MU history professor named finalist for $50,000 book award

Monday, February 17, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:56 a.m. CST, Monday, February 17, 2014
Author and MU professor Jeffrey L. Pasley, is one of three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize. He was nominated for his work “The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy.”

*CORRECTION: Aaron Burr was the running mate for presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 election. An earlier version misstated the candidate pairing.

COLUMBIA — MU history professor Jeffrey L. Pasley was named one of three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize Sunday.

The $50,000 annual prize is awarded to authors of books on the United States' early history. Finalists are announced each year on President's Day, Feb. 17, and the winner will be named at a ceremony at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate near Alexandria, Va., May 20.

The award is co-sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Mount Vernon.

Pasley authored "The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy." The other finalists are "The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire" by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy and "The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia, 1772-1832" by Alan Taylor.

"It's great company to be in," Pasley said Sunday. "But I'm not counting the money yet."

Pasley's book tells the story of the 1796 U.S. presidential election. After George Washington refused to accept a third term as president, candidates John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the first to compete for the presidency. The 1796 election was also the first determined by the Electoral College.

"Most of the system is not in the Constitution," Pasley said. "They were trying to figure out what to do with no map."

Pasley said the 1796 election was interesting because neither candidate campaigned directly to the public, and much of the campaign occurred out of public view. *Jefferson's running-mate Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton waged most of the campaigns.

"There was very little public information. There was a lot of uncertainty," Pasley said.

The book was written over the course of seven years, and the lack of information that one would expect from a more modern campaign made the process difficult, he said. Pasley pieced the story together through newspaper essays and letters from politicians' estates, made available by the Library of Congress.

"I was just glad to get it done on any basis," Pasley said. "That people think enough of it to nominate it for an award is great."

The jury for the award, which includes historians Gordon S. Wood, Joyce Appleby and Annette Gordon-Reed, praised Pasley's style of writing.

"Pasley captures with verve and wit the frothy politics that emerged unexpectedly at the end of the eighteenth century," according to the jury in a Washington College press release.

Pasley employs a "middle-out" approach, focusing on the people who write speeches and organize campaigns rather than the political figureheads at the top or the mass voters at the bottom.

He said this approach was informed by time he spent in Washington, D.C., as a reporter for the New Republic magazine and later as a speechwriter for Al Gore's 1988 campaign.

"My method is based on the idea that, hey, I've got an interesting perspective on this,"he said. "I've always enjoyed seeing the founding fathers as politicians, rather than as gods."

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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