad.

Such opposition to austerity, Pincus argues, justifies calling the Declaration of Independence a “modern” document promising a “modern state.” Modern, for Pincus, means an activist or “energetic” state directly promoting economic prosperity. Essential for this argument is the questionable assertion that since Americans had de facto independence before the Declaration, they published it largely to implement their ideal activist state. Pincus defends his unique reading of the Declaration not from the typically progressive emphasis on the more abstract opening paragraphs of the Declaration, but instead from the middle paragraphs levelling specific and constitutional grievances against the king. How exactly one gets from Jefferson to Johnson through a series of indictments reflecting Coke more than Keynes is too much even for Pincus, however, and we are left to wonder exactly what modern applications we are to draw from the colonists’ contentions with their monarch.

In light of Pincus’s reticence to explicitly carry forward his modern parallels, we shall instead focus on the strength of his historical argument. To the point of Pincus’s timeline, there is the question of how much continuity one can draw from the Glorious Revolution (as a Whig enterprise) to the Revolution insofar as Americans objected to parliamentary sovereignty. More importantly, is it true that Patriots really desired what Pincus calls an “activist” or “energetic” government that would “promote prosperity for the largest number of people”? Pincus frequently refers to measures he says “stimulated,” “supported,” or “subsidized” prosperity. He refers more than once to the Bank of England or board of trade as mechanisms for private and public capital but provides no detailed analysis of it. He refers once to public education (which was practically nonexistent in both Britain and America as we would think of it today) and sparingly to creation of other vague “infrastructure”—none being referenced beyond the vaguest mention. His citation of imperial support of Georgia is his most specific statistic, but not enough to sustain his overall argument. Other than these unsatisfying bits, Pincus’s strongest evidence of Patriot activist government is British military spending, a fiscal stimulus that only the most doctrinaire Keynesians would now advocate as a means to public prosperity. The reader is left with only the vaguest idea of how Patriots prescribed direct or indirect support of trade. Using the term “subsidy” over and over in reference to British imperial policy does not elucidate what American Patriots expected from their government.

If American Patriots wanted activist government, why were the Articles of Confederation (drafted by the same Continental Congress that drafted the Declaration) unable to deliver on even Pincus’s most reliable defense of Patriot activist government—military spending? The war for Independence was always a tenuous affair because of economic weakness in the new government, and military spending was unpopular even in the new republic. Even if we grant Pincus’s argument that the ambitions of the Articles were sandbagged by resistance from the states, the Constitution likewise provides very little in the way of “activist” government—at least insofar as one looks at the power to tax and regulate until the Progressive era. Is an explicit call for patents or post roads in Article 1, Section 8, really an activist government subsidizing commerce?

It is puzzling that Pincus actually has almost nothing to say about the Constitution, given that the Federalist Papers’ prescription for energy (e.g. Federalist 1, 13, 15, 22, 23, 30, 37, 70) is in his favor. Of course, one must ask why the constitutional convention convened in secret if it finally delivered what the Declaration supposedly pledged so openly? In view of both founding constitutions, we must also ask why some who supported independence (and the Declaration) opposed more “activist” measures in both the Articles and the Constitution, and why they did not advance a powerful national authority that could deliver the subsidies Pincus claims American Patriots wanted from London. Furthermore, given Pincus’s claim that Patriots opposed slavery, why was there no consensus on the abolition of slavery in the Declaration, Articles, or Constitution?

Though Pincus is right to stress that independence was controversial even among American Patriots, and to situate the Declaration in an international context, the text composed by the “Committee of Five” seems more suited to other goals than activist government. Opposing what Pincus considers one anachronism—claiming the Declaration as a libertarian call for negative liberty and limited government—does not justify creating another.  

Glenn A. Moots is professor of philosophy and political science at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. He is author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology and co-editor of Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution.