Finalists for $50,000 George Washington Book Prize announced

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CHESTERTOWN, MD (February 22, 2012)—Since his birth 280 years ago today, George Washington has received no small amount of attention from authors and publishers. The Library of Congress catalogue lists almost 1,200 books about the Father of Our Country, including more than 100 full-scale biographies, 60 volumes of letters and diaries, and entire works on topics such as Washington’s teeth, a chair he once owned, and his rescue of a British general’s stray dog in 1777. Countless more books have been published about the Revolutionary era on which he made his mark.

Each year, however, the George Washington Book Prize honors—with a $50,000 award—a single recent work on Washington or his times that stands above the others. In honor of George Washington’s Birthday, Washington College announces the three finalists for the 2012 prize.

The honored books, all of them published in 2011, are John Fea’s Was America Founded As A Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press), Benjamin H. Irvin’s Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors, (Oxford University Press), and Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf).

The award—which is co-sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon—recognizes the past year’s best books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of American history.

“This prize is, of course, about history that happened 200 years ago, but it’s also about the present,” says 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. “From the Tea Party movement to this year’s presidential debates, Americans still refer to the nation’s founding era when they talk about current events. This year’s finalists reflect on some of these enduring questions, including the role of religion in politics, the relationship between politicians and the general public, and the fate of dissident minorities.”

The winner of the $50,000 prize will be announced June 4 at a black-tie dinner at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens in Virginia.

This year’s finalists were selected by a jury of three distinguished historians: Richard Beeman, the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the 2010 winner of the George Washington Book Prize, who served as chair; Thomas Fleming, distinguished historian and author; and Marla R. Miller of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They selected the finalists after reviewing nearly 50 books published last year on the founding period in American history, from about 1760 to 1820, the time of the creation and consolidation of the young republic.

In John Fea’s Was America Founded As A Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, the author asks—and answers—one of the most controversial questions of contemporary public debate. The jury praised the book for its “balance and nuance” and “real, even pressing, contemporary importance.” Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and has written extensively for both scholarly and popular audiences. He is also the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America and co-editor of Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.

Benjamin H. Irvin’s Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors, is, in the jury’s words, a “well-researched and imaginatively conceived work” that “provides a lively narrative and a fascinating window onto the relationship between America’s political leaders in the Congress and the people.” Irvin is Associate Professor of History at the University of Arizona. He has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where he held an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. He is the author of the young adult biography, Samuel Adams: Son of Liberty, Father of Revolution.

In praising Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, the jury applauded the book’s “impressive archival research, its sweeping conceptualization, perspectives and aims, its enviable prose style and the penetrating insights it yields into its characters’ lives.” Jasanoff was educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and Yale, and is currently Associate Professor of History at Harvard University. Her first book, Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850, was awarded the 2005 Duff Cooper Prize and was a book of the year selection in numerous publications, including The Economist, The Observer, and The Sunday Times. She has contributed essays to The London Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. Liberty’s Exiles is also a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

The 2012 George Washington Book Prize Jurors

Richard Beeman, chair, is one of the nation’s leading historians of America’s revolutionary and early national experience. He has been a member of the faculty at University of Pennsylvania for 43 years and has served as Chair of the Department of History and as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the scholarly advisory board of the American Revolution Center and the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center. His book Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution was the winner of the 2010 George Washington Book Prize. He is also the author of five other books on revolutionary America, including The Penguin Guide to the American Constitution and Patrick Henry: A Biography, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Beeman is a senior fellow of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Thomas Fleming has written 20 non-fiction books that have won prizes and praise from critics and fellow historians, many with a special focus on the American Revolution. His 23 novels explore the lives of men and women in vivid narratives that range from the raw America of the 1730s to the superpower that confronted World War II and endured Korea and Vietnam. He has written frequently for American Heritage and many other magazines and is a frequent guest on C-SPAN, the History Channel and PBS. His books include Liberty!: The American Revolution; Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America; Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge; and The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

Marla R. Miller is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her book The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press 2006) won the Costume Society of America’s Millia Davenport Publication Award for the best book in the field for that year. Her most recent book, Betsy Ross and the Making of America, a scholarly biography of that much-misunderstood early American craftswoman, was a finalist for the Cundill Prize in History at McGill University and was named to the Washington Post’s “Best of 2010” list. She has won the Organization of American Historians’ Lerner-Scott Prize and the Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Colonial History.


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. www.washcoll.edu

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, more than 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. For more, visit www.mountvernon.org.


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Maya Jasanoff

John Fea

Benjamin H. Irvin

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? cover

Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty cover

Liberty’s Exiles cover

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