Rethinking America with John Murrin


Princeton historian John Murrin never wrote a monograph.  But his essays packed a punch.

Princeton Alumni Weekly is recognizing a new book of Murrin’s classic essays titled Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic

I can think of few early American historians who have had more of an influence on the way I think about the colonial and revolutionary America.  I will always be grateful for his endorsement of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

At one point or another, I have taught, or built lectures around, the following Murrin essays:

“The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country”

“No Awakening, No Revolution?: More Counterfactual Speculations”

“A Roof Without Walls: The Dilemma of American National Identity”

“1776: The Countefactual Revolution”

They are all in this book.

Here is a taste of the Princeton Alumni Week piece:

Opening lines: “Americans have always shared one conviction about their Revolution: It was a good thing for the United States and the entire world. The revolutionary generation believed that its principles would benevolently affect social conditions, agriculture, political economy, the fine arts, and even basic demographic trends. Only now are many of these themes being recovered… The early chroniclers of the Revolution began to lose some of the movement’s context even while quoting directly from its fundamental documents. They explained and defended the Revolution in terms essentially constitutional and political, as the triumph of liberty, equality, and limited government against the menace of irresponsible power and aristocratic privilege—rather feeble dangers, they somewhat paradoxically implied, if only by giving these challenges little real chance of success in America’s unique, libertarian environment, which they found at work in the very first settlements.”

“You got that from Vickers, ‘Work in Essex County…’”

How often does a passage from a book with a title like Farmers & Fisherman: Two Centures of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, written by a relatively unknown historian working at a Canadian university, make it into a blockbuster Hollywood film?

Over at the website of Boston’s WBUR, Elissa Ely tells the story of the late Danny Vickers.

Here is a taste:

Danny made a career as a maritime historian, mostly in Canadian universities. In 1997, he got a letter from Miramax Films in California. They wanted to quote from “Farmers and Fishermen” in a script they were developing.

Maybe you’ll remember the scene: a bar in Cambridge and inside is Ben Affleck, with an overly heavy accent like an overgrown 5 o’clock shadow. Some pompous Harvard graduate student begins to humiliate him, throwing out scholarly references to early American history. It’s denigration by class, until Matt Damon steps in. “You got that from Vickers, ‘Work in Essex County,’ page 98, right?” our brilliant, muscular, “Good Will Hunting” janitor says. “Yeah, I read that, too. Were you going to plagiarize the whole thing for us?”

Danny took the unexpected slice of fame with humor and proceeded as usual with research and teaching. He gave the lie to that musty academic stereotype: the scholar whose entire life revolves around a single enzyme. His interests were specialized, yet he was taken with all people, whether they went about their lives 300 years ago or now. At one point, he lived with his family in a small Canadian fishing community.

Read the entire piece here.

I never met Vickers, but I have always felt connected to him through something historian John Murrin once told me.  While Murrin was driving me from Philadelphia to Princeton Amtrak station one evening after a McNeil Center for Early American Studies event (it was probably sometime in the late 1990s), he told me, as only John Murrin can do, that I presented a legitimate challenge to Vickers in the category of “tallest early American historian in North America.”

Anglicization Reconsidered: Conference in Honor of John Murrin

On April 19-20, 2013 the McNeil Center for Early American Studies will be sponsoring an academic conference to honor the work of early American historian John Murrin.  As many of you know, Murrin coined the term “Anglicization,” so it is fitting that the title of the conference is “Anglicization Reconsidered: Celebrating the Career of John M. Murrin.”  Papers will be delivered by a star-studded cast made up of Murrin’s former students.  Presenters include Daniel Vickers, Gary Kornblith, Evan Haefeli, Simon Newman, Nancy Rhoden, David Silverman, Beth Lewis-Pardoe, and Andrew Shankman.

I was hoping to attend the conference, but I have already committed to a 9th-grade volleyball tournament in Bethlehem, PA.

Project Reading

My reading over the Christmas Holiday included two books on Presbyterians and the founding of the College of New Jersey.

I reread the first several chapters of Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker’ Princeton, 1746-1896 (1946).  This is a very useful mid-twentieth-century institutional history, but it was made even better by John Murrin‘s 1996 introduction to the paperback edition.  Murrin’s essay reminded me that I need to reread the diary of Esther Edwards Burr (Ned Landsman had me read it in graduate school), look at a few essays from the 1970s on Princeton and the American Revolution (including one by Murrin himself), and review the first two volumes of Princetonians:A Biographical Dictionary.

I also reread the letters in L.H. Butterfield’s John Witherspoon Comes to America.  This thin volume contains correspondence between Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, Richard Stockton and others during the period of negotiation that eventually led to Witherspoon accepting the presidency of the College of New Jersey.  In the process I realized that Witherspoon’s wife almost kept him from coming to Princeton.  She did not want to leave Paisley, Scotland for New Jersey and feared that her husband would die in America, leaving her all alone in a “foreign land.”  Eventually, thanks to the gentle touch of Benjamin Rush, who was studying medicine in Edinburgh at the time, Elizabeth consented and the Witherspoons made the journey to Princeton.

I was quite taken by the role that Witherspoon’s friends in Scotland played in this decision.  Many of these esteemed Presbyterian ministers not only urged Witherspoon to take the job in Princeton, but accused him of allowing his wife to stand in the way of God’s call on his life.  Their letters on this front are pretty harsh on Elizabeth. 

I think this story, if told well, might make for some good reading.