History professor David Blight won the 2019 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for his book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” according to a Feb. 8 announcement from Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
The Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize is awarded annually to “recognize the best books of historical writing on Lincoln and the Civil War,” according to James G. Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and one of the six board members who decided this year’s winners.
Blight’s award-winning book is a nearly-900-page biography of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a monumental leader of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century. According to Basker, Blight’s work stood out for its combination of “investigative scholarship” and appeal to the general public. He described the work as “a book every caring American should read.”
“It was a unanimous vote by the board,” said Basker. “This is a biography of Frederick Douglass that is going to stand as the definitive biography for the next 50 to 100 years. It’s hard to imagine that this book will be surpassed.”
“This book makes clear not only the life of Douglass, but also manages to give you the larger political context as well as a deep psychological study of Douglass,” Basker added. “It makes clear the complexity of the world he faced and the family life he lived in.”
The $50,000 Lincoln Prize was established in 1990 by philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, in partnership with Dr. Gabor Boritt, director emeritus of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.
Annually, the process of choosing the winner begins with a three-person jury, whose members read all the nominated works and create a shortlist of three to seven works to recommend to the board. This year, there were 102 nominations. Five were chosen as finalists.
Barbara Gannon, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, was a member of the three-person jury who made the recommendations to the board. She described Blight’s work as a “900-page page-turner.”
“It is a beautifully written book that lets you walk alongside Frederick Douglass from slavery to his death,” she said. “Even though it is written by an academic, it will be of interest to any reader.”
This is the second time Blight has been recognized for the award. In 2002, he was awarded the prize for his book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.”
Blight, who is also the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center, said that he has been working on Douglass for most of his academic life, and the book on him has been more than 10 years in the making. Blight described it as a “great honor” for such a work to be recognized by fellow historians.
“Douglass deeply lived that experience from slavery to freedom and thought a lot about what it means to be an American,” Blight said. “He was a figure who endured all the worst of slavery and survived. A genius of words and language, he has many resonances in our society today, especially when public rhetoric has been somewhat demeaned.”
Since October, Blight has conducted more than 50 book talks around the country as part of an ongoing book tour. Although he said that it was sometimes “exhausting,” he also described it as “the biggest thrill” to be able to meet readers and hear their reactions.
Blight will be officially recognized during an event hosted by Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute on American History at the Union League Club in New York City on Tuesday, April 16.
Ayumi Sudo | firstname.lastname@example.org