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q u e n t i n s k i n n e r , f b a , is the Regius Professor of Modern History at
the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ™s College,
Cambridge. Among his publications are The Foundations of Modern
Political Thought, 2 volumes (1978), Reason and Rhetoric in the
Philosophy of Hobbes (1996) and Visions of Politics, 3 volumes (2002).
j o a n n e h . w r i g h t is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the
University of New Brunswick. She is the author of Origin Stories in
Political Thought: Discourses on Gender, Power and Citizenship (2004).
She is now working on a study of John Locke™s midwifery notes.
s t e v e n n . z w i c k e r is Stanley Elkin Professor in the Humanities at
Washington University. Among his publications are Lines of Authority:
Politics and English Literary Culture, 1649“1689 (1993), Reading, Society
and Politics in Early Modern England (co-editor, 2003) and The
Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (editor, 2004).
Introduction
David Armitage




The field of research and teaching known as the history of British
political thought has been one of the most fertile areas in anglophone
historical scholarship of the last half-century. Its practitioners can be
found in universities across the English-speaking world and increasingly
beyond it as well. Their writings have provided prescriptions of method
as well as models of practice for students of political thought working
in other languages and on other political traditions, even those which
were founded on different philosophical principles and which have
developed along quite distinct historical trajectories.1 Over the past
fifty years, students of British political thought have mapped its contours
from the late fifteenth century to the early nineteenth century.2 In this
enterprise, the term ˜British™ has been construed ever more broadly,
to encompass the political reflections of any of the inhabitants of Britain
and Ireland, of the migrants who left those islands, and of their
descendants who settled around the globe. The history of British political
thought is therefore becoming an enterprise almost as expansive in its
subject-matter as it has been in its international impact.
For the last twenty years, the study of this history has been associated
particularly with the Center for the History of British Political Thought
at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The Center was
founded by J. G. A. Pocock and Gordon Schochet in 1985. In that year,
Pocock laid out a vision for its work in a manifesto that was generous
geographically, generically and methodologically: ˜The ˜˜great texts™™ of
English, Scottish, and American political thought are secure in their
places within our program, but at the same time the ˜˜history of polit-
ical thought™™ we seek is a history of language, literature, publication,
1 2
Castiglione and Hampsher-Monk 2001. Pocock, Schochet and Schwoerer 1993.

1
2 david armitage
and audience. It embraces the ephemeral tracts and pamphlets as well
as the great texts.™3 Since 1985, the Center has pursued this vision through
over thirty seminars and conferences out of which more than fifteen
books as well as numerous articles and essays have emerged.4
The Center™s twentieth anniversary in 2005 offered an occasion to
review the field™s achievements and its prospects from the perspective of
the three disciplines where its work has so far had its greatest uptake:
history, English literature and political theory. The chapters in this
volume arose from that occasion but all aim to transcend a specific
moment to reflect more broadly on the disciplinary dialogues that
have so far shaped the history of British political thought and that will
continue to inform it in future.
The last two decades have witnessed changes in the arguments within
academic fields as great as the shifts in the relations among them. For
example, at the moment of the Center™s founding, the ˜linguistic turn™
was still a relatively novel (and, for some, anxiety-provoking) move for
historians to undertake.5 Twenty years later, most historians, especially
those who term their interests cultural, social or intellectual history,
have absorbed its lessons and can wield its tools without undue anxiety in
their search for the meanings of past utterances, acts and events. Similarly,
literary scholars who were taking up embattled positions during the
so-called ˜Theory Wars™ of the mid-1980s have now moved on to
calmer debates in a period self-consciously described as ˜after Theory™.6
The so-called ˜New™ Historicism is no longer quite so new and has
become a familiar resource for scholars across a wide range of literatures.7
Moreover, in the same period, the social sciences have become more
hospitable to interpretive and hermeneutic approaches which com-
plement, but more often counter, positivist models of research.8
Historians have thus become more alert to questions of language and
meaning at a time when scholars of literature have been more eager
to write historically and when at least some social scientists have returned
to history and to hermeneutics. Such a moment of convergences across

