A Conversation with Steven Pincus

Steven Pincus

Steven Pincus is the Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University, and co-director of the Center for Historical Enquiry and the Social Sciences at Yale. He is the author of Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy, 1650-1668, England's Glorious Revolution 1688-89, and 1688: The First Modern Revolution. His newest book, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders' Case for an Activist Government, will be published by Yale University Press this fall. Pincus talked to Emily Sneff about the inspiration for his new book, the global context of the Declaration of Independence, and common misconceptions about the Declaration.

What motivated Yale Professor Steven Pincus to write a book on the Declaration of Independence? Three years ago, he tasked himself with reading the entirety of the papers of a Founding Father we don't typically associate with the Declaration: George Washington. Pincus expected to see someone largely familiar, but the more he read, the more of Washington he saw. The general's correspondence with John Hancock about the Declaration of Independence was particularly revelatory.  Pincus asserts that "He saw the Declaration as a defense of the British Constitution. This guy is facing the British Army disembarking on Staten Island, and he sees himself as defending the British Constitution."

Washington's Copy of Dunlap BroadsideOn July 6th, John Hancock wrote to Washington, enclosing a printed copy of the newly approved Declaration of Independence (a Dunlap broadside, believed to be the fragmentary copy shown here). Washington followed Hancock's orders and had the Declaration read at the head of the Continental Army in New York on July 9th. The following day, July 10th, he responded to Hancock and the Continental Congress:

"I perceive that Congress have been employed in deliberating on measures of the most Interesting nature. It is certain that It is not with us to determine in many Instances what consequences will flow from our Counsels, but yet it behoves us to adopt such, as under the smiles of a Gracious & All kind Providence will be most likely to promote our happiness; I trust the late decisive part they have taken is calculated for that end, and will secure us that freedom and those privileges which have been and are refused us, contrary to the voice of nature and the British Constitution. Agreable to the request of Congress I caused the Declaration to be proclaimed before all the Army under my Immediate command and have the pleasure to inform them that the measure seemed to have their most hearty assent, The expressions and behavior both of Officers and men testifying their warmest approbation of It."

As Pincus explains, "People writing about the Declaration forget that at least until 1774, and probably until April 1775, almost everyone in British North America, with the possible exception of Sam Adams, thought of themselves as British Americans." Most British Americans identified with the laws and freedoms presented in Magna Carta and established by the Revolution Principles of 1688-89, and believed the King and his agents in America were no longer upholding these foundational principles. For evidence, look no further than the second half of the second sentence of the Declaration: "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." Pincus, therefore, sees the Declaration of Independence as "a constitutional manifesto for progressive political reform."

The Colonies ReducedPincus maintains that the American Revolution was a major turning point in not just British or American history but global history, because it was a response to the huge debt crisis that had overtaken the European empires. The patriots and their opponents had differing opinions on how best to respond to a debt crisis. One side wanted to stimulate economic growth "in the most dynamic part of the empire, and that was the American colonies." The other side argued for pursuing austerity measures and shifting the tax burden away from the English and onto those who couldn't vote (the American colonists, for example). The various acts passed in the 1760s and 1770s demonstrate which side won out in this fight between austerity measures and stimulus measures. The Sugar Act (1764) and Stamp Act (1765) taxed the colonies in order to raise revenue, and the first of the Townshend Acts was even called the Revenue Act (1767). Instead of stimulating economic growth in the American colonies, the colonists refused to purchase or even to import British goods because of the taxes imposed upon them. As Pincus explains, "The 1770s saw the first time austerity measures pursued in response to a debt crisis generated revolution, but it wasn't going to be the last time." 

