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Reviewed by:
  • Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic by John M. Murrin
  • Shira Lurie
Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic. By John M. Murrin. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 424 pp. Notes. $34.95.)

In the long-awaited Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, readers are treated to a scintillating collection of eleven essays by John M. Murrin. Murrin’s vast knowledge, delightful storytelling, playful wit, and incisive analysis are all on full display in this volume, demonstrating why he is considered a master of the form. Most of all, readers will be struck by Murrin’s ability to simplify the complex while also complicating conventional wisdom. As a result, Rethinking America offers not only a compelling account of the causes and consequences of the American Revolution but also an example of historical writing at its finest.

Murrin’s theory of “Anglicization” reverberates throughout the volume. First outlined in his 1966 dissertation, Murrin argues that imperial warfare and increased trade bolstered colonists’ sense of Britishness in the decades preceding [End Page 236] independence. Thus, the revolution grew out of colonists’ frustration at being denied the rights of Englishmen, not because of an emergent American identity. “The American Revolution was one of history’s greatest reversals,” he writes. “It ran against the prevailing momentum of change . . . toward greater imperial integration with the colonists as willing participants in the process” (304).

The collection also demonstrates Murrin’s talents for playing with counterfactuals. For instance, in “No Awakening, No Revolution?” after confining George Whitefield to a Spanish dungeon, rendering Jonathan Edwards catatonic, and striking Gilbert Tennent with lightening, Murrin investigates whether eliminating the Great Awakening had an impact on the revolution and its aftermath. He concludes provocatively that “without the Great Awakening and its successors, there would have been a revolution in 1775, but in all probability, no Civil War in 1861” (111).

In addition, the volume includes two new essays: “War, Revolution, and Nation-Making” compares national feeling during the American Revolution and Civil War. It argues persuasively, although somewhat unoriginally, that the Confederacy enjoyed a much stronger and coherent nationalism than did the newly independent United States. “Self-Immolation: Schools of Historiography and the Coming of the American Revolution” laments the lack of recent scholarship on the causes of the revolution and offers a remedy in focusing on “the perspective of ordinary households” (399).

It is the reviewer’s privilege to quibble, even with exceptional work, and it is in this vein that I observe Murrin’s disproportionate reliance on white male scholars, even in his concluding 2007 historiographic essay. Indeed, it is regrettable that nowhere in this volume does he lend his keen insights to questions of race or gender. Still, readers will be rewarded with essay after essay of compelling prose and skillful argument. Rethinking America is a worthy monument to a titan of the field.

Shira Lurie
University of Toronto


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