MOUNT VERNON, Va.—The seventh annual George Washington Book Prize, co-sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and George Washington’s Mount Vernon to honor the year’s best book about America’s founding era, has been awarded to Pauline Maier for Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Maier, author of five previous books on the history of revolutionary America, received the $50,000 prize Wednesday evening, May 25, at a black-tie dinner at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.
“This book will really prove to be an eye-opener to many people who think that drafting the Constitution was the end of a long road to creating a strong and effective government,” said Mount Vernon’s president, James C. Rees. “But getting the document ratified was an uphill struggle most historians ignore, and on more than one occasion, the entire unification process was almost doomed to failure.”
The debates over drafting the Constitution that took place in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 have long been enshrined in American history. But Maier’s book reveals an equally dramatic and essential — though almost forgotten — series of debates that played out during the year that followed, as citizens, journalists, and politicians argued state by state over whether to ratify the nation’s founding document.
“This debate was not a secretive discussion among a few gentlemen in Independence Hall, but rather a bare-knuckles, open-air contest throughout the young United States,” said Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize. “Pauline Maier has captured it in all its political and intellectual vigor. And as she makes clear, the struggle over ratification could easily have turned out differently — and forever changed the course of American history.”
The George Washington Book Prize is sponsored by a partnership of three institutions devoted to furthering scholarship on America’s founding era: Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington's Mount Vernon. The $50,000 prize is among the nation’s largest literary awards. “We found Ratification to be a rich and very readable book that paints the process elegantly,” says James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which funds the award.
Maier is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American History at MIT. She is the author of several books on American history, including From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (W.W. Norton, 1992); The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (Knopf, 1980); and American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, (Knopf, 1997), which was on the New York Times Book Review “Editor's Choice” list of the best 11 books of 1997 and a Finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
The jury that chose Ratification as a finalist from among 59 entries called it “a tour de force of extraordinary research and scholarship.”
The Mount Vernon event also celebrated the works of the two other finalists for this year’s prize: Jack Rakove’s Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), and Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010). Finalists were selected by a three-person jury of distinguished American historians: Mary Beth Norton, the Alger Professor of American History at Cornell University, who served as chair; David Armitage, the Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University; and Daniel Walker Howe, the Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Maier's book was named the ultimate winner by a panel of representatives from each of the three institutions that sponsor the prize, plus historian Carol Berkin of Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Created in 2005, the George Washington Book Prize was presented that year to Ron Chernow for Alexander Hamilton. Subsequent winners were Stacy Schiff (2006) for A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Charles Rappleye (2007) for Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, Marcus Rediker (2008) for The Slave Ship: A Human History and Annette Gordon-Reed (2009) for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for History, the National Book Award and the Frederick Douglass Prize. Last spring, the 2010 prize was awarded to Richard Beeman for Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.
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 at the College 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. www.washcoll.edu.
Founded in 1994, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supporting the study and love of American history through a wide range of programs and resources for students, teachers, scholars, and history enthusiasts throughout the nation. Gilder Lehrman creates and works closely with history-focused schools through its Affiliate School Program; organizes teacher seminars and development programs; produces print and digital publications and traveling exhibitions; hosts lectures by eminent historians; administers a History Teacher of the Year Award in every state and US territory; and offers national book prizes. The Gilder Lehrman website, www.gilderlehrman.org, serves as a gateway to American history online with rich resources for educators designed specifically for K–12 teachers and students.
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. A picturesque drive to the southern end of the scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway, Mount Vernon is located just 16 miles from the nation’s capital. www.MountVernon.org
Photo: Winner Pauline Maier, with her prize medal, poses with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who made the prize announcement at Mount Vernon, Washington College president Mitchell Reiss and C.V. Starr Center director Adam Goodheart.