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Professor John Murrin, prolific historian of early America, dies at 84 of COVID-19 complications

<h6>Professor John Murrin.</h6>
<h6>Courtesy of Beverly Schafer</h6>
Professor John Murrin.
Courtesy of Beverly Schafer

John M. Murrin, professor of history emeritus at the University, died on Saturday, May 2 at a hospital in Hamilton, N.J. Murrin, who succumbed to complications of the novel coronavirus, N.J., is survived by Mary Murrin, his wife of 52 years. He was 84. 

Murrin was the former president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, a prolific essayist and author of “Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic,” and a beloved mentor in the scholarly community. 

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“John was the life of the department,” said professor of history Sean Wilentz, who was a colleague of Murrin’s for over thirty years. 

“He was the most generous and open hearted mentor,” added James Dun, assistant dean of the college and a former graduate student of Murrin turned colleague in the history department. “He never wanted to be the smartest one in the room, in fact he would say that. But he always had insights that made everyone’s jaw drop.”

Murrin, the mentor

Murrin was so generous with his time that “he took as many or more graduate students than any other faculty,” said Dun. The reason he was able to do this: Murrin was “a man of many hyphens” — an “early-modern-anglo-american-historian” — and so well-read that he was a master of multiple fields.

In addition to his graduate students, many historians called him a mentor, evident in the outpouring of support and condolences over Twitter in past week. 

“There’s a motto in academia — everyone here is smart; you can distinguish yourself by being kind. No one embodied this motto more than John,” tweeted Kevin Kruse, professor of history at the University.

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Murrin was regarded as a founding member of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies in Philadelphia. Every week, he would drive his graduate students to Philadelphia for seminars and discussions. 

John Fea, a professor at Messiah College who studies religious history, remembers meeting Murrin after giving an embarrassing and botched presentation at the seminar. At lunch, Murrin sat next to him at a wooden picnic table and discussed his ideas. 

“It was an important moment in my career,” Fea wrote to The Daily Princetonian in an email. “John was one of the world’s greatest early American historians. He did not have to encourage an unknown SUNY Stony Brook graduate student, but he did.”

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And when Fea struggled to afford the AMTRAK from Philadelphia to New York City as a dissertation fellow, Murrin drove him with his graduate students on the way back to Princeton from Philadelphia.

“I will never forget his compassion and empathy,” Fea said.

“He treated everyone as equals; he never put an idea down,” added James Rosenheim, a professor at Texas A&M University specializing in early modern British history. 

In a message in the Journal of the Early Republic, Rutgers professor Andy Shankman wrote that it never mattered to Murrin what degree someone had, what school they came from, or what connections they had.

“Like the nation that has produced it, ours is far too often a profession shaped by wealth, hierarchy, and status,” Shankman wrote. “In that world, John Murrin was always a mischievous, loving, and generous wildcard.”

‘Anglicization’ and other academic contributions

Murrin himself studied under a legendary historian, Edmund Morgan, at Yale University. By then, Murrin was already making a significant impact on the historical community.  “His 1966 doctorate dissertation on Anglicizing an American Colony was one of the most influential in the field,” Shankman told the ‘Prince.’

His key contribution was establishing the American revolution as a “counter cyclical event” that went against 18th century trends. Murrin’s research drew from empirical evidence that as Britain ascended as a successful global power, the American colonies became proudly British.

He argued that the revolution happened not because the colonies developed a distinctive American identity, but rather because as they became more British, they grew increasingly outraged that Britain denied them the same status it afforded to its citizens.

Murrin’s works on anglicization permanently rewired accepted thinking on the American Revolution. The very term anglicization “was coined by [Murrin] and not present in scholarly works until his 1966 dissertation,” Shankman said. 

Professor Murrin is widely renowned for over 50 published essays on anglicization, political ideology, and the development of colonial and revolutionary society that are now considered staples in the field.

“The essay was his destined form,” Wilentz said. “He packed more into an essay than many people could fit into an encyclopedia. They were so intellectually exciting and challenging that they brought you alive.” 

A collection of eleven of Murrin’s essays were published in 2018, entitled “Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic.” Shankman ventures that many more are unpublished — “great works sitting in a drawer.”

‘Some of the worst puns of all time’

Murrin gave his final undergraduate lecture in 2003, on Britain and Revolutionary America. Dun said it contained “all of his greatest hits.” He ended with a parting gift: a self-composed comedic song entitled “flunk them all.” Murrin sang and received a standing ovation. 

Three professors confirmed this musical account. “He was a man of great humor, who made some of the worst puns of all time, ones that made you groan,” Wilentz said.

Murrin was a consistent presence at the University’s weekly history seminars endowed by Shelby Cullom Davis ’30. One year, the seminar was focused on the theme of “Animals and Human Society.” Murrin took the opportunity to write a paper on bestiality in colonial America, mining the archives of the East Coast to write an analysis comparing accusations of bestiality to accusations of witchcraft.

“His paper was peppered with moving and startling anecdotes drawn from records of prosecutions,” said William Jordan, professor of history, and director emeritus of the Davis seminars. “It was not just an interesting paper, it was a gem.”

When Murrin was scheduled to present at the Davis seminar, Dun recalls “the room was packed full, people standing in the back, anxious to see what John was going to do with this stuff.” 

Murrin started the lecture on bestiality with wordplay on the popular Bud Light commercial: “This bud for you. This ewe for bud.” Even people who didn’t get the pun roared with laughter.

A scholar and a slugger

The renowned scholar of early American history was also known for his love of America’s pastime.

“He memorized every possible major and minor league baseball statistic,” noted Jordan, who co-founded the Princeton History Softball league with Murrin.

Although the Minneapolis native was an excellent pitcher, Jordan remembers Murrin most vividly with a bat in hand. 

“No one liked to be on first or third base when John came up to bat,” Jordan said. “It was like putting your life in jeopardy, because he could crush the ball and send hard line drives right down either line.”

Rosenheim, who credits Murrin as a mentor who introduced him to academia, bonded with Murrin over this shared interest. In 1976, he published his first research paper with Murrin on the early history of baseball and football at Princeton. “It got my name on it only because John insisted,” Rosenheim said. 

Later, when Murrin was invited to facilitate a sports conference discussing the paper, he further insisted Rosenheim attend with him. Drawing the analogy between baseball and academia, Rosenheim says Murrin helped him get over his “first inning jitters.”

“It was an eye opening introduction to the possibilities of collegiality,” said Rosenheim. “In history it’s rare for people to collaborate but John was a team player.”

“That’s clearly what John did his entire life: helping people join him in thinking in new ways,” he added.

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