Two with U.Va. Ties Among Three Finalists for Prestigious History Book Prize

Released: 18-Mar-2014 10:00 AM EDT
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Newswise — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., March 18, 2014 — A University of Virginia history professor and his colleague, who arrives on Grounds this month, are among the three finalists for one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary awards, the $50,000 George Washington Book Prize, which recognizes the year’s best new books on early American history.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, a professor in the Corcoran Department of History and Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, is the author of “The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire.” Alan Taylor, who joined U.Va.’s faculty this year as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor and will begin teaching this fall , has written “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.”

“Everyone here is enormously excited and proud,” said Paul Halliday, who chairs the history department. “As far as I know, a pairing like this is without precedent.

“It’s a testament to the strength we have long enjoyed in the history of colonial America and the early republic, and to the tight personal and programmatic ties uniting this department with Monticello and its research center,” he added. “It is a vital and wonderful relationship, one that produces results, not only in prize recognition, but in so many other kinds of programs for scholars and the public.”

O’Shaughnessy, who has taught at U.Va. for more than 10 years, said he was drawn to Grounds by the “reputation of the University for early American history and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of it as a community, an ‘Academical Village.’ It also has a real character that does not oppress its students with the weight of learning, but rather seems to develop them as personalities and free thinkers. It has a joie de vie.”

O’Shaughnessy’s book disputes a theory that incompetent military commanders and political leaders in Britain were to blame for the empire’s defeat during the American Revolution. Weaving together personal stories of 10 prominent men who directed the British forces, O’Shaughnessy – who holds dual British and American citizenship – uncovers the reasons that rebellious colonials were able to achieve their surprising victory.

He thought of the title and structure in the mid-1980s, but envisioned creating a documentary series. He began to work on it as a book in the fall of 2001.

“I was born in Britain and was always very aware of the seeming neglect of the British perspective of the American Revolution,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It was generally not taught in high schools in Britain, and the British often seemed to be caricatured in the films and popular histories in the U.S. This dimension not only makes the war more fascinating but much more intelligible and easier to comprehend.”

Taylor’s book concentrates on slavery and war within Virginia.

“‘The Internal Enemy’ tells the story of about 3,000 enslaved Africans from the Chesapeake region who escaped slavery by fleeing to the British and helping them to wage war on the United States during the War of 1812,” said Taylor, who taught at the University of California, Davis before joining U.Va.’s faculty. “The book sets that story in the context of the shifting nature of slavery after the American Revolution.”

“In the field of the early history of the republic, teaching at U.Va. is the best job in the country,” Taylor said. “I will have superb colleagues, many of whom I know already. I was very impressed with the graduate students.”

Both books have already won plenty of notice.

“The Internal Enemy” is currently also a finalist for the history prize from the Los Angeles Times, the Merle Curti Prize in social/intellectual history and the Library of Virginia nonfiction prize. It was also on the short list for a National Book Award. (Taylor has received Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for earlier writings.)

O’Shaughnessy’s book won the New York Historical Society’s annual American History Book Prize and the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award for histories of the Revolutionary period. It is also on the short list for the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize for Military History. It won the 2013 Great Midwest Book Festival in the Regional Literature category and the 2014 Cincinnati History Prize, sponsored by the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey. It has received an honorable mention for the 2013 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in the U.S. history category, and was voted best book of the year by the New York Roundtable of the American Revolution.

“It’s a great honor to be a finalist for this distinguished prize and it is especially nice to have good company in Andrew, who is such an accomplished and insightful historian of the revolutionary era,” Taylor said.

O’Shaughnessy says there is no intra-departmental rivalry as the May 20 announcement of the George Washington Book Prize looms. “Alan and I have joked with each other that we have 50,000 reasons to be arch-rivals,” O’Shaughnessy said. “But we are, in reality, good friends who delighted that our nominations have given publicity to the program at U.Va.”

O’Shaughnessy said having two nominations from one history department indicates that U.Va. is a leading place to study early American History.

“This is particularly true thanks to the recent recruitment of Alan Taylor and the presence of Max Edelson,” associate professor and director of graduate studies in the history department, O’Shaughnessy said. “Alan Taylor is regarded as the leading historian of the period among his generation and is a former winner of the Bancroft Prize. Peter Onuf recently retired, but has remained active as a mentor and a senior fellow at Monticello.

“It not only has an outstanding faculty in the colonial/revolutionary era, but the University also hosts two major documentary editing projects of the Founding Fathers: the Papers of George Washington and the Papers of James Madison. It has the additional benefit of the research facilities of Monticello, which offers fellowships and edits the retirement papers of Thomas Jefferson.”

This year’s finalists reveal new understandings about the complex legacies of revolution and place American history within a larger, global context, said Ted Maris-Wolf, deputy director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, which co-sponsors the George Washington Prize with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. “They challenge us to re-think many of our assumptions about race, politics and diplomacy in early America.”
Maris-Wolf said that it was uncommon to have two candidates from one faculty.

“We are very excited about Taylor and O’Shaughessy because their books show the depth and breadth of the U.Va. faculty,” Maris-Wolf said. “These are two distinguished scholars who are doing ground-breaking early American history in military, politics, diplomacy, race and freedom. This is rare and very good for the students.”

“These books are just too good to miss. Everyone should know about them,” said James Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. “We want the George Washington Prize to bring great history to a larger public – to teachers, students and general readers everywhere.”

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