Welfare Statism at the Heart of the American Revolution?

Steven Pincus’ The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government presents a radically new and bold neoliberal economic perspective on British and North American colonial politics in the era of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

This brief work—with three chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue in the space of 150 pages of text—offers the provocative thesis that the colonial Patriot movement and the meaning and intent of the Declaration of Independence were predominantly concerned with developmental economic issues, and that the Declaration gave birth to a political-economic debate that is highly relevant to the economic issues of today.

What Pincus argues about the Articles of Confederation is equally striking. He says the goal of the Articles, like that of the Declaration of Independence, was to create a powerful, centralized state that would foster public improvements, effectively raise public revenues through taxation, promote immigration, and encourage rapid economic development.

Pincus maintains, lastly, that the same domestic and imperial political-economic debates taking place in Britain and its colonies were also taking place in Spain and France, and in their respective empires.

As the Yale University historian well recognizes, almost everything asserted in this thin volume—most especially concerning the American colonies and the early American nation—challenges the received wisdom put forward by most other historians and commentators on this period. From those who aspire to great things, much is and should be expected.

Central to the book’s core teachings is that the Whigs, “the self-described party of the Revolution of 1688,” split in two in the 1720s and 1730s. Pincus calls the competing groups (which he says were found in Britain and throughout the British Empire) the “Establishment Whigs” and the “Patriot Whigs.” He further asserts that the discord between them was mainly over matters of political economy: how to finance the public debt and how best to develop Britain’s colonial possessions.

More particularly, the first Prime Minister of Britain, Robert Walpole (1676-1745) and his “Establishment Whig” followers believed that the “key to British imperial prosperity” lay in “maximizing labor productivity and producing goods at the lowest possible cost.” Walpole’s “Patriot Whig” opponents, however, held that “economic prosperity was created not through production alone, but by means of the dynamic interaction of human production and human consumption.” The essential contrast that Pincus sets is an  Establishment view emphasizing exploitation versus a Patriot view emphasizing development.

Near the end of the Seven Years’ War, with the accession in 1760 of George III, the division between the two came to a head, writes Pincus, as the king’s administration embraced “a new imperial program that sought to cut government spending and raise revenue from under-represented populations,” including in North America. Here, though, Pincus appears to overlook that many of the sought-after imperial reforms had been sought by crown officials well before the beginning of the war, and thus the war provided, if anything, a hiatus to the implementation of desired reforms, not their beginning.

Still less convincing is the author’s contention that previous Patriot administrations “had spent lavishly from the British treasury on promoting colonial development.” He seems unaware that this assertion had been aggressively rejected by the very colonial Patriots he lauds, and that the various colonial subsidies to which he might be referring in this connection were likely those given to encourage the production of particularly high-value commodities, rather than in pursuit of a well worked-out development strategy. In the same vein, he frequently charges that Prime Minister George Grenville “wanted to tax the colonies to pay down the British national debt.” But he puts forward these stale claims without convincing evidence to back them up, and without taking note that the North American colonists during these years continued to pay one schilling per subject, whereas the king’s metropolitan subjects paid 26 schillings per individual.

Even if Pincus is right to point out that a substantial disagreement existed in early 18th century Britain regarding how best to develop the colonies, it is not evident that “the British Patriots who swept to power [in Britain] in the summer of 1765,” the very same ones who foisted on the colonies the hated Declaratory Act of 1766, “sought to create a dynamic government that would reduce the nation’s debt by stimulating economic growth” through increasing the colonial population rather than through taxation. Again, not very much evidence is adduced to support these assertions.

