Saturday, February 23, 2008

Washington College Announces $50,000 Book Prize Finalists

Chestertown, MD — In commemoration of George Washington's birthday, Washington College today announced three finalists for the 2008 George Washington Book Prize.

The $50,000 award—co-sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington's Mount Vernon—is the largest prize nationwide for a book on early American history, and one of the largest literary prizes of any kind. It recognizes the year's best books on the nation's founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of American history.

The newly announced finalists are Woody Holton'sUnruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (Hill and Wang), Jon Latimer's 1812: War with America (Belknap/Harvard), and Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History(Viking).

The books are a provocative group: a history of the making of the Constitution in which the Framers seem to be working, not for, but against, ordinary Americans; the War of 1812 as seen from the other side of the Atlantic; and a harrowing re-creation of the slave ships—the floating dungeons that carried millions of men, women, and children to these shores from Africa.

"For more than 200 years, Americans have been engaged in an ongoing—and sometimes contentious—conversation about the meaning and significance of our founding era," said historian Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize. "The Washington Prize recognizes books that contribute fresh ideas to that national conversation, and approach American history in new ways."

The winner will be announced at a gala celebration May 29 at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia.

Previous winners were Charles Rappleye in 2007 for Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution; Stacy Schiff in 2006 for A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America; and Ron Chernow in 2005 for Alexander Hamilton.

The finalists were selected by a jury of three distinguished historians: Robert L. Middlekauff of the University of California at Berkeley, chair; Elizabeth A. Fenn of Duke University; and Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, director of Monticello's International Center for Jefferson Studies and professor of history at the University of Virginia.

They reviewed 78 books published last year on the founding period in American history, from about 1760 to 1820—time of the creation and consolidation of the young republic.

The jurors described Woody Holton's book as "a new, important and challenging interpretation of the Constitution." His "unruly Americans" are the ordinary citizens who challenged the Framers and forced them to accept the changes that produced the document we revere.

"Woody Holton has written a book of revision," they wrote, "one part a brief against much conventional scholarship on the Constitution's origins, and one part a reconstruction of the role the people, in particular small farmers, played in its drafting... It will not convince everyone, but it will be recognized as a book that reopens an old argument and makes its own with attention to the empirical sources and with stimulating insights. It should receive a wide reading."

Dr. Holton is associate professor of history at the University of Richmond and author of the award-winning Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia.

Jon Latimer's sixth book is the first military history of the War of 1812 from the British perspective published since the early 19th century. The jury called it "sparkling" and wrote that he "has not only mastered a large body of scholarship, he has made sensitive use of the diaries, letters, and records of people otherwise unknown to written history. Thus it is fair to say that Latimer has given us not only a book impressive for its grand sweep, but also one that recovers the experience of ordinary people engaged in the testing conflict that sometimes brought death, suffering, and triumph. Indeed Latimer's book is altogether satisfying in its perspective, its insights, and its compelling prose."

An Associate Fellow of the Callaghan Centre for the Study of Conflict at Swansea University in Wales, Latimer has a degree from the University in oceanography and served in the Territorial Army for 16 years.

Marcus Rediker's Slave Ship covers "virtually every aspect of the story of where the slaves were from, how they were captured and imprisoned, transported to slave ships, and their treatment on board," the jurors wrote. "Rediker describes his book as 'painful'; it was surely painful to write. Despite the emotional cost to its author, it is beautifully written. Indeed, the book is, in its use of evidence and determination to expose the bleakness of the slave experience, evocative and moving, and deeply instructive in unsuspected ways."

Rediker is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and the prize-winning author ofThe Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

The Jurors

Robert L. Middlekauff, chair
University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Middlekauff is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His specialty is the history of the English colonies in America in the 17th and 18th centuries through the American Revolution, and he is probably best known for his prize-winning 1982 book The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (Oxford).

He earned his B.A. at the University of Washington and his Ph.D. in history at Yale. In 1972, he won the Bancroft Prize for The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728 (Oxford) and he is also the author of Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England (Yale).

He has spent most of his career at UC Berkeley, where he has been chair of the history department three times, dean of social sciences, and dean and provost of the College of Letters and Science. He has also served as director of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, and was the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. His most recent book is Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies (California).

Elizabeth A. Fenn
Duke University

Dr. Fenn is an assistant professor of history at Duke University. Her book Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (Hill and Wang) won numerous prizes and attracted a great deal of attention, both among historians and the general public, when it was published in 2001.

Dr. Fenn earned her B.A. in history at Duke and her M.A. and Ph.D. at Yale. Pox Americanagrew out of her doctoral thesis, which she wrote after working for a few years as an auto mechanic in Durham, North Carolina. She is also the co-author, with Peter H. Wood, ofNatives and Newcomers: The Way We Lived in North Carolina before 1770 (North Carolina). Her field of study is early North America, with a focus on epidemic disease, Native American history, and social history.

Her current book project, Encounter at the Heart of the World: The Rise and Fall of the Mandan People, 1738-1838, will examine the spectacular rise and equally spectacular collapse of the Mandan Indians in the first century after European contact.

Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy
University of Virginia
Monticello's International Center for Jefferson Studies

Dr. O'Shaughnessy is the Saunders Director of Monticello's Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. A British-born scholar of American history, he is the author of An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Pennsylvania). His fields of expertise include Colonial America, the American Revolution, and the British Caribbean.

He earned his B.A., his M.A., and his D.Phil. in history from Oxford University and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He was a longtime member of the history faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, where he was also department chair. At the International Center for Jefferson Studies, Dr. O'Shaughnessy oversees Monticello's research, education, and archaeology departments; the Jefferson Library; and the editorial staff of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. He is an editor of the Journal of the Early Republic and co-editor of the Jeffersonian America Series at the University of Virginia Press. He is on the advisory board of the University of Pennsylvania's McNeil Center for Early American Studies and has appeared on the History Channel.

Sponsors of the George Washington Book Prize

The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience was founded at Washington College in 2000 to promote new scholarship in American history, culture, and politics. Founded in 1782 in colonial Chestertown, Md., Washington College is the only college George Washington supported personally, donating both his money and his name to the project, and serving on its board.

Founded in 1994, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History promotes the study and love of American history. The Institute serves teachers, students, scholars, and the general public. It helps create history-centered schools and academic research centers, organizes seminars and programs for educators, produces print and electronic publications and traveling exhibitions, sponsors lectures by eminent historians, and administers a History Teacher of the Year Award in every state through its partnership with Preserve America. The Institute also conducts awards including the Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and George Washington Book Prizes, and offers fellowships for scholars to work in the Gilder Lehrman Collection and other archives. The Institute maintains two websites, and the quarterly online journal

Since 1860, over 180 million visitors have made George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens the most popular historic home in America. Through thought-provoking tours, entertaining events and stimulating educational programs on the Estate and in classrooms across the nation, Mount Vernon strives to preserve George Washington's place in history as "First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen." Mount Vernon is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, America's oldest national preservation organization, founded in 1853.

For more information on the George Washington Book Prize, visit

February 22, 2008

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