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Peter Laslett

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Richard Smith pays tribute to the late Peter Laslett.

Peter Laslett, who died on November 8th, 2001, at the age of eighty-five, pursued more than one career as a professional historian and in each was a pioneer in a field that thrived as a result of the stimulus he gave to it. Laslett was part of a remarkable cohort of undergraduate historians at St John’s College, Cambridge in the late 1930s which included the likes of John Habbakuk and Edward Miller. He graduated in 1938 having gained firsts in both parts of the History Tripos, but unlike his distinguished peers was not drawn immediately towards economic and social history.

As with so many of his generation, his initial progress was halted by war-time service before he returned to Cambridge in 1948 as a fellow of St John’s College. There he began a period of work on the history of political thought in the seventeenth century that was to help establish Cambridge as a centre of excellence for research on the history of political ideas. The focus of his work was on those writers who were influenced by the key political happenings of that turbulent century. He was concerned to establish new standards for critical commentaries on the philosophies of the period, recognising that there were no reliable modern editions of the writings of such figures as Locke and Hobbes. Furthermore, he was committed to placing these authors within their own political contexts. His first significant contribution was an edition of Sir Robert Filmer’s, by then largely ignored, Patriarcha and Other Political Works (1949). This work was interrupted somewhat by spells as a talks’ producer with the Third Programme before Laslett returned to Cambridge with a lectureship in the History Faculty and a fellowship of Trinity College in 1953. From this point he embarked on the study of Locke whose library he had discovered, leading to its purchase by Paul Mellon and subsequent gift to the Bodleian Library.  Throughout this period Laslett had privileged access to manuscript materials in this collection which assisted him in preparing a masterly edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which appeared in 1960. Laslett’s work on Locke set new scholarly standards and established an approach that has been developed by a number of his students, who have forged for themselves careers of international distinction. 

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