Murrin (Emeritus, History/Princeton Univ.; co-author: Liberty, Equality, Power, 1995) presents 11 previously published essays on the periods just before and after the American Revolution.
That Revolution meant the loss of much of a North American empire recently secured by Britain's 1763 victory over the French and their Native American allies. A recurring theme in the author's consideration of this era is the question of how this unified empire came so completely unglued that civil war erupted in little more than a decade. The answer, writes Murrin, drawing on the work of the neo-Whig school of historiography, lies only partly in the political intransigence and incompetence of successive British ministries. More fundamentally, it amounted to a failure of imagination on both sides, an inability to create a new conceptual framework for the empire that would permit the colonists to participate fully in self-government as their English cousins did. In other essays, the author explores such topics as the contributions to the Revolution of the Great Awakening and the fall of French Canada, the evolution of American nationalism and how it compared to Confederate nationalism in the Civil War era, the rise and fall of a Federalist ruling class, and a surprisingly timely discussion of an obsession with corruption in the politics of the early republic. Murrin concludes with a survey of schools of American historiography that have arisen over the past two centuries and how they have successively fallen through exhaustion, refutation, or "self-immolation." The author focuses on testing the theories of preceding generations of historians against one another, probing for weaknesses and observations of enduring value. The format makes some degree of repetition inevitable. The author's style is scholarly but leavened with occasional dry wit, and he offers his own arguments in a spirit of humility and collegial conciliation.
Writing primarily for other historians, Murrin provides some interesting insights but on topics too narrow to be of much interest to general readers.