In Memoriam: John M. Murrin, 1935-2020

John Murrin, 1935-2020

John Murrin, Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, died on May 2 from complications resulting from contracting the Covid-19 virus.  John was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and earned his B.A. at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 1957, an M.A. at Notre Dame in 1960, and his Ph.D. at Yale in 1966, under the direction of Edmund S. Morgan.  He taught at Washington University in St. Louis from 1963 to 1973 before moving to Princeton in 1973 where he remained until his retirement.  He is survived by his loving wife Mary, his extended family in Minnesota, dozens of former colleagues and Ph.D. advisees who all feel keenly their great loss, and countless former undergraduates, many of whom who have in the few days since his death been reaching out to members of the Princeton History Department, a reminder of how committed John was to undergraduate teaching.

John Murrin was an extraordinary scholar, teacher, mentor, and adviser whose enduring significance and impact is clearest in his over 50 published essays, a form that he mastered and to which he was devoted.  These essays ranged widely across the Atlantic and Anglophone early modern world from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.  He is remembered for his wit, humor, generosity, kindness, and particularly for his wide-ranging enthusiasm and excitement about the truly diverse scholarship of the early Americas.

Essays such as “Magistrates, Sinners, and a Precarious Liberty: Trial by Jury in Seventeenth-Century New England,” in Saints and Revolutionaries: Essays in Early American History, eds. John M. Murrin, David Hall, and Thad Tate (New York: Norton, 1984), 152-206; “English Rights as Ethnic Aggression: The English Conquest, the Charter of Liberties of 1683, and Leisler’s Rebellion in New York,” in William Pencak and Conrad Edick Wright, eds., Authority and Resistance in Early New York (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1988), 56-94; “The Great Inversion, or, Court versus Country: A Comparison of the Revolution Settlements in England (1688-1721) and America (1776-1816),” in Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 368-453; “War, Revolution, and Nation-Making: The American Revolution versus the Civil War,” in John M. Murrin, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic (Oxford University Press, 2018), 343-372; “A Roof Without Walls: The Dilemma of American National Identity,” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, ed. Richard Beeman, Stephen Botein, and Edward C. Carter II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 33-48; “Escaping Perfidious Albion: Federalism, Fear of Aristocracy, and the Democratization of Corruption in Postrevolutionary America,” in Richard K. Matthews, ed., Virtue, Corruption, and Self-Interest: Political Values in the Eighteenth Century(Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1994), 103-47; and “Rites of Domination: Princeton, the Big Three, and the Rise of Intercollegiate Athletics,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, 62 (winter 2001), 161-206 suggest something of the range of his scholarly interests.  John was also co-author of the highly influential textbook Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (Harcourt).  In 2018 Oxford University Press published a volume of some of his most influential essays under the title Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, which received many glowing reviews.

John in his natural habitat, Amalfis in Lawrenceville, NJ. Pictured with John are Ignacio Gallup-Diaz, Andy Shankman, and Alec Dun.

In addition to his rich scholarly life, John loved opera, baseball, puns, beefeater martinis, and the conversation that all of that sparked.  He was the co-founder and for years the pitcher and reliable RBI producer for the Princeton History Department’s two summer league slow-pitch softball teams: The Revolting Masses and the Machiavellian Moment (the enemy of my enemy is my teammate).  He believed that Ted Williams was the greatest hitter in the history of the majors, but took special and perverse pleasure in explaining at great length, though market interest was sluggish, that Joe Hauser, an unremarkable journeyman who played a few seasons in the majors in the 1920s, was the most prolific homerun hitter the minor leagues had ever seen.  In addition to his Hauser-related commitments, John was also convinced for about 8 hours one day in 1943 that he had seen the Luftwaffe flying high over Minneapolis and skipped out of  the third grade to sound the alarm, and that if his teammates would only listen to him, and allow him to make all three outs in every inning, that The Masses and The Moment would never lose.

John Murrin was devoted to the community of scholars of the Atlantic World and the early Americas and served on the advisory board of the Omohundro Institute and was President of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.  But most treasured by John was the Philadelphia Center founded by his cherished friend Richard S. Dunn of the University of Pennsylvania, and which was later renamed the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (MCEAS), long led after Dunn’s retirement by John’s good friend Daniel K. Richter.  John was a devoted member of the MCEAS Advisory Council and a fixture and a stalwart at its Friday seminars.  He is remembered, therefore, not just by his former colleagues and his over 20 devoted Ph.D. students, but also by the countless Center Fellows who benefitted from his thoughtful, constructive, and encouraging questions and suggestions over the years.  The McNeil Center awards annually the John Murrin Essay Prize to the best essay published in its journal Early American Studies, to honor John Murrin’s mastery of the essay form.  The outpouring of grief and sense of great loss from the scholarly community surrounding The Omohundro Institute, the McNeil Center, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic is a testament to John Murrin’s devotion to scholarship, to friendship, to community, and to the shared life of the mind.

Andy Shankman

Princeton Ph.D. 1997, Adviser John M. Murrin

Co-editor, Journal of the Early Republic