Ceremony at Historic Mount Vernon Honors Best New Book on the Founding Era
Mount Vernon, VA, May 24, 2006 — The second annual George Washington Book Prize was awarded at Mount Vernon on Tuesday, May 23, to Stacy Schiff for her book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, published in 2005. The $50,000 prize honors the most important new book about the founding era. Schiff, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography, tells the story of the eight years Benjamin Franklin spent in France beginning in 1776 wooing French support for the American War for Independence.
"In this time of renewed interest in the founding period, it is especially gratifying to be recognized for my efforts to bring a little-known chapter of Ben Franklin's life to light," said Schiff. "To receive this significant award at the home of another illustrious founder is a true honor."
Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City, and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association collaborated in 2005 to create the prize, awarded in its inaugural year to Ron Chernow for Alexander Hamilton. At $50,000 the George Washington Book Prize is one of the most generous book awards in the United States.
In A Great Improvisation, Schiff draws from new and not widely known sources to illuminate the least-explored part of Franklin's life. She brings to the surface an unfamiliar chapter of the Revolution, a tale of American infighting, and the backroom dealings at Versailles that would propel George Washington from near decimation at Valley Forge to victory at Yorktown. A particularly human and yet fiercely determined Founding Father emerges as readers get a sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country's bid for independence.
"In sparkling prose, burnished to a high gloss, Stacy Schiff tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin in Paris with piquant humor, outrageous anecdotes worthy of the finest French farce, and a wealth of lapidary observations... C'est magnifique," said last year's prize winner Chernow.
The event at Mount Vernon, complete with fireworks and candlelit tours of Washington's Mansion, also celebrated the works of the two other finalists before an audience of guests from political, academic, and diplomatic arenas. Finalists were Edward Lengel for General George Washington: A Military Life and Stanley Weintraub for Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783. The books were selected by a three-person jury of early-American history scholars: Carol Berkin of Baruch College, City University of New York; Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute; and Gordon Wood of Brown University.
"In each work selected, the jury saw refreshing perspectives on our nation's founding era," said Ted Widmer, Director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize.
"This prize is a tremendous way to recognize exceptional scholarship on perhaps the greatest period in American history," said James Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
On Wednesday, May 24, Schiff delivered a lecture about Franklin for a younger audience, more than 100 students from School Without Walls, a high school based on the campus of George Washington University. School Without Walls is the only Gilder Lehrman history school in the District of Columbia.
Schiff is the author of Véra, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Saint-Exupéry, a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a Director's Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Schiff lives with her husband and three children in New York City.