Looking ahead to its 300th anniversary year in 2024, Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Company has announced it will inaugurate the David McCullough Prize for Excellence in American Public History, to be awarded annually starting next year.
The McCullough Prize will celebrate contributions to the field of American public history that “educate, entertain and inspire readers, visitors, and audiences to more fully appreciate and value learning history through nonfiction and fiction literature, museums and exhibitions, community civic initiatives, theater, narrative and documentary filmmaking,” according to the Carpenters’ Company.
The company, now an association of architects, building contractors, and structural engineers, but a guild of master builders when founded in Philadelphia since 1724, “intends to raise its profile and that of Carpenters’ Hall,” said Christina Thompson, Carpenters’ Company director. “We hope to enhance our visitor experience, an effort we have just initiated, and remind all that the idea of an American republic started here and in Carpenters’ Hall. The establishment of the McCullough Prize broadens our commitment to making an appreciation of history central to the responsibility of citizenship.”
The formal announcement will be made at a small Carpenters’ Hall ceremony at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 21. Events, including a celebratory film about the importance of history and the many contributions of McCullough, who will also be present and who will speak, will be broadcast outside the hall for one and all.
The celebrated historian and author welcomes the opportunity to drive home the importance of history — particularly at this historical moment.
“There’s never been a time when the need for the understanding of our history, who we are, why we are