Finally in regard to his politico-economic categories, Pincus fails to consider alternative ways of describing British (and colonial) factions, such as Whig versus Tory, Real versus Old Whig, Court versus Country, Republican versus liberal. Indeed, he not only ignores these existing historiographic divisions but in so doing fails to show why his are preferable, or how “Establishment Whig” versus “Patriot Whig” might overlap with the categories regularly found in the works of others. Most frustrating, though, is that he leaves the reader uncertain as how best to understand the Loyalists in Britain’s colonies. Are we, as one might assume, to think of them as Establishment Whigs who supported Prime Minister Frederick North’s putatively extractive economic policies—or in some other way? Concerning this critical question, Pincus provides the reader no guidance.

Along with historians like Bernard Bailyn, Pincus contends that colonial opposition thinkers were primarily shaped by ideological constructions. But unlike Bailyn, Pincus insists that the ideological stand-off between the colonies and Britain was a matter of disparate economic policy prescriptions and not, as is generally contended, political theories concerning contrasting views of governmental institutions and the political good. As he puts it, “The most important and hotly contested ideas in the 18th century Anglo-American political world were about how the economy functioned and what the proper role of the state was in making the economy.” But, in advancing this claim, Pincus ignores the existence, let alone relevance, of every other possibly contentious issue dividing the colonies and Britain, be it constitutional, historical (most particularly when or whether the colonies had become part of the British Realm rather than remaining part of the king’s private Dominions), political-theoretical, or even narrowly parochial.

Thus, according to Pincus, colonial and early American Patriots were singularly focused on supporting an aggressive economic development policy—so much so that politically active colonials ended up “in fact fighting on behalf of the [British] Patriot interpretation of the British constitution” and seemingly nothing else. Indeed, the colonists, according to Pincus, were not fighting in opposition to the centralizing power of Great Britain, as “countless commentators and politicians” have contended, but rather during the movement toward independence and in the Declaration of Independence, the colonists sought a “government that would aim to promote prosperity.”

But one wonders whether the author, in making this bold assertion, took into account such features of colonial history as the widespread hostility in most of the colonies to the first substantial effort (in 1754, at the Albany Congress) to create the outlines of a centralized state, or the opposition to a centralized state that continued well into the 19th century and the American Civil War. Making this, the heart of his argument, still less persuasive is once again the absence of compelling evidence—and the frequent repetition offered in its stead, in the middle of the book’s most critical third chapter.

Essential to Pincus’ bold thesis is showing that the authors of the Declaration, in the very document itself, advanced the aggressive economic development policies he associates with Patriot Whigs in Britain and the colonies. This, he contends, is readily demonstrable in three of the Declaration’s more than two dozen indictments against the actions of George III. They, he holds, support his view that the Declaration’s principal aim was to oppose Britain’s failure after 1760 to support state and economic development in the colonies. The mother country, that is, had: suppressed trade with Spanish America; refused to support immigration to America; and supported chattel slavery.

Although each of these three charges formed part of the colonists’ case against the king, one might want to ask whether they were in truth at the heart of the document’s argument for independence. Wasn’t it instead a constitutional argument regarding the colonists’ belief that Parliament’s jurisdiction over them was illegitimate (since, as they claimed, they were not part of the British Realm, over which Parliament governed, but instead part of the king’s Dominions) and that the king, therefore, was to be faulted for having “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation”?

If the foregoing was indeed at the center of the impasse between the North American colonists and Parliament, the author’s singularly narrow emphasis on differences between the colonies’ Patriots and the imperial administration over political-economic development strategies seems, at the very least, greatly exaggerated.

Of the three planks of the Declaration that Pincus advances as central to its defense of American independence, surely the least credible is that concerning chattel slavery, which he draws, oddly enough, from a section of the draft of the Committee of Five that was deleted from the final congressional document. More troubling still is that he seemingly doesn’t recognize that when it condemned the king for “exciting those very people to rise in arms among us” and, in the final document, condemned him for having “excited domestic Insurrections amongst us,” the Declaration was referring to Virginia’s chattel slaves who had been freed by a November 17, 1775 proclamation of Virginia’s colonial governor, Lord Dunmore—and freed in order to fight against the rebellious colonists. This was not, as Pincus wrongly assumes, a reference to America’s indigenous peoples.

