It was, in part, to address that lack of knowledge that Washington College created the book prize named for the first president. (The college also gives out the Sophie Kerr Prize, which grants more than $50,000 each year to a graduating senior of exceptional literary promise.)
But Washington didn't even make the final round of his own literary contest. The other two books to make the cut were Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation by Rhys Isaac, and Gordon S. Wood's The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.
The results didn't disappoint Widmer, whose Starr Center cooperated with Historic Mount Vernon and New York's Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to create the $50,000 award, one of the most lucrative in the literary world. It was modeled on the $50,000 Lincoln Book Prize, an annual honor for Civil War writing, administered by Gettysburg College and also underwritten by Gilder Lehrman.
By comparison, Pulitzer Prizes are worth about $10,000.
Widmer says the size of the award will likely inspire more and better Washington scholarship in the future.
In the meantime, he says, the choice of Alexander Hamilton would have suited last night's man of the hour just fine.
"This prize is broad and accessible, just the way Washington was," he says. "He wasn't interested in the cult of George Washington. He was interested in what was good for the American people. That was the generosity of his outlook, and we're trying to follow it."