The 2023 JAR Book-of-the-Year Award

Since 2014, the Journal of the American Revolution has recognized the adult nonfiction volume that best mirrors the mission of the journal with its national Book-of-the-Year Award. This year the editors are pleased to announce a winner and two runners-up. All three books are outstanding contributions to the history of the Revolutionary and Founding Eras.

 Award Winner

The Lionkeeper of Algiers:  How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War by Des Ekin (Essex, CT: Prometheus Books, 2023). 

The Washington administration was the rookie in the game of international diplomacy, and this fact could not have been more evident than in the case of the Barbary States and their capture of American seamen.  Thomas Jefferson is frequently credited with having resolved this situation during his presidency, but he was powerless as Washington’s secretary of state to stop the enslavement of the unfortunate American captives. One man, however, was able to use his unusual position as the chief counselor to the Dey of Algiers. Jefferson credited the eventual release of many sailors held prisoner to James Leander Cathcart, “’the honestest and ablest consul we have with the Barbary powers:  a man of very sound judgement, and fearless.’” (page 218)

The Lionkeeper of Algiers:  How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War by Des Ekin certainly deserves the 2023 JAR Book Award.  Ekin’s biographical sketch tells a story that many Americans are unfamiliar with. Cathcart was one of many captured on the high seas by the Barbary pirates, who were eager to take advantage of the young nation’s inexperience and weakness.  The city of Algiers becomes a subject in the book, for its politics and physical layout made escape impossible.  Ekin tells the story of how Cathcart was always in the right place at the right time.  Being so fortunate, he readily took advantage of his situation to go from being the chief lionkeeper in the Dey’s personal zoo to becoming the Dey’s most important non-Muslim advisor and clerk.  Although Cathchart had to endure the violent and unpredictable temperament of the Dey, he was able to take care of other American captives.

Cathcart’s true importance was as a liaison between Algiers and the American government under President George Washington.  The administration appeared inept and unable to handle the captured sailors’ predicament, so Cathcart became instrumental in negotiating for their release.  Although he could have purchased his own freedom at any time, Cathcart made sure that all the Americans were well-cared for.  Ekin’s book is an easy and exciting narrative, making the reader eager to turn the page to see how long Cathcart’s luck would hold out.  The Lionkeeper of Algiers:  How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homelandfrom War is an excellent work about a unique man and America’s first foray into foreign affairs.

See our review of The Lionkeeper of Algiers

Honorable Mention

Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution by Eli Merritt (Athens,Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2022)

In many ways, the history of the United States is one of union and disunion. From the Civil War to rumors of secession in the present, it has long been an open question of whether America would be one nation or many. Eli Merritt’s Disunion Among Ourselves takes a deep dive into the origins of this ongoing drama, documenting “the centrifugal force of disunion” that the founders faced and how they overcame it. Merritt argues that the men who sat in Congress between 1774 and 1783 were constantly preoccupied by fears that the states would descend into conflict over borders and resources that would shatter the Union. As a result, “the American Union was an unwelcome alliance formed by bitterly conflictual colonies”; in other words, the creation of the United States was “a shotgun wedding.”

See our review of Disunion Among Ourselves

 

The Untold War at Sea: America’s Revolutionary Privateers by Kylie A. Hulbert (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2023)

This reconsideration of the role privateers played in the American Revolution challenges their place in the accepted popular narrative of the conflict. Despite their controversial tactics, Kylie Hulbert illustrates that privateers merit a place alongside minutemen, Continental soldiers, and the sailors of the fledgling American navy. This book offers a redefinition of who fought in the war and how their contributions were measured. The process of revolution and winning independence was global in nature, and privateers operated at its core.

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1 Comment

  • I must admit that I am disappointed with these choices. As a journal focusing on the Revolutionary War, surely a better book focusing on the Revolutionary War than on events occurring twenty years later off the coast of Africa could be found than your winner. No knock on the quality of the book, which admittedly I have not read and may be wonderful, but I think it is of little interest to most of your readers. Likewise with the first honorable mention.

    Focusing only on American Revolution books published in 2023 (though two of the three books you recognize were published in 2022), there are books of more general interest that would find a better audience. First and foremost is King Hancock by Brooke Barbier on the life of John Hancock. Other notable books in 2023 are Feeding Washington’s Army by Ricado Herrera, The Great New York Fire of 1776 by Benjamin Carp, Washington’s Marines by Jason Bohm, and American Inheritance by Edward Larson. These books have received some critical acclaim as well.

    Your second honorable mention is Untold War at Sea by Kylie Hulbert. It is an intriguing topic that I would like to read about. I prefer hardback books. Unfortunately, for nearly two years since its publication in January 2022, this 240-page book has been for sale for nearly $115.00 by the publisher, well beyond the reach of most readers. Just recently it came down in price to about $60.00, still a steep price for the average reader for a relatively slender volume. I will continue to wait.

    I am reminded that the TV ratings for the annual Oscar ceremony have been dropping for years. Why? Because esoteric films that most Americans never see are nominated. This year may be different with today’s announcement that the popular Barbie movie is nominated for Best Picture (my favorite is Oppenheimer).

    While I am not suggesting that the JAR pick books of “Transformer” movie quality or based on sales volumes, there are other fine Revolutionary War books that have much broader appeal to your readers that should have made the cut here.

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