Obituary of John Gunn
John Alexander Wilson Gunn, a world-renowned scholar in 17th and 18th-century political thought, died March 7 in Kingston. Known professionally as J.A.W. Gunn, he was called Jock by family and friends. Jock is survived by his partner Mary Jane; children James and Andrea (Manuel); and brother Ted (Louise).
Jock was born in Quebec City in 1937. He earned an honours B.A. in politics and history from Queen's University in 1959; an M.A. in political economy from the University of Toronto in 1961; and a D. Phil. from Nuffield College, University of Oxford, in 1966.
Jock joined the Queen’s Political and Economic Science department in 1960 as a lecturer while still completing his graduate studies. His professors at Queen’s, John Meisel and Alec Corry, had recognized their former student’s spark of brilliance, and wanted to bring him back to Kingston. After Jock completed his doctoral studies, he returned to Queen’s to support the nascent Department of Political Studies under the direction of Meisel, who later wrote in his memoirs:
In Jock Gunn, we recruited a peerless scholar whose extensive command of the literature and commitment to a lofty ideal of a university added a significant dimension to what we had to offer.
Jock’s doctoral thesis (directed by John Plamenatz) was later published as Politics and the Public Interest in the Seventeenth Century (1969). In 1971, he published Factions No More: Attitudes to Party in Government and Opposition in Eighteenth-Century England.
While still a student, Jock worked with Frontier College, supporting that organization’s goal to bring literacy and the love of reading to adult learners. As a professor, Jock challenged his students to read deeply, think critically, and write clearly and sensibly. In his classroom, Jock never relied on notes: in his lectures, he spoke both spontaneously and eloquently on political ideas and ideals. His classes were designed to spark intellectual curiosity and to help his students utilize existing - or develop new - skills in comprehension, inquiry, and analysis. In addition to his undergraduate teaching, Jock supervised 14 doctoral students. Many of his students, both undergraduate and graduate, kept in touch with him decades after they graduated. Some of his best students went on to become writers, journalists, diplomats, lawyers, policymakers, and teachers; Jock followed each of their career paths with interest.
Between 1975 and 1983, Jock served as head of the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s. There, he was one of three editors of the first two volumes of the letters of Benjamin Disraeli (1982). Jock’s next book, Beyond Liberty and Property: The Process of Self-Recognition in Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, was published in 1983. This work, drawing upon a variety of primary sources, from newspapers and political pamphlets to parliamentary debates, sermons, and private correspondence, offered a bold new approach to the understanding of the public mind and political ideas in Britain. That year, Jock was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his remarkable contributions to the social sciences.
Later turning to the study of French political ideas, Jock published Queen of the World: Opinion in the Public Life of France from the Renaissance to the Revolution in 1995. The same year, succeeding his colleague John Meisel, he was appointed by the Queen’s Board of Trustees the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Political Studies, a position that honours outstanding contribution to the field of political studies. His citation noted that Jock was “one of the department’s most distinguished academics over the past three decades. His international reputation in political thought has brought credit both to the department and the university.” Jock allocated a portion of the funds associated with the Peacock Chair to purchase items for the British Political Pamphlets Collection at the Queen’s University Library. He also contributed his expertise in recommending notable and rare acquisitions for the library.
Jock retired officially from Queen’s in 2002 but, for several years and due to popular demand, came back to teach undergraduate courses. His last book, When the French Tried to Be British: Party, Opposition, and the Quest for Civil Disagreement 1814 - 1848, was published in 2009.
Jock’s family thanks those who supported him in his last months, notably the staff at Cataraqui Heights Retirement Residence; St. Elizabeth’s Nursing Services; Home and Community Care Support Services; and Dr. Marie Colantonio.
Donations in Jock’s memory may be made to Queen’s University to be directed to the British Political Pamphlets Collection at W. D. Jordan Rare Books, Queen's University Library, or to a charity of your choice.
A reception in Jock’s memory will be held on Saturday, March 25 from 1 to 4 pm at James Reid Funeral Home, 1900 John Counter Blvd., Kingston.