Larson on Murrin, 'Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic'

John M. Murrin
John L. Larson

John M. Murrin. Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. xi + 432 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-503871-2.

Reviewed by John L. Larson (Purdue University) Published on H-Early-America (August, 2018) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers (California State University-Dominguez Hills)

Printable Version:

Here is a timely gift to the coming generation of early American historians: Andrew Shankman and Oxford University Press have published a splendid collection of great essays by the greatest living essayist in the field of American history. John M. Murrin is a brilliant, generous, and unpretentious master of American colonial and revolutionary history. For decades he taught at Princeton University, turning out blue-chip scholars and rubbing shoulders with the best and brightest in the field. But unlike most of his peers, Murrin wrote essays, not books, and for this reason his impact might easily be lost on a new generation already weighed down by the hundreds of “must-read” monographs that have landed on our reading lists since the 1960s. 

This anthology is arranged thematically. First up, after a very useful introduction by Shankman, is a blockbuster essay from 1980, “The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country.” In sixty-seven pages of sustained analysis that is at once synthetic and densely learned, Murrin maps out two game-changing ideas. First, he emphasizes Anglicization, Murrin’s trademark contribution to understanding the prerevolutionary generation. Inverting patriotic narratives that look for cumulative dissatisfaction among the colonists, Murrin reveals instead provincials earnestly constructing their British identity through a series of successful wars for empire and a dramatic commercial revolution. It was this emerging Britishness, ironically, that caused descendants of a dozen unrelated colonial stories to demand suddenly of George III the full rights of Englishmen. It also allowed them to recognize each other as potential allies in rebellion. Next, picking up a thread in the political culture of Georgian England—that is, the rise of the Court and the objections of the Country—Murrin tracks America’s revolutionary leaders as they seized the rhetoric of the English Country party, deployed it against the Court to establish independence, then scrambled to shore up an American Court with the Constitution of 1787, only to be done in by the persistent Country assault on official corruption, standing armies, fiscal-military state power, commercial development, and national integration. In this regard, Murrin concludes, America’s revolution differed from most others, which resulted in victories for the Court.

Readers will learn in this first essay that Murrin’s arguments demand careful attention. Unwilling to let schematic frameworks or theoretical determinants do the heavy lifting, Murrin anchors his explanations in narratives that force the reader to know who was who in British ministries and exactly what took place in American legislatures, elections, and counting houses. It is the skillful blending of evidentiary specifics with high-altitude narrative arcs that mark this as a Murrin piece. It is worth the investment, as are the ten pieces that follow.

Four shorter works explore aspects of the American revolutionary experience. First come two playful counterfactuals. “No Awakening, No Revolution?” erases from the story Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tenant (by locking Whitefield in a Spanish dungeon and striking Tenant with a second lightning bolt) and tries to see how it all comes out. The conclusion? The Awakening “did not create the Revolution” but “contributed to its success.” More ominously, the Revolution “liberated the spirit of the Awakening” and set the stage for another round of revivals, ending in radical antislavery and disunion: “Without the Great Awakening … there would have been a revolution in 1775, but in all probability, no Civil War in 1861” (pp. 110-11). In the following essay Murrin reflects on another chestnut in the literature—the idea that the removal of a French menace because of Britain’s victory in 1763 invited the rebellion of the mainland colonies twelve years later. After puncturing that balloon, he urges us to seek the origins of the Revolution “less in inexorable trends” and more in the particular narrative exchanges that occurred at the time (p. 125). The next two chapters similarly map the particulars of American experience onto schematic claims about the feudalism in the colonies and integration in the empire, showing in each case how a mastery of the details can turn hunches into explanations. 

Part 3 of the collection deals with “Defining the Republic.” Another truly famous piece, “A Roof without Walls: The Dilemma of American National Identity,” appeared in a 1987 bicentennial volume, Beyond Confederation. Once again the evocative metaphor opens into an erudite explication of how “Britain finally persuaded her North American settlers to embrace a national destiny that virtually none of them desired before the crisis of 1764-1776” (p. 192). Patiently starting with the facts on the ground instead of the outcome we all know (and love?), Murrin explores this central dynamic of the founding of the Republic. There was nothing inevitable about “the creation and triumph” of the United States. In fact, national identity was “an unexpected, impromptu, artificial, and therefore extremely fragile creation of the Revolution” (p. 197). The Constitution put up the roof, but the walls needed to support it did not yet exist. Such a feat aroused “wonder and awe,” a “spirit of amazement” and “self-congratulation” that “owed its intensity to the terrible fear that the roof could come crashing down at almost any time” (p. 199).

“The Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class,” co-authored with Gary Kornblith, engages another favored tenet of American heritage, namely our myth of a free and classless society. Beginning sensibly with a primer on early modern English classes and then separate treatments of settler stories in Virginia, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic, Murrin and Kornblith expose the early barriers to class formation and the eventual emergence of different kinds of elites. Anglicization in the 1700s served mostly to highlight the ways in which colonists fell short of their British ideal: the enormous class of enslaved laborers had no counterpart in England; the American rich were not as rich as in England, and far more Americans shared in wealth and land; the bulging middle ranks of American society enjoyed more autonomy. Elite leaders of the independence movement may have dreamed of closing ranks, but they desperately needed buy-in from artisans and farmers who, in the course of nation-building, demanded a place at the table. Nationalistic framers of the Constitution hoped one last time to enshrine a class of wealthy political operatives, but real conflicts of interest fostered a process of democratization that (as we saw in the “Great Inversion”) undercut the rise of a “Court” establishment. Ironically, while elites failed to engross political power in early America they did liberate economic actors so completely that, by the late nineteenth century, unimaginable wealth piled up in the hands of individuals who played no formal role in governance. The result was a distinctive American phenomenon: “enormous economic power without political accountability” (p. 280).

Sparkling images, trenchant criticism, impish good humor, excellent prose, and genuine mastery of the subjects under review—these qualities characterize the Murrin essays in this collection (and the forty others not included here, which you should find on your own). Reading his work one imagines a hawk gliding effortlessly, high in the sky until, abruptly, it plunges into the weeds and comes up with just the right rodent-sized factoid that makes (or breaks) the point of the argument. Detail, narrative, and analysis are brought together in fine-grained mosaics made not of impressionistic dots but of hard-edged bits of evidence. Murrin’s historiographical essays and passages reveal a generous spirit committed, not to upstaging another or discrediting a rival, but to trying to get it right for the benefit of all who labor in the historian’s workshop. Forty years ago, at a session at the American Historical Association, he presented a draft of “The Great Inversion.” He recalled being roundly trampled by critics from conflicting schools of interpretation. His response: “If you set yourself up as a bridge, others will walk over you” (p. 399). Like the finest bridges around the world, John Murrin’s scholarship is a monument and a footpath. Explore and enjoy.

Citation: John L. Larson. Review of Murrin, John M., Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

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