Scholar of the early republic wins American history book prize
By Jennifer Schuessler
Alan Taylor, author of “American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850,” has been named the winner of the New-York Historical Society’s 2022 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize, which is awarded each year for the best work of American history or biography.
The book, published by W.W. Norton, takes a capacious view of the period between the end of the American Revolution and Congress’ failed efforts to pass compromise bills over slavery to stave off the looming Civil War. It looks beyond the familiar great men and geographical boundaries, depicting the expanding country as an “always-imperiled” nation built on “an unstable foundation of rival regions and an ambiguous Constitution.”
David S. Reynolds, reviewing the book last year in The New York Times Book Review, praised it as an “expansive overview” that keenly conveys the internal divisions and animosities that find echoes today.
“Many histories of this important interregnum period have been written, but none emphasizes the fragility of the American experiment as strongly as Taylor’s book does,” he wrote.
Taylor, a professor at the University of Virginia, is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history. His previous two books, “American Colonies” and “American Revolutions,” which took a similarly wide-angled and nuanced view of the nation’s beginnings, have been scholarly touchstones in the escalating political battles over American history.
His work may be short on sunny paeans to the wisdom of the founders. But in an interview with the Times last year, Taylor said that in his class lectures he always tries to connect back to the founders’ belief that democracy was a living organism which, if not constantly defended by engaged citizens, would “dissolve.”
“The founders had a very clear understanding of that,” he said. “We have a much less clear understanding.”
The book prize, which will be given at a private ceremony in April, comes with an award of $50,000. Previous winners have included Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky, Eric Foner and Gordon S. Wood.