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Reading Steve Pincus’s “The Heart of the Declaration”

October 30, 2016
New York, N.Y.

I loved Yale historian Steve Pincus’s monumental book 1688: The First Modern Revolution (Yale University Press, 2011). It’s not exactly a primer on the Glorious Revolution; for that purpose, I think a more conventional narrative account such as Tim Harris’s Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720 might be better. But reading Pincus is essential when you think you know the Glorious Revolution and want a fresh look that goes much deeper.

1688 serves as a necessary corrective to an historical devaluation of the Glorious Revolution in recent decades. To some historians, 1688 was hardly a revolution at all, and did little more than alter slightly the royal line of succession — a succession that would have occurred normally had James II died in 1688 without first bearing a son (a birth, moreover, that many Englishmen and women of the period believed to have been faked). Although these historians recognize that 1688 involved a dispute over religion — Anglicans were justifiably nervous over the increasing pro-Catholic policies of James II — and that this dispute was reflected in the newly emerged political parties — Tories believed the line of succession to be sacred while Whigs were more flexible and thought Parliament should have a say — they view the outcome of 1688 was simply a recodification of rights that had been long established in English law and tradition.

In 1688: The First Modern Revolution, Steve Pincus offers a compelling alternative to this narrow view. As the title of his book suggests, Pincus believes 1688 to be a modern revolution on a par with the American and French revolutions a century later. The disputes of 1688 (and the Parliament of 1689) really involved the future direction of England: whether England would remain a largely agrarian economy based on land and aristocracy with an authoritarian government modeled after French royalty, or whether England would become a modern manufacturing and consumer based economy governed by a Parliament that reflected the will of the people.

Steve Pincus’s new book The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (Yale University Press, 2016) is much shorter than 1688 and focuses on a whole different century and mostly a different continent. But in many ways this new book is a continuation of the earlier one, showing how some of those Whig values of the Glorious Revolution evolved to have an impact on the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States.

Like the earlier book, The Heart of the Declaration is based largely on primary sources — periodicals, pamphlets, letters, and documents — and reveals a history not quite in line with what we thought we knew. Pincus demonstrates that the founding document of the United States does not advocate for small government, but is instead a plea for a stronger, more activist government, much like the “energetic and participatory state” (pg. 6) that had emerged from the Glorious Revolution.

Pincus traces the origins of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution to those Whigs in England and North America known as Patriot Whigs, or simply Patriots, a political ideology that emerged in the 1730s in opposition to Prime Minister Robert Walpole. “The Patriots assumed that economic growth depended on the creative interplay between consumption and production.” (pg. 26) This required economic development in the colonies that included consumption of British goods, incentives for immigration, and global trade and commerce.

But this does not happen by itself. “The British Parliament, it turns out, spent far more heavily than the nation’s European rivals in the eighteenth century on developing social and economic infrastructure in its colonies, and in Scotland and Ireland. The British in the eighteenth century were unique in their commitment to energetic government.” (pg. 11) The Patriot Whigs also sought to lessen the inequality of wealth. Wrote one periodical of the period, “The wealth which is in the hands of the great and the few goes out for luxury and lessens the public stock.” (pg. 33) Accordingly, taxes should be progressive: “It is a scandal to any free government [that] whilst the poorer sort of people are obliged to pay heavy duties for all the necessaries and conveniences of life, the rich should not lay in proportion for indulging themselves in pride, vanity, and riot” argued another periodical (pgs. 33-4)

For much of the earlier part of the 18th century, the activist nature of the English government and its relationship to the colonies worked well. “Patriot essayists, poets, and politicians celebrated the imperial state, not only because it protected British liberties but also because its actions promoted British happiness.” (pg. 18)

In the 1760s, however, the system fell apart. The problems can be traced to the accession of King George III in 1760, the massive debt accumulated by the Seven Years’ War (which ended in 1763), and the Prime Ministership of George Grenville, who implemented a program of austerity that included extraction and increased taxation of the colonies rather than promoting trade and consumption. This resulted in disruptions that inhibited the growth of the colonial economy. “The famous Stamp Act levied on British Americans was only the final prong in a wide-ranging system.” (pg. 59)

But the opposition to Grenville’s austerity programs was not limited to North America. “On both sides of the Atlantic a wide variety of people, from politicians and wealthy merchants to humble laborers and farmers, reacted forcefully and often violently.” (pg. 73) The Patriots instead argued “that a dynamic colonial consumer market would generate far more revenue for the treasury both at present and in the future than extractive taxation” (pg. 83)

The economic hardship experienced by the North American colonies led to a civil war that became a revolution. The revolution needed funding, so a Declaration was drafted that declared the colonies a new nation. This was necessary to demonstrate to potential financiers that an economic infrastructure had been erected to pay back debts that might be incurred in this revolution.

The opening clauses of the Declaration of Independence are part of our national consciousness, and they remain as stirring now as when they were first drafted. However, the middle bulk of the Declaration is a list of grievances that is much less familiar to the modern mind. We figure that these grievances are particular to that time and place, which in a very real sense they are.

But Pincus reads these grievances in another way: “Instead of a local reaction against a distant oppressive regime, the Declaration of Independence needs to be understood as the ultimate statement of the eighteenth-century Patriot program in favor of a government that would aim to promote prosperity for the largest number of people.” (pg. 92) Indeed, the list of grievances against George III in the Declaration begins not with a complaint about laws but just the opposite: “He has refused his Assent to Laws… He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance… He has refused to pass other Laws…” and then ways in which George III has inhibited legislative bodies from meeting, as well as obstructing the functioning of the colonies in other various ways.

The Patriots didn’t want a whole new type of government. Nor did they reject British rule. “[T]hey wanted to fashion an American version of the Patriot state that had existed in Britain before the accession of George III.” (pg. 109)

In other words, the American Revolution occurred not because Britain was imposing too much government on the colonies, but the wrong type of strong government.

As John Adams wrote, “The form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons and in the greatest degree … is the best.” (pg. 134) But Adams recognized that this government needs financial support from its citizens, including (again in the words of John Adams) “taxes, heavy taxes for many years.” (pg. 135)

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pincus’s book is the discussion of how slavery fit into the Patriot Whig vision, and the reader of The Heart of the Declaration gets a real thrill discovering a solid core of early anti-slavery sentiment, prior to and encompassing the period of the drafting of the Declaration. However, this opposition to slavery was not necessarily based on moral principles (as we might imagine today), but was instead an implication of the needs of a consumer-based economy. “Patriots thought that slave societies tended to be ones in which wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few rich oligarchs who squeezed all the wealth they could through the exploitative harvesting of single crops like tobacco, rice, or sugar. Because of this extreme concentration of wealth, slave societies could never develop into broad-based consumer societies.” (pg. 123)

The original draft of the Declaration of Independence asserted an opposition to slavery in no uncertain terms. It blamed George III of having “waged war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” (pg. 131)

Alas, this clause, as we know, was eliminated from the final version of the Declaration to appease slaveholders, thus beginning a compromise with the uncompromisable that we’re still reeling from today.


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