One of the greatest intellectual historians of the post-war area, J.G.A. Pocock, died this week at the age of 99. During graduate school I devoured Pocock’s work. His commitment to reading texts in their historical contexts continues to shape me as a history professor and historian. One can find echoes of Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and others of The Cambridge School in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Pocock’s critique of the “liberal” nature of the American founding (along with the work of Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood) was convincing as I began to teach the American Revolution and think more deeply about citizenship.
Here is historian Colin Kidd’s tribute to Pocock:
John Pocock, who has died at the age of ninety-nine only a little short of his hundredth birthday, was a giant of the historical profession. Growing up in New Zealand, embarking on research in Britain and spending most of his career in the United States, Pocock made major contributions to the historiography of each of these disparate places, and was a genuinely global historian. Moreover, while many distinguished historians owe their distinction to transformative work in a single field, Pocock transformed several different areas of study.
Along with his friend Quentin Skinner, he forged a contextualist revolution in the history of political thought. Pocock’s particular emphasis was on the recovery of past worlds of discourse; ‘discourse’ indeed suggesting something less static than ‘thought’. Pocock’s doctoral thesis – supervised by Herbert Butterfield – fell not in political thought as such, but within one of Butterfield’s favoured subjects, the history of historiography. The book which emerged from the thesis The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law reconstituted the historical debates of the seventeenth century, between common law antiquaries who championed an immemorial constitution and opponents who constructed an English thèse royale from careful feudalist scholarship. The work had huge implications for legal history, helped to clear away misconceptions about the ideological background to the Glorious Revolution, and established historical and antiquarian treatises as crucial modes of early modern political argument. Pocock broke down disciplinary barriers between the history of political thought and the history of historiography: historiography often provided both the mode and matter of early modern political debate.
However, these achievements far from exhaust Pocock’s original, field-shaping scholarship. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, Pocock is best known for inaugurating the ‘new British history’. Pocock’s various interventions in the history and historiography of what he termed – as neutrally as possible – the ‘Atlantic archipelago’, showed that there was a history of interactions to be told, between England and its ‘provinces’ and among the peripheral territories of ‘these islands’. Pocock exercised particular influence on the emerging revisionist school of historians which recast the English Civil War as the War of the Three Kingdoms. In America, however, Pocock was best known for The Machiavellian Moment, one of three books – alongside Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic – which decisively overturned the prevailing assumption that America’s founders were Lockean liberals. Bailyn, Wood and Pocock reshaped American historiography by reinserting classical republican themes at the heart of the nation’s founding; their work also informed political scientists and brought about a classical republican turn among constitutional jurists in the law schools.
Read the rest here.
Historians, scholars, and other intellectuals are weighing in on Twitter:
Rest in peace.