Richard Beeman Wins George Washington Book Prize

May 20, 2010


The sixth annual George Washington Book Prize, which honors the most important new book about America’s founding era, has been awarded to Richard Beeman for Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House, 2009). Beeman, author of five previous books on the history of revolutionary America, received the $50,000 prize Thursday evening, May 20, at a black-tie dinner at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Richard Beeman is professor of history and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a trustee of the National Constitution Center. Plain, Honest Men is a dramatic and engrossing account of the men who met in Philadelphia over the summer of 1787 to design a radically new form of government. In describing the daily debates of the Constitutional Convention, Beeman explores the passionate intellectual and political conflicts among the Founders.

The jury of scholars who chose Beeman’s book as a finalist from among 62 nominees described it as “the fullest and most authentic account of the Constitutional Convention ever written.” They also praised the author for his clear, accessible prose and his mission “to instill a sense of stewardship among 21st-century Americans, urging them to see the Constitution as not only a durable document, but a living one, unfettered by original intentions.”

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 the nation’s largest literary award for early American history, and one of the largest prizes of any kind.

“The Washington Prize honors works that illuminate the founding era’s lasting relevance,” 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. “More than two centuries after the Constitution was written, many of the debates that began that summer in Philadelphia continue today. Plain, Honest Men will inform those conversations and also spark new ones.”

Beeman’s book was named the winner by a panel of representatives from each of the three institutions that sponsor the prize, plus a distinguished outside historian. “We found Plain, Honest Men to be a masterfully written and enormously edifying book,” said James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, which funds the award.

The Mount Vernon event also celebrated the works of the two other finalists for this year’s Washington Prize: R.B. Bernstein for The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford 2009), and Edith B. Gelles for Abigail & John: Portrait of A Marriage (William Morrow 2009). Finalists were selected by a three-person jury of distinguished American historians: Theodore J. Crackel, editor in chief of The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, who served as chair; Catherine Allgor of the University of California, Riverside; and Andrew Cayton of Miami University of Ohio.

Created in 2005, the George Washington Book Prize was presented that year to Ron Chernow for Alexander Hamilton. Other winners are 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, and Marcus Rediker (2008) for The Slave Ship: A Human History. Last spring, the 2009 prize was awarded to Annette Gordon-Reed 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.

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