The debate over whether to tackle debt crises through austerity measures or stimulus measures is still relevant. "The context of the Declaration is not too dissimilar to today's context," Pincus notes. "Patriots very much took the side of stimulus, and two key issues for them were immigration and free trade." The British government had heavily subsidized immigration to North America. The colony of Georgia was even set up specifically so that Parliament could subsidize immigration of tens of thousands of people -- including Scottish Highlanders, Italians, Germans, and the poor of England -- to come to America. As Pincus explains, "All of that comes to a grinding halt in 1763, and throughout the 1760s and 1770s the British government tries desperately to stop immigration into North America." The patriots argued that immigrants provided skills and were good consumers, which would drive the economy. Those against immigration argued that these individuals were polluting culture and providing competition that took jobs away from other people. "That strikes me as an interesting parallel to today's debates", says Pincus.

There is a misconception that the Declaration of Independence is just about local issues. According to Pincus, "It's certainly about local issues and ways in which the British Empire had made life intolerable for people in British North America. But what strikes me is that many North Americans saw themselves suffering in the same way as other people in the British Empire." The Declaration was part of a pan-imperial movement toward reform, something Pincus realized when teaching an undergraduate course on the origins of the British Empire. He says, "The first time I taught the course, we ended with a reading of the Declaration, and I thought, wow, this fits in so perfectly with debates that were tearing apart the British Empire." He points to Scots-Irish immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies who recognized policies in British North America as typical of the myopic policies the empire had pursued in Ireland in the 1760s-1770s, and Boston newspapers reminding readers after the Boston Port Act of the similarities to what had happened to Edinburgh in the 1730s. Even Thomas Paine recognized that local issues could be mapped onto pan-imperial issues: in March 1775, nine months before Common Sense, he commented on British treatment of Bengalis in "Reflections on the Life and Death of Lord Clive," published in the Pennsylvania Magazine. A sample: "The wretched inhabitants are glad to compound for offense never committed, and to purchase at any rate the privilege to breathe..." 

Another global issue is addressed in the Declaration of Independence: slavery. "Obviously Jefferson intended to have an explicitly anti-slavery clause in the Declaration, though I think there's also a more subtle one", suggests Pincus. He is referring to the first in the list of grievances: "He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good." Pincus says, "It's an extremely important clause, and we can only understand it by understanding the historical context". Many of the colonies (not just the Thirteen, but also the West Indies) had passed either prohibitive duties with the intention of eliminating slavery, or absolute prohibitions on the slave trade, or restrictions that would essentially only allow people to own domestic slaves.

Title Page for Summary View of the Rights of British America

The initial tracing of these laws was done by W.E.B. DuBois in his Harvard doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. "What DuBois didn't see," Pincus explains, "was this pan-imperial notion." He cites Jamaica, where the local assembly limited the number of slaves you could own to two, meaning no sugar plantations. Laws such as this would have had a tremendous impact on the slave trade, but were routinely vetoed by the Board of Trade, the Secretary of State, and King George III. According to Pincus, "That clause [in the Declaration] is clearly in my mind a reference to the slave duties, and I think it also echoes language in some other writings of Thomas Jefferson about George III having veto power." See this passage on the slave trade from Jefferson's Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774):

"For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty's negative... Nay, the single interposition of an interested individual against a law was scarcely ever known to fail of success, though in the opposite scale were place the interests of a whole country. That this is so shameful an abuse of a power trusted with his majesty for other purposes, as if not reformed, would call for some legal restrictions."


Patriots weren't confined to British North America, and the notions behind the Declaration of Independence didn't originate in that document. The Declaration was part of a movement that had been developing on both sides of the Atlantic for the better part of the 18th century. "One should highlight and focus obviously on the Committee of Five that generated the Declaration," Pincus says, "but it's a document that could have been written by a whole range of people on both sides of the Atlantic." Pincus' wider, global context for the Declaration of Independence helps us to better understand not just the document, but the American Revolution as a whole. He explains that "Independence was not the aim; imperial reform was the aim. It's the disappointment and failure of imperial reform that led to the Declaration." In Pincus' view, this frustration, and the questions raised about sovereignty and the role of government in the process of declaring independence, are truly at the heart of the Declaration.

The Heart of the Declaration