by Ron Charles)
Two professors at the University of Virginia — Alan Taylor and Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy — are among the three finalists for this year’s George Washington Book prize. The $50,000 award, one of the country’s most lucrative literary prizes, recognizes the best new book about early American history.
Taylor has been nominated for “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832” (Norton), which was also a finalist for a National Book Award. Reviewing the book last fall in The Washington Post, James Oakes said that Taylor tells an “extraordinary story . . . in vivid prose and compelling, deeply researched detail. It’s hard not to be dazzled by the ease with which he moves from the lives of individual slaves, to the history of a large planter family, to the fault lines of Virginia politics, to the national debate over slavery in the western territories, out into the Atlantic world to the history of the British Empire.” Taylor won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic.”
In “The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire” (Yale), O’Shaughnessy — a dual citizen of Britain and the United States — examines the politicians, generals and admirals who struggled in vain to keep the American colonies under King George’s control. The judges said, “O’Shaughnessy persuasively demonstrates that the British leadership was remarkably talented and able. But he also shows the tremendous limitations under which these leaders had to operate, and in the process, he helps readers understand the eventual American victory.”
The third finalist for this year’s Washington Book Prize is “The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy” (Kansas), by Jeffrey L. Pasley. A professor of history at the University of Missouri, Pasley was a speechwriter on Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 1988, which must have given him more than a scholar’s taste for great political battles. The judges praised Pasley for capturing “with verve and wit the frothy politics that emerged unexpectedly at the end of the eighteenth century. ‘The First Presidential Contest’ makes it very unlikely that the 1796 presidential campaign will ever be thrust into the shadows again.”
In a statement announcing the finalists, Ted Maris-Wolf, deputy director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, said that these works of history “not only reveal new understandings about the complex legacies of revolution in our young republic but also place American history within a larger, global context. They challenge us to re-think many of our assumptions about race, politics, and diplomacy in early America.”
This is the 10th year for the George Washington Book Prize, which is co-sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Mount Vernon. Gordon S. Wood, Joyce Appleby and Annette Gordon-Reed served as judges for this year’s prize. They selected the finalists from 40 nominees published during 2013.
The winner will be announced on May 20 during a ceremony at Mount Vernon.
Ron Charles is the deputy editor of The Washington Post's book section. His reviews appear every Wednesday in the Style section. Follow him on Twitter @RonCharles