Mount Vernon, a Beautiful Evening, and a $50,000 History Prize

The dinner for the George Washington Book Prize began with cocktails at his historic home.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

It’s tough to say what or who was more impressive—the cocktails on the windswept lawn of Mount Vernon Estate, the guests in formal dress, the golden late afternoon light, the views of the shimmering Potomac, or the evening’s honoree, who got her undergraduate degree at Harvard, her master’s at Oxford and her PhD at Yale. Let’s say it was a draw, because all were tough acts to beat and all complemented one another.

The occasion was the eighth annual George Washington Book Prize dinner, hosted by Washington College of Chestertown, Maryland; the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a formidable nationwide group that has kept the historic estate viable for more than 150 years.

Out of four dozen nominees and three finalists, the $50,000 prize was awarded to Maya Jasanoff, an associate professor of history at Harvard. Her book, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, was lauded for its research, concept, perspectives and “enviable prose style and penetrating insights” by the jury that determined the prize’s finalists. It focuses on a niche piece of the American Revolution, the approximately 60,000 American “loyalists” who doubted their future in the new nation and departed US shores for exile in British territories such as Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and India.

The other two finalists were John Fea for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Benjamin H. Irvin for Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors.

Washington is a town of perks, but few compare to cocktails on the lush green front lawn of Mount Vernon Estate on one of the prettiest evenings of the year. The view toward Maryland is still uncompromised by modern times; what you see is probably what George and Martha Washington saw, river and woods. Another perk was that the mansion was open for guests to walk through at their leisure. Standing in the room where Washington died in 1799, looking at the simple four-poster bed upon which he took his last breaths, will never be uninteresting. Being there without a crush of tourists allows for some quiet reflection.

The guests, numbering not much more than 100, stood on the lawn, sipping and talking, while nearby a large flock of geese waited patiently, as if to indicate we were in their spot and were it not for this fancy event they would be enjoying their evening ritual, alone. After the book prize winner was announced, a marching band came through and guided everyone along a path to the dinner in the glass-walled Ford Orientation Center. Fife and drum would have been expected, but the compositions of John Philip Sousa were rousing. The menu, too, was not 18th century, but no doubt George Washington, the sustainable farmer, would be pleased with the salad of spring asparagus. It was followed by surf and turf: rockfish and filet mignon. Dessert was chocolate tart.

Speeches were threaded through the meal, along with a number of introductions. Top dog on the guest list was Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Also there was Judge Richard Bennett of the US District Court for Maryland; Edwin S. Grosvenor, great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell; Gary N. Geisel of M&T Bank; Maryland’s state archivist, Edward Papenfuse; several out-of-state members of the Ladies’ Association; historians; and officials from the sponsoring organizations.

“I’m a writer of history, and I want to thank the other writers of history in this crowd,” said Jasanoff. “I’m drawn to things that challenge our expectations—the unfamiliar parts.” She said that to research the book she went everywhere the loyalists went: Shelburne, Nova Scotia; Brantford, Ontario; Jamaica and the Bahamas; and Ghazipur, India. “What’s the takeaway?” she asked, and then answered her own question: “History is written by the winners and often forgotten by the losers. Any loser’s story deserves a fair hearing. This is a history of America in the world.” Then, noting the location of the dinner and the prize’s namesake, Jasanoff concluded, “George Washington’s great achievement was to make one nation out of people who fought a civil war. Remembering there is not just one way to be Americans, I’m very proud to be a loyal American tonight of all nights.”