Mount Vernon, VA — The fifth annual $50,000 George Washington Book Prize, honoring the most important new book about America's founding era, was awarded at Mount Vernon on May 28 to Annette Gordon-Reed for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Norton, 2008). Gordon-Reed—author of the highly acclaimed Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which offered convincing evidence for the existence of an intimate relationship between the Founder and his slave—was honored for her most recent book, an epic history of the Hemings family that has also won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for History.
"The Hemingses of Monticello answers important questions about America's founding generation," the jurors wrote. "It offers insight into a matter central to the early Republic and its most famous personage, helping us to appreciate the contradiction Jefferson lived and bequeathed to generations to come."
A professor of law at New York Law School, Gordon-Reed spent more than seven years working on The Hemingses of Monticello. Her meticulously researched account documents not only Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, but also the lives of four generations of the family that lived with Jefferson from the 1770s until he died in 1826. "I think the inability to see enslaved people as individuals is a legacy of slavery that has carried over to the way we see black people today," Gordon-Reed said. "I wanted to put all the Hemingses into a context that would make people see them, not just as slaves, not just as part of a particular problem, but as human beings."
Sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and George Washington's Mount Vernon, the George Washington Book Prize was presented to Gordon-Reed at a black-tie dinner attended by some 200 luminaries from the worlds of book publishing, politics, journalism and academia. The $50,000 prize is one of the most generous book awards in the country.
"Deeply researched and beautifully written, this magnificent book recenters our whole idea of the founding era and of race in American history," said James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which funds the award.
The Mount Vernon event also celebrated the works of two other finalists: Kevin J. Hayes for The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford, 2008), and Jane Kamensky for The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America's First Banking Collapse (Viking, 2008). The books were selected by a three-person jury of distinguished American historians: Joyce Appleby, professor of history emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, who served as chair; Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland; and Jay Winik, best-selling author and one of the country's leading public historians.
Gordon-Reed's book was named the winner by a panel of two representatives from each of the three institutions that sponsor the prize, plus historian Patricia Bonomi of New York University.
"The George Washington Book Prize honors books that bring the past to life," said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the award. "The Hemingses of Monticello does this beautifully, and with a sense of deep empathy not just with Monticello's slaves, but with Jefferson himself. Gordon-Reed blends the research skills of a master historian with the humane insights of a novelist."
Created in 2005, the George Washington Book Prize was presented in its inaugural year to Ron Chernow for Alexander Hamilton and in 2006 to Stacy Schiff for A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. This is the third time it has been awarded for a book about slavery—in 2007 it went to Charles Rappleye for Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, and last year to Marcus Rediker for The Slave Ship: A Human History.
About the Sponsors of the George Washington Book Prize
Washington College was founded in 1782, the first institution of higher learning established in the new republic. George Washington was not only a principal donor to the college, but also a member of its original governing board. He received an honorary degree from the college in June 1789, two months after assuming the presidency. The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, founded in 2000, is an innovative center for the study of history, culture and politics, and fosters excellence in the art of written history through fellowships, prizes, and student programs.
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, 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. The Institute also awards the Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and George Washington Book Prizes, and offers fellowships for scholars to work in the Gilder Lehrman Collection. The Institute maintains two websites, www.gilderlehrman.org and the quarterly online journal www.historynow.org.
Since 1860, over 80 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. www.mountvernon.org.