J. G. A. Pocock (1924–2023)

The death of J. G. A. Pocock on 12 December 2023, three months shy of his 100th birthday, deprived the world of one of its most fertile and creative historians of political thought. It also bereaved the Folger Institute’s Center for the History of British Political Thought of a founder and its guiding spirit over almost forty years.

John Pocock was born a subject of the king-emperor George V in London in 1924. At the age of three, he moved with his family to New Zealand when his father took up the chair in classics at Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury). The move from one set of islands, off the northwestern coast of Eurasia, to another, in the southwestern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, expanded Pocock’s historical imagination and shaped his global vision for the rest of his life. Like many anglophone settlers of his generation, Pocock saw Britain as home and, along with many academically ambitious antipodeans, he returned ‘home’ for his higher degrees: first a master’s in education, supervised by the father of fellow historian of political thought Richard Tuck, and then the Cambridge doctoral thesis under Herbert Butterfield that became Pocock’s masterpiece, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957). After a junior research fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge, he returned to New Zealand to teach history at Canterbury and political science at the University of Otago until the University of Washington in St Louis recruited him in 1966. Pocock would remain in the United States for the rest of his distinguished career, the bulk of it spent in the History Department at the Johns Hopkins University from which he retired, as Harry C. Black Professor emeritus, in 1994. He passed away peacefully in Baltimore, his home city since 1974, surrounded by his family.

Three overarching themes inform Pocock’s extensive body of historical scholarship: historical thought as a mode of political thinking; the civic, or republican, tradition as a bridge between pre-modernity and modernity; and British history as a global narrative of sovereignty, settlement and self-reflexivity. His major works, from The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law to his crowning six-volume study of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Barbarism and Religion (1999–2015), completed at the age of 91, were studies of historical thinking in its multiple national, regional and cosmopolitan contexts. The history of historiography was the scarlet thread running through his work and many of his studies of strictly political thought sprang from this primary commitment, for example his germinal treatments of Hobbes’s eschatology, of Harrington’s account of property and of Burke’s political economy. Thinking in, and with, time was also the central theme of his pivotal opus, The Machiavellian Moment (1975), a demanding reflection on the durability of polities in secular time from the Aristotelian polis to the American republic under Richard Nixon. And the reconstruction of history around shifting identities over time was both the subject and the goal of the plea Pocock first made in 1973 for a ‘New British History’, attentive to its multinational matrix in the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ and its global dispersion throughout the common law settler world and beyond.

The Center for the History of British Political Thought at the Folger Library institutionalized the study of what Pocock called ‘the unending pursuit of contexts and texts to place in them’ from the late Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Pocock inaugurated it along with his fellow founders, Gordon J. Schochet and Lois G. Schwoerer, in 1984. Over the first two decades of the Center’s existence, Pocock, alone or in tandem with other members of the Center’s Steering Committee and an array of outside visitors, ran a series of probing seminars that mapped British political thought in its English, Scottish, Irish, archipelagic and Atlantic contexts. This enterprise produced a series of field-shaping collective volumes from the Folger Institute and later from Cambridge University Press that spread the fruits of intense discussions at the Folger to an increasingly globalized community of historians of British political thought. Those lucky enough to have attended the Center’s seminars or its many parallel workshops and conferences will always recall Pocock’s magisterial, and often oracular, presence and the insights and provocations that set off innumerable research projects. The Center recreated British political thought as a field of study and, in so doing, fashioned a worldwide community of practitioners indebted to Pocock’s uniquely generous vision of historical inquiry.

Beyond the Center and the Folger, Pocock’s legacy resonates in his emphasis on the languages of political thought—juridical, historical, ecclesiastical among others; in his deprovincialization of English and British political thought in their European, Atlantic and global extensions; in his recalibration of James Harrington’s significance in the histories of Country ideology, ‘neo-Machiavellian’ political economy and the Atlantic republican tradition; in his elaborate stratigraphy of Gibbon’s historiography; and in his irreversible reframing of British history as a planetary story of competing sovereignties and identities: archipelagic, national and Indigenous. Perhaps less well known to those who encountered him only through his published works were Pocock’s other enduring passions: for colonial and imperial poetry; for the works of J. R. R. Tolkien; and for a century of cinema, possibly the only deep indulgence in modernity Pocock allowed himself. To speak with him was always to be awed—by his erudition, his eloquence and his originality—-and often to be overawed by his flattering assumption that you knew, say, every detail of Gibbon’s Islamic sources as well as he did. To hear Pocock lecture was to listen to a voice from another age, inflected (as he sometimes noted) with the inherited accents of Jersey and South Africa as well as those of New Zealand and post-War Cambridge. And to receive from him a letter or fax, written like his books in longhand with a fountain pen, was to connect with a pre-Internet era of intellectual exchange that has effectively passed into history with him. Above all, to revisit Pocock’s lapidary essays and immersive books is to encounter a master mind, the mighty equal of those historical thinkers from Machiavelli to Gibbon he met on their own terms. For as long as there are historians of political thought and, especially, histories of historical thinking, John Pocock’s commanding oeuvre will endure.

On behalf of the Steering Committee, Center for the History of British Political Thought

J. G. A. Pocock: Major Publications

The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (1957, reissued with a retrospect, 1987)

[[Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History[[ (Chicago, 1972)

The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975)

(ed.) The Political Works of James Harrington (Cambridge, 1977)

(ed.) Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton, 1980)

Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1985)

(ed.) Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France (Hackett, 1987) editor

(co-ed.) The Varieties of British Political Thought 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1993)

Barbarism and Religion, 6 vols. (Cambridge, 1999–2015)

The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (Cambridge, 2005)

Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge, 2009)