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Reflections on Political Literature: History,
Theory and the Printed Book
Kirstie M. McClure


Over the last four decades, historians, political theorists and literary
scholars have substantially, if gradually, shifted attention away from
histories of ideas understood as a sequence of great texts by great men
and literary histories concerned principally with the life and works
of noted authors of drama, poetry and fiction. Scholars of political
thought today À historians and theorists alike À are more likely to speak
of political languages or ideologies, discourses or traditions, contingently
situated in time and place. The energies of literary studies, too, have
been similarly extended to the political or ideological dimensions
of literary works, often informed by one or another variant of ˜new
historicism™, inflected by various forms of critical theory, or indebted
to sundry perspectives in the philosophy of language.
In this chapter I want to raise the question of the relation between
these various developments and recent perspectives on the history and
historiography of the printed book. If, as many now argue, the history
of ˜political thought™ is a matter of distinctive languages or discourses,
the material vehicles of such thought remain the various forms and
genres of print culture. To note this is to suggest that, despite the often
exemplary work that has been done in shifting the object of histo-
riographical inquiry away from ˜unit-ideas™ or ˜the work itself™ as a self-
sufficient whole, this focus on the emergence and persistence of such
languages tends to a level of ideological generality removed from the
welter of polemical struggles at the ˜ground level™, so to speak, between
writers and readers at particular moments of intense political engage-
ment. The political languages at issue, however, are neither self-enclosed
nor self-limiting. As Anthony Pagden has noted, writers might ˜employ
the idiom or vocabularies of one language while speaking predominantly
in another™, as well as ˜combine different languages in the same text™.1
1
Pagden 1987b, p. 2.

235
236 kirstie m. mcclure
And this, in turn, may spark the transformation of such languages,
˜almost to the extent of constituting new languages by their exposure to
other discursive practices and changes in the external circumstances they
seek to describe™.2
To acknowledge both the hybridity of particular texts and their
capacities to change or inflect a ˜political language™ À even to the point of
˜almost™ generating ˜new languages™ À is to suggest the potential fecundity
not only of the broad terrain at the intersection of langue and the
instances of parole through which a political ˜language™ is worked out
over time, but also of repeated acts of parole À that is, of the inventive
pressures upon political languages exacted by the reiteration of partic-
ularized textual performances.3 Attention to such particularities reintro-
duces neither ˜the work™ or ˜the author™ as a principal focus of inquiry,
but rather opens the field of investigation to the sometimes strange
dynamics of polemical reception À not, perhaps, as they inflect or modify
a larger langue, but instead as they incite specific orientations to action
in the successive presents of particular times and places. In this context,
the phenomena of multiple editions of particular works and their asso-
ciated paratexts (introductions, prefaces, critical apparatuses and the like),
in some cases over broad temporal and geographic expanses, might offer a
productive site for considering these dynamic aspects of ˜political
thought™ as it finds new readers, new venues of critical reception and
new contexts of political controversy. Translations, too À both from
classical languages and between European vernaculars À are part of
this dynamism, and raise similar issues of reception, appropriation and
critical deployment over time, as do the many instances of plagiarism,
epitomizing and emendation (scholarly or otherwise) that characterize the
culture of print to this day.
In raising this issue, I mean to follow up on a number of J. G. A.
Pocock™s observations regarding ˜texts as events™. We cannot, he observes,
˜write history in terms of the great texts™, but there is nonetheless ˜a sense
in which the great texts are difficult to reduce to history™.4 In part,
this is because ˜they continue to be read and used by people who are
not historians™ À and hence by readers unconstrained by professional
canons of interpretation. But further, texts are historical events because