3
Pocock 1985a, p. 284.
4
Schochet, Tatspaugh and Brobeck 1990À93; Peck 1991; Schwoerer 1992; Pocock, Schochet
and Schwoerer 1993; Mason 1994a; Robertson 1995a; Burgess 1996; Smith 1998a; Morgan 1999a;
Connolly 2000; Ohlmeyer 2000; Mendle 2001.
5
Jay 1982; Toews 1987; Pagden 1987b.
6
Kastan 1999.
7
Gallagher and Greenblatt 2000.
8
Skinner 1985; Winch 1990; Scott and Keates 2001.
Introduction 3
disciplinary boundaries bodes well for the future of collaborative work
in interdisciplinary fields such as the history of British political thought.
Many of the individual chapters in the volume engage directly with
these broad disciplinary developments; taken together, they offer an
array of models and methods for the future history of British political
thought. Though they are collected in sections that acknowledge
the primary disciplinary affiliations of their authors, they all address
matters of common concern to students of British political thought.
As J. G. A. Pocock, Gordon Schochet and Lois Schwoerer point out in
their opening overview, the history of British political thought as it has
been practised at the Folger Center and elsewhere arose originally from
the concerns of historians but over the past half-century it has been
in constant (if not always mutually comprehending) conversation with
political theory and it has drawn increasingly on the methods of literary
scholarship. It has done so within a broad but bounded chronology
running from the decades before the Reformation to the generations
after the French Revolution. That both these sets of events were pan-
European in scope indicates the ample geography within which the field
has developed. A series of exploratory workshops held at the Center
in recent years on the networks of political exchange between Britain
and Ireland on the one hand and continental Europe on the other has
traced that geography; future efforts in this direction may expand the
geography yet further. Studies will soon appear of British political
thought in predominantly non-anglophone areas (such as South Asia).9
Students of British political thought are thus testing the manifold pos-
sibilities for globalizing their subject, just as other intellectual historians
are beginning to do.10
For the moment, though, historians of British political thought con-
tinue to pursue their work mostly within the lines set by the histo-
riographies of early-modern Britain and Ireland. The four chapters by
John Morrill, Colin Kidd, Nicholas Canny and Tim Harris each test
the limits of historiographical models for understanding the thought
and actions of historical agents, especially those in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. Morrill™s survey of recent developments in what
was once called the ˜New™ British history offers an array of possible

9
For example, Travers forthcoming.
10
Bayly 2004, chs. 3, 6, 8; compare Schneewind 2005; Megill 2005; Armitage 2006; and Ivison, in
this volume.
4 david armitage
approaches, most of which he sees as ˜reproduc[ing] distinctive frame-
works of reference that can be found in the history itself™, such as those
he terms ˜incorporative™, ˜federal™ and ˜perfect™, according to the differing
conceptions of political union debated during the seventeenth century.
If Morrill is somewhat sceptical about much of the history that has
been written within such frameworks, Colin Kidd has another solution
to offer from within the period itself. He avoids the twin dangers
of retrospection and teleology by focusing on what contemporaries
themselves would have described as British political thought: that is,
the so-called ˜matter of Britain™, ˜a distinctive and long-running genre
of political argument which debated the location of authority within
the island of Britain, or sometimes the British Isles™. Kidd argues that
attention to the matter of Britain demands interdisciplinary work but
not necessarily the kind that arises when current disciplines adopt one
another™s questions and procedures. Serious students of early-modern
conceptions of the matter of Britain may need to be equipped with
a working knowledge of ecclesiology, feudal jurisprudence and heraldry
but will be ill-furnished if they borrow tools too readily from toilers in
other fields such as political theory.
The place of Ireland and Scotland within the matter of Britain was as
vexed a question for contemporaries as it has proved to be for those who
study their history. Nicholas Canny™s chapter makes this point especially
clearly. If British political thought is taken as the norm, political think-
ing conducted within (and about) Ireland comes to seem increasingly
anomalous between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries:
in the earlier period, ˜political discourse in Ireland . . . was but a provincial
echo of political culture in Britain™ but ˜that which flourished there
a century later was radically different from British norms both in form
and in ambition™. However, if placed in the broader context of pan-
European political and religious thought, the course of Irish political
thinking becomes more comprehensible, not least because Irish political
actors were consciously engaged in cosmopolitan conversations that
were not confined to Britain and Ireland alone.
As the example of Ireland shows, historians of political thought
must accommodate the scope of their inquiries to the scale at which their
subjects conducted their arguments, whether that was local, regional,
national or transnational. This question of scale is also the problem
Tim Harris confronts in his chapter through an examination of political
thinking in Britain and Ireland between the Exclusion Crisis of the late
1670s and the immediate aftermath of the Glorious Revolution in the
Introduction 5
early 1690s. Like Kidd, he argues that the questions asked of the past
largely determine the answers that come back in return. The ˜Britannic
turn™ in early-modern historiography will only provide adequate answers
to questions contemporaries themselves viewed in the terms of the Three
Kingdoms of Britain and Ireland; such a perspective can reveal patterns
otherwise hidden to historians who frame their inquiries nationally
but, equally, in many cases the national scale may be a more appro-
priate level at which to work. ˜Depending on the questions we ask,™
Harris concludes, ˜sometimes the Three-Kingdoms perspective is going to
come into sharp focus, at other times the national (or local, or conti-
nental) will.™
Scholars of early-modern literature have not confronted such
matters of the appropriate geographical scale for their research, at least
until recently.11 For many purposes, they have not needed to, because
nationally-defined canons of literature have been investigated and
interpreted within frameworks of genre, trope, technique and form that
have rarely been circumscribed by specific national contexts. Andrew
Hadfield™s study of republicanism in early-modern English (meaning
˜English-language™) literature illustrates this point well. He firmly
reminds those historians and political theorists who have been interested
in recovering the heritage of republicanism that, for most English writers
of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, republicanism was neither
an autonomous political language nor a practical political programme
but rather ˜a literary phenomenon . . . because it consisted of a series of
stories™, such as the rape of Lucretia, the assassination of Julius Caesar
and the rise of Augustus.
All these republican narratives found their way into the work of
William Shakespeare, of course, but that does not mean that we should
therefore deem him a ˜republican writer™. As Jean Howard shows in
her chapter, the dramas which made up the bulk of Shakespeare™s oeuvre
did not ˜elaborate a consistent political position™. Indeed, the very fact
that many of the techniques of early-modern English drama used
dramaturgical principles inherited from the morality plays and were
also closely akin to the widely-shared Renaissance rhetorical procedure
of arguing in utramque partem (on both sides of a question) meant that
Shakespeare™s plays could only be vehicles for testing political thinking
through what Howard calls ˜embodied representation™. Embodying ideas

11
E.g., Baker and Maley 2002.
6 david armitage
in this way could also have radical implications, as when persons who
may generally have lacked political agency within their own society
were represented on stage as taking political initiatives, as in The First
Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI). However, such representations
do not allow us to call Shakespeare a ˜democratic™ writer, any more than
Henry V made him an aggressive monarchist, for example.
Historians who study British political thought may also need to be
reminded that texts not usually canonized as literary may nonetheless
deploy literary techniques. That is the central message of Steven Zwicker™s
chapter on the overlapping literary strategies of irony, disguise and
deceit found in a wide array of texts including the pungent histories
of Tacitus, the elusive poetry of Dryden and the comic drama of
Congreve. He argues that historians, interested as they mostly are in
discursive and argumentative works, have tended to study the ˜horizontal
dimension™ at the expense of the ˜vertical dimension of political lan-
guages, their performance at specific moments and under particular
strain™. One might restate this by saying that historians of all kinds, and
not just historians of political thought, are generally more concerned with
the diachronic than with the synchronic dimensions of their subjects.
Zwicker argues that greater patience with the seeming instability of
literary language and genre can reveal that vertical, synchronic, dimension
usually hidden to history.
Conversely, it might seem, Karen O™Brien argues in her study of ideas
of imperial liberty and benevolence in the poetry of the long eighteenth
century, the diachronic study of literary texts (particularly poetry) may
itself uncover not just forms of political thinking but even novel political
thoughts that conventional materials of historical research do not contain.
She proposes that such ideas emerged from an ˜inter-generic conversation™
in which poets sometimes took the lead. In particular, she shows that
conceptions of imperial trusteeship and benevolence, especially as
directed towards indigenous peoples around the globe, can be found
earlier in the poetry than in the formal prose or much of the political
practice of the period. In light of this, historians may need to follow her
advice to seek new archives (such as those comprising poetry), while also
heeding Zwicker™s counsel to be more aware of À and even to revel
in À the very literariness of the materials that make up the richest of
those archives.
As we have seen, the diachronic and the synchronic dimensions
of political thinking have parallels in differing geographical scales
(local or national, national or transnational) on which the history
Introduction 7
of British political thought might be conducted. At the risk of inducing
intellectual vertigo, we might add to these intersecting dimensions those
of political thought as past action and political theory as a present
resource. Here we enter the domain of our third and last suite of chapters,
those by students of political theory. Duncan Ivison™s experiment in
globalizing the history of political thought picks up where Karen

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