Steven Pincus is Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (Yale University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Heart of the Declaration?
SP: For about a decade I have been working on a book on the British Empire, from the middle of the seventeenth century through the 1780s. That book, which has grown to be a monster, tries to explain why the British Empire emerged, developed and was fundamentally transformed in the second half of the eighteenth century. While the book has much to say about British America, it also discusses developments in England, Scotland, Ireland, Tangier, the West Indies, South Asia and Africa.
A few years ago I was invited by Doug Bradburn to give a talk on a conference at Mount Vernon exploring Anglo-American cooperation. In preparing that talk I set myself the task of reading through the correspondence and papers of George Washington. What struck me then was how much George Washington seemed like a partisan in British imperial debates — that is I was struck by how much his arguments seemed like those I had been encountering when working on other bits of the Empire. The paper I presented invited a good deal of discussion. Several people then suggested I should I write a short book setting out the implications of my arguments about the nature of British imperial debate for the American Revolution. The result is The Heart of the Declaration.
In historiographical terms, this meant explaining how a post-Namierite interpretation of British history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would alter our understanding of the coming of the American Revolution.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Heart of the Declaration?
SP: In my view the framers of the Declaration of Independence argued, along with most Patriot Whigs across the British Empire, not that the British state did too much, but that it did too little to promote the prosperity and development (the happiness) of the British colonists. Patriots wanted to create am activist government that would promote economic development by building infrastructure, subsidizing immigration, prying open Caribbean and South American markets, and eliminate the slave trade.
JF: Why do we need to read The Heart of the Declaration?
SP: Because it offers a fresh ideological interpretation of the American Revolution laying stress on political economic debates across the empire. In essence it suggests that divisions in North America that have become familiar in recent scholarship had their partisan counterparts in Britain itself and right across the Empire. By recognizing that the American Revolution was less an anti-colonial struggle than an imperial civil war, it becomes possible to reinterpret the meaning of America’s founding document.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SP: I am not an American historian. I am a historian of the British Empire in its political, social, economic, intellectual and cultural aspects. Because I come from that perspective I hope to be able to revisit some old and very important questions from a new angle.
I became a British historian in the first instance because I have always been interested in the origins of the modern world — recognizing that modernity has both its achievements and its very dark sides. Since Britain was the first Parliamentary democracy, the first industrial nation, created a new kind of empire in the 17th and 18th centuries, and also spawned some of the most creative thinkers, I thought that was a good place to start.
JF: What is your next project?
SP: I am engaged in a bunch of projects at the moment. First, I am still hard at work on the book on the British Empire from which this book is a spin off. Second, I am working (with Jim Robinson of the University of Chicago) on a book project investigate the role of the state in the making of the industrial revolution, and I am also working on a book on the American Revolution in global context.
JF: Thanks, Steven!