$50,000 cash prize awaits winner

COLUMBIA, Mo 2/16/14 (Beat Byte) -- "The George Washington Book Prize recognizes the year’s best books on the nation’s founding era," and University of Missouri history professor Jeff Pasley is among three finalists in the running to receive it.   

The award, which includes a $50,000 cash prize, even has newspapers dueling over geographic primacy.  Closer to the other two finalists, The Washington Post  today proclaimed Two Univ. of Virginia professors among finalists for George Washington Book Prize

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on the other hand, led with Mizzou professor is finalist for $50,000 book prize.  

Pasley's book, The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy, "captures with verve and wit the frothy politics that emerged unexpectedly at the end of the eighteenth century," Washington Book Prize judges noted in their nomination.  

Published in 2013 by the University of Kansas Press, it is the first study in 50 years of the 1796 U.S. Presidential election, unusual in that it involved no entrenched political parties, no national vote, and little to no candidate participation.  Pasley argues, however, that the 1796 election "set the stage for all of American politics to follow."  

Vice President John Adams and running mate Thomas Pinckney ran against former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and running mate Aaron Burr that year, after the nation's first President, George Washington, swore off a third term.   Adams won the race, and by the electoral college rules at the time, took Jefferson as his Vice President. 

Where other historians have treated the 1796 election as a "personal squabble" between the candidates, Pasley treats it "as a rough draft of all democratic presidential campaigns to come," the book explains, setting up the now well-known North vs. South; right vs left; liberal vs. conservative; and Democrat vs. Republican contests that have defined American politics since. 

"Pasley has written a superb study of a crucial but oft-neglected election," writes reviewer Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln.  "Filled with imaginative research and brilliant vignettes involving the great and not-so-great, The First Presidential Contest is a major study of one of the landmarks in the early history of democracy in the United States." 

Now in its 10th year, the George Washington Book Prize has honored works about Washington; Alexander Hamilton; Benjamin Franklin; slavery in the early Republic; and the U.S. Constitution.  Winner Annette Gordon-Reed also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

This year's other two finalists are Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy's The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution; and Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.  

The prize will be awarded in May at Washington's home, Mount Vernon. 

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat