Marcus Rediker: Awarded $50,000 George Washington Book Prize

Historians in the News

MOUNT VERNON, Va. – The fourth annual $50,000 George Washington Book Prize, honoring the most important new book about America’s founding era, was awarded at Mount Vernon on May 29 to Marcus Rediker for The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking, 2007). In this bicentennial year of the abolition of the slave trade, Rediker – a prize-winning author who chairs the history department at the University of Pittsburgh – was honored for his definitive and painfully evocative account of the floating prisons that carried an estimated 12.4 million Africans across the “Middle Passage” of the Atlantic to help build the new America.

One of the largest book awards in the country, the George Washington Book Prize is sponsored by Washington College in Chestertown, Md., the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington's Mount Vernon.
A social historian, Rediker’s subject is not only the slave ships – vessels of such terror they had to be outfitted with special netting to prevent the desperate Africans from throwing themselves overboard – but also the kidnapped Africans and their many individual histories and attempts at resistance; the common sailors who were their prison guards, tormentors and sometime fellow victims; and the necessarily brutal ships’ captains who were the agents of a new global capitalism made possible by the trade in human life.

“One of the things I wanted to do in this book was to make our understanding of the slave trade concrete – hence, my subtitle, ‘a human history’ – because I think our capacity to live with injustice depends to some extent on making it abstract,” said Rediker, whose fierce opposition to the death penalty was the inspiration for The Slave Ship and its exploration of what he describes as the historic connection between race and terror. “The George Washington Book Prize is a tremendous honor, and a surprise. I grew up in the South, went to high school in Virginia, so George Washington and the Virginia aristocracy always loomed large in my mind. It’s where I first came to understand issues of race and class and I’ve been working on them ever since.”

The award was presented to Rediker at a black-tie dinner -- complete with fireworks and candlelit tours of Washington’s Mansion -- attended by some 300 luminaries from the worlds of book publishing, politics, journalism and academia. The Mount Vernon event also celebrated the works of the two other finalists: Woody Holton for Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (Hill and Wang) and Jon Latimer for 1812: War with America (Belknap/Harvard). The books were selected by a three-person jury of distinguished American historians, including Robert L. Middlekauff of the University of California at Berkeley, chair; Elizabeth A. Fenn of Duke University; and Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, director of Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies and professor of history at the University of Virginia.

In their report on the winning entry, the jurors wrote that “Rediker shares one quality with the demographers who study the slave trade, he respects evidence and uses it in the telling of slave history. But it is not the numbers of people that interest him (though he reports the horrifying figures demographers give on the extent of the trade), it is the experience of these people. His is a ‘human history,’ his book’s subtitle that may seem redundant, but isn’t. Virtually every aspect of the story of where the slaves were from, how they were captured and imprisoned, transported to slave ships, and their treatment on board is covered….Along the way the reader learns much, not only about the slaves but also about the men who owned the ships and ran them….Rediker describes his book as ‘painful’; it was surely painful to write. Despite the emotional cost to its author, it is beautifully written. Indeed the book is, in its use of evidence and its determination to expose the bleakness of the slave experience, evocative and moving, and deeply instructive in unsuspected ways.”

Rediker’s book was named the winner by a panel of two representatives from each of the three institutions that created and sponsor the prize -- Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association – plus historian Patricia Bonomi of New York University.

“For more than 200 years, Americans have been engaged in an ongoing – and sometimes contentious – conversation about the meaning and significance of our founding era,” 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 prize. “The George Washington Book Prize honors books that contribute fresh insights to that national conversation, and that approach history as a literary art. Rediker’s book succeeds marvelously on both counts: it is a majestic, even poetic book, profoundly moral but never moralistic, and suffused with a sense of deep human sympathy.”

“Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship is a brilliant, exhaustive and deeply humane work of scholarship, which, although it is a history that encompasses every country in the Atlantic World, nonetheless shaped the Founding Era in profound ways,” said James G. Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “The legacy of this history remains one of our challenges in America today.”

Created in 2005, the George Washington Book Prize was awarded in its inaugural year to Ron Chernow for Alexander Hamilton and in 2006 to Stacy Schiff for A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. This is the second time it has been awarded for a book on the slave trade – last year it went to Charles Rappleye for Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution.

About the 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.

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 through its partnership with Preserve America. 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.
With its new Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has created the equivalent of a presidential library for George Washington. “We want to be the first place people think of when they have a question about George Washington,” noted James Rees, Mount Vernon’s Executive Director. “The George Washington Book Prize is an important component in our aggressive outreach program to historians, teachers, and students.”

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