Moreover, Patriot Whigs, in his telling—in case one might imagine them to be British Commonwealth men or some variant of classical republican—weren’t economic reactionaries wishing to avoid the destructive effects of modern luxury and commerce on personal and political virtue, but instead “on both sides of the Atlantic” they “embraced commercial society, the Bank of England, the manufacturing sector, and well-designed trading companies.” Accordingly, the men who wrote the Declaration understood, says Pincus, that “the state needed to provide subsidies to develop key industries and products. They wanted the state to provide the infrastructure to make communications easier and commerce more profitable” while also wanting the government “to subsidize immigration.”

These elements are hard to discern, however, in the Declaration of Independence.

It is not only in the Declaration that he contends such views are found, but also, as mentioned, in the Articles of Confederation, which have not heretofore been viewed as defending a commitment to a powerful centralized state that would advance a policy of aggressive, state-led economic development. The members of the Second Continental Congress, according to Pincus, were determined with the Articles to “create a powerful government.” If this were true, why was a centralizing nationalist like Alexander Hamilton in such a hurry to rid the young country of the Articles and to replace them with a nationalist frame of government that might accomplish all that the Articles, he believed, had been unable to do?

In regard to this book’s account of the Articles, a number of claims stand out as questionable, but one in particular deserves notice: the assertion that “despite the best efforts” of people such as Thomas Burke, a North Carolinian representative to the Continental Congress, the Congress “signed off on a document that granted new and significant powers to the central government.” In support of this, Pincus says that it is “clear that Burke’s commitment to a decentralized state was not in fact typical.” If so, why was “Burke’s amendment” agreed to by 11 states, against one supporting the original, centralizing vision of Pennsylvanian John Dickinson’s draft?

Let us move, finally to the comparative component. Pincus finds that at the end of the Seven Years’ War, not only was Britain saddled with an enormous sovereign debt, in excess of 120 million pounds, but that the same was true of both France and Spain. The similarities were so great that when the Grenville administration sought to “lower the debt by cutting spending and extracting revenue from the colonies by a combination of administrative reforms and new legislation,” the same was taking place in the empires of France and Spain and, in all three empires, these policies “spawned popular anger” like the opposition to the Stamp Act duties that “shook Europe’s great imperial powers throughout the 1760s.”

Not only were there, in the author’s estimation, comparable challenges in the three empires in managing the debt built up in fighting the Seven Years’ War, but in France and Spain a similar political-economic division existed to that in Britain between Establishment and Patriot Whigs, so that in each country, the opposing sides debated how best to develop their colonial empire: either through austerity and fiscal probity or by encouraging, above all, colonial consumption.

Of course, this is a debate that should remind one of contemporary Europe, something not lost on Pincus. Recognition of the likely comparative nature of this debate is instructive, but one wonders, as with Britain and her North American colonies, whether these debates could have been so dominant as to displace in importance all other contested public issues, including political, constitutional, religious, and factional ones. Establishing these claims about Britain and the Continental countries, which might be considered preparatory to his central theses concerning the North American British colonies, could have served as the starting point of a seminal work. They are not, however, convincingly established, at least to the non-expert in Continental history. I leave it to experts in that field to assess the accuracy and innovative character of these (once again) thinly supported claims.

Certainly it can be said that regarding British North American colonial opposition and early national American political aspirations, the author’s competence seems stretched and his command of the materials wanting. As far at this reviewer can tell, nothing among the book’s extraordinary and interconnected theses appears wholly credible.

Finally, one might imagine that this book is merely prefatory to one or more works concerning the political-economic debates at the end of the Seven Years’ War in Britain and its colonies, and corresponding debates in Spain and France and their colonies. Possibly, then, one shouldn’t judge it harshly for not more conclusively advancing its arguments. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing in The Heart of the Declaration to suggest that it is a prolegomenon to one or more substantial volumes to follow.