2
Pagden 1987b, p. 2. See also Tuck 1987, pp. 99À119.
3
The point is made at length by Pocock 1985b, pp. 12À28 and Pocock 1987b, pp. 29À31.
4
Pocock 1987b, p. 29.
Reflections on Political Literature 237
˜they outlive their authors™. Here, Pocock raises the issue of reception in
time as one that necessarily exceeds the question of authorial intentions,
even in the revised form characteristic of the Cambridge adaptation of
speech-act theory. The reader, too, is an ˜actor . . . in a historical process™,
an actor that ˜reenacts the text™ often in ways quite removed from
whatever its author may have intended. Analogizing readers to performers
of a dramatic work, Pocock argues that, in this respect, ˜readers™ con-
sciousness is no less active than the authors™; they ˜respond™ to the author
of a text and thus ˜preserve the independent activity of their conscious-
ness™ by reading ˜as they intend, which may or may not be how the author
intended to be read™. Finally, and emphasizing the value of inter-
disciplinary exempla, he notes that while ˜students of literature know
that text-reader relationships are complex and unpredictable affairs™, those
who study the ˜ ˜˜history of ideas™™ may need to be reminded that they are
a very large part of what they are studying™.5
In what follows I shall offer select examples that I take as supple
instances of this phenomenon. My purpose is not to propose alternative
methods for historians, but rather to suggest that there are political
and theoretical stakes involved in attending more closely to the nexus of
˜history, theory and the printed book™ suggested in my subtitle. Because,
however, each of these examples replicates elements of ostensibly ˜classic™
texts, I will draw on a view of texts as ˜utterances™ different from
the notions of language-games and speech acts that inform Cambridge
contextualism, that of Mikhail Bakhtin. My reasons for this choice will
be briefly elaborated in the first section of the chapter, while subsequent
sections will focus on significant moments in the print history of three
originally pseudonymous or anonymous books: the Vindiciae Contra
Tyrannos, the Two Treatises of Government, and the Vindication of
Natural Society. The strange history of the Vindiciae, I shall argue, is one
example of the dynamism of parole in the sphere of print culture, and
the creative anachronism of twentieth-century constructions of what
we now know to be Locke™s Second Treatise as a paragon of liberalism
is another. So too, I will suggest, is the stranger-still publishing history
of Edmand Burke™s originally anonymous satire in the Vindication.
By considering such things not only in terms of Bakhtinian ˜utterances™

5
Pocock 1987b, pp. 29À30. That this dynamic of ˜responsiveness™, in narrative texts in particular,
is a matter of orientation to action is a central concern of Ricoeur 1984À1986, i, ch. 3; and
Ricoeur 1981, pp. 145À64.
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but also in light of an older notion of ˜literature™ as ˜letters™ and printed
works, I want in the phrase ˜political literature™ to pursue what might be
called the life of political languages or, alternatively, the political life of
books. In this I hope to blend the tasks of history and theory into a
broader perspective on print culture as both site and symptom of the
vicissitudes of political community in time.


i. of books and ˜utterances™
Books can be understood as material vehicles of the political languages,
discourses, traditions and ideologies of interest to historians, critics
and theorists of all sorts. Recent work in bibliographical and textual
studies, however, has called attention as well to the signifying dimensions
of books that are little noticed in the history of political thought À among
them, size, typography and paratexts of various sorts, both in the original
and across multiple editions.6 Readers, too, have now taken shape as
agents in the production of meanings that may or may not accord with
the intentions of a book™s original author.7 In light of such insights
into the production, circulation, and uses of books, the question of the
relation of the book to the notion of a political ˜utterance™ might be
considered in terms other than those of the words, phrases, sentences and
vocabularies that come to comprise a discernible ˜language™ of political
thought. This is not to deny the significance or appropriateness of such
constructions of political languages as historiographical objects. Rather,
in order to glimpse something of readers at work across time and place,
it is to suggest the potential usefulness of Bakhtin™s dialogic notion of
the ˜utterance™ as unit of speech communication that entails both an
˜actively responsive understanding™ and, importantly, ˜a change of speaking
subjects™.8 By thus conceiving a text as a completed ˜utterance™ and
including attention to the activities of its respondents, Bakhtin opens the
question of addressees as links ˜in the chain of speech communion
in a particular sphere of human activity or everyday life™.9

6
See McGann 1983; McKenzie 1986; and Genette 1997.
7
Most generally, see the readerÀresponse criticism of Iser 1974; Iser 1978; Jauss 1982; Fish 1980.
Significant, too, are numerous works that emphasize less the authority of interpretive com-
munities than the peculiarities of acts of reading, and I have profited especially from Chartier
1988; Darnton 1985; de Certeau 1984; Ginzburg 1992; Jardine and Grafton 1990; Sherman 1997;
Zwicker 1998.
8
See Bakhtin 1986, esp. pp. 67À100.
9
Bakhtin 1986, p. 83.
Reflections on Political Literature 239
For my purposes, the virtue of this approach is twofold. First, it
opens a field of historical attention to idiosyncracies and conflicts in
the reading and appropriation of books over time. Whether in writings
of later authors or, alternatively, in later editions sporting paratexts
absent from the original, repeated appearances of whole or partial texts
offer sites where that ˜change of speaking subjects™ is itself inked on
the printed page. Further, however, Bakhtin™s formulation also offers
an opportunity for reflection on the ways in which our own contem-
porary attentions to historical texts participate in the history of active
responsiveness to particular works, for the chain of speech communica-
tion in time necessarily includes such scholarly practices as quotation,
citation and paraphrase under the rubric of ˜a change of speaking
subjects™. So, too, might it extend to internet postings of historical texts,
as these suggest a kind of active, even vital, contemporaneity despite the
passage of time. In recasting such aspects of usage as ˜political literature™,
perhaps we can not only discern things as yet unrecognized in our textual
inheritance, but also consider what we are doing in writing of them as
a further dimension of their historical persistence.


ii. translation and naturalization: the strange
adventures of the ˜vindiciae contra tyrannos™
The place of the pseudonymous Junius Brutus™ Vindiciae Contra
Tyrannos of 1579 in the history of Huguenot resistance right is by
now well-known to theorists and historians of political thought alike.10
As Quentin Skinner pungently notes, however, in the broad development
of erstwhile ˜Calvinist™ theories of resistance, ˜there are virtually no
elements in the theory which are specifically Calvinist at all™. With the
resources of scholasticism, Roman law and Lutheranism (itself drawing
on canon and civil law) drawn together by the pressures of political
contingencies, the ˜main foundations of the Calvinist theory of revolu-
tion were constructed entirely by their Catholic adversaries™.11 In this
paradoxical history, one might say, the Vindiciae was but one player
among many as its arguments migrated from its original Gallic context


10
Most notably, through Franklin 1969, and the expansive discussion of ˜Calvinism and
the Theory of Revolution™, in Skinner 1978b, part 3.
11
Skinner 1978b, p. 321.
240 kirstie m. mcclure
into a more expansive, more radical and eventually more secular language
of resistance across the European Republic of Letters.
The print history of the Vindiciae™s Englishing adds a new dimension
to this story, for it discloses a series of early-modern readers at work
amidst the vicissitudes of political time in the place now called Great
Britain. It was these readers who, as writers, pitched the Vindiciae itself
into that larger history. And their diverse translations and appropriations
naturalized significant parts of the original text into commonplaces of
British polemics that percolated across the eighteenth and beyond the
cusp of the nineteenth century.
To start near the beginning: it is not only the case that the 1579
Vindiciae as originally published contributed to the development of
modern theories of resistance right. The scholastic and Catholic founda-
tions of that developing language made the use of the Vindiciae a risky
business in the context of English political and religious controversies,
and the process of its partial secularization extended well into the last
years of the seventeenth century.12 A portion of the text, however À
specifically its fourth question, ˜whether neighbor Princes may, or are
bound by law to aide the Subjects of other Princes, persecuted for true
Religion, or oppressed by manifest tyranny™ À was first Englished in
1588, with a title that made its translator™s intentions clear. In full,
that title was A short apologie for Christian souldiours: wherein is
conteined, how that we ought both to propagate, and also if neede require,
to defende by force of armes, the Catholike Church of Christ, against the
tyrannie of Antichrist and his adherentes: penned by Stephanus Iunius
Brutus, and translated into English by H. P. for the benefite of the resolution
of the Church of England, in the defence of the gospel.13 The translator™s
purpose, of course, was to urge English intervention in favour of The
Netherlands™ struggle against Spanish rule, and for this the Vindiciae™s
justification of resistance against the Antichrist was eminently useful.
This, however, was but the beginning of the book™s adventures in print
culture. Roughly half a century later, in 1643, William Prynne made the
next energetic Englishing by including in the appendix to The Soveraigne
Powers of Parliaments and Kingdoms14 a swatch of the third question of the
Vindiciae, that asked ˜whether it be lawful to resist a Prince which doth

12
This discussion is much indebted to Tutino 2005. I am grateful to Prof. Tutino for her
generosity in sharing this manuscript.
13
H. P. 1588 .
14
Prynne 1643.
Reflections on Political Literature 241
oppress or ruine a publike State, and how far such resistance my be
extended, by whom, how, and by what right or law it is permitted™.15
Here, Prynne translates that portion of the original that emphasizes the
covenant between King and people and royal subordination to the
laws, but is notably silent on the Vindiciae™s first covenant, the covenant
between God and the people. This, as Stefania Tutino argues, ˜constitutes
the embryo of the English Vindiciae and will ˜˜set the tone™™ for the future
reading and understanding of the text™. Although Prynne himself
was no republican, and though his Vindiciae was hardly pitched as
a ˜republican™ text, it nonetheless paved the way for the production and
reception of the first full translation of the book, in the late heat of civil
war radicalisms, in 1648.16
But even this is not the end of the story. While another edition of
the Vindiciae appeared in 1689 À seemingly the same text as that of
1648 with a new title page À a more interesting, and finally more long-
lived appropriation of the text arrived, initially under the title Political

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