Colin Calloway Receives the 2019 George Washington Prize

Colin Calloway is presented with the 2019 George Washington Prize medal, flanked by Adam Goodheart of Washington College and Sarah Coulson of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.Colin Calloway, winner of the $50,000 George Washington Prize for his 2018 book, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, was honored by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Washington College at the Union League Club in New York City on October 24, 2019.

One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary prizes, now in its fourteenth year, the George Washington Prize honors its namesake by recognizing the best new books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience. Gilder Lehrman President Jim Basker noted in his introductory remarks that this would be the second time the award was presented in New York City. The award was first given in New York in 2015, when Lin-Manuel Miranda was recognized for the musical Hamilton, which was based on the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, inaugural George Washington Prize winner in 2005.

From left to right: Sarah Coulson, Jim Basker, Louise Lehrman, Colin Calloway, Lewis Lehrman, Adam GoodheartHe pointed out as well that, while the ceremony was not being held at George Washington's Mount Vernon, the historic Union League Club had been founded in 1863, a few blocks up from where George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, at Federal Hall.

Co-Founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute Lewis Lehrman gave the evening’s opening remarks, followed by Sarah Miller Coulson, the regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and Adam Goodheart, director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

Gilder Lehrman Student Advisory Council member Marsha Darbouze describes a book by a finalist for the 2019 George Washington Prize.Students from the Gilder Lehrman Student Advisory Council and Washington College presented summaries of the six finalists’ books: Stephen Fried’s Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (Crown); Catherine Kerrison’s Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America (Ballantine Books); Joyce Lee Malcolm’s The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life (Pegasus Books); Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (Viking); Russell Shorto’s Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom (Norton); and Peter Stark’s Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father (HarperCollins). The finalists were all in attendance to sign copies of their books during the reception.

2019 George Washington Prize Winner Colin CallowaySarah Coulson introduced Colin Calloway as the “first scholar to unify two narratives”—referring to the stories of both American Indians and George Washington—in his prize-winning book The Indian World of George Washington. Calloway, a native of Yorkshire, England, gave thanks to many, but above all to his parents and his editor at Oxford University Press. His parents, he said, “would have been as puzzled tonight as they were fifty years ago,” when he first voiced his passionate interest in studying American Indian culture and history; and yet, they never discouraged him. His editor, Timothy Bent, meanwhile, pushed back against the general concern that the book maintain a certain length for commercial viability, telling him that it should be “as long as it needs to be.” Calloway referred to his residency at Mount Vernon, where he was able to study George Washington through his correspondence and other collected writings, as “one of the best professional experiences of [his] life.”

At the dinner, Doug Bradburn, director of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, recognized the significance of the Gilder Lehrman Gallery at Mount Vernon, which showcases documents from the Gilder Lehrman Collection. He personally thanked Lewis Lehrman and Richard Gilder for their essential support for Mount Vernon and the George Washington Prize and presented Calloway with his $50,000 award.

Mr. Calloway stated his guiding philosophy that American Indian history is not a matter of telling different American stories, but telling the story of all of us inclusively, with the approach of showing how American Indian history is actually the story of the founding of the nation. History, in general, Mr. Calloway suggested, is “people doing terrible things and people surviving.” His use of George Washington as the focus of his prize-winning book was a means to get the story of the American Indian into the canon of US history.

Colin Calloway closed the evening by answering questions from dinner guests.What surprised him the most, said Mr. Calloway, was that his interest in George Washington increased as he researched the book. He had “little affection” for the young George Washington but felt that as president, particularly, Washington developed a moral compass. His correspondence showed internal conflict. Calloway observed that even in Washington’s own time, many condemned him for his policy of taking American Indian land.

Questions from the audience closed the evening’s program. Many stayed after for further discussion and the book signing.