Author Kevin J. Hayes Wins 2018 WC’s George Washington Prize

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Author and historian Kevin J. Hayes has won the coveted George Washington Prize, including an award of $50,000, for his new book, George Washington: A Life in Books. One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary awards and now in its 13th year, the George Washington Prize honors its namesake by recognizing the year’s best new books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience. Conferred by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Washington College, the award will be presented to Hayes on May 23 at a black-tie gala at Mount Vernon.

In George Washington: A Life in Books, Hayes presents an intellectual biography of Washington that should permanently dispel popular misconceptions of America’s leading Founding Father as a man of all action and no ideas. Washington scholars have long known that he owned an impressive library of more than 1,300 volumes. Hayes has gone further by meticulously paging through Washington’s surviving books held at the Boston Athenaeum, the Washington Library at Mount Vernon, and other collections, as well as nearly 900 pages of Washington’s notes on his reading, to create a portrait of him as a reader. By closely examining Washington’s notes, Hayes has uncovered an intellectual curiosity that dozens of previous biographers have missed. As a young man, Washington read popular serials such as Gentleman’s Magazine and The Spectator, which helps to bridge the long-imagined gap between him and his learned contemporaries like Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams.

Hayes’s project began with a fellowship that he received in 2008 from Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. The award allowed him to spend a month working with rare volumes at the Boston Athenaeum, which holds a large portion of George Washington’s personal library.

“While Washington never attended college and felt self-conscious about his lack of formal education compared to some of his peers, he was a broadly inquisitive man who found pleasure as well as instruction in books,” said Adam Goodheart, the Starr Center’s Hodson Trust Griswold Director. “At his plantation along the Potomac River, remote from the intellectual centers of the Enlightenment, the volumes on his shelves formed his high-speed internet connection: the gateway to a global community of thinkers, writers, and leaders.”

Established in 2005, the George Washington Prize has honored a dozen leading writers on the Revolutionary era including, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical Hamilton. For this year’s prize, a distinguished jury comprised of notable historians Denver Brunsman, Flora Fraser, and Peter Onuf, selected the seven finalists from a field of more than 50 books.

Mount Vernon’s event on May 23 will also honor the six finalists for the 2017 prize:

S. Max Edelson, The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Harvard University Press)
Eric Hinderaker, Boston’s Massacre (Harvard University Press)
Jon Kukla, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (Simon & Schuster)
James E. Lewis, Jr., The Burr Conspiracy Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (Princeton University Press)
Jennifer Van Horn, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press)
Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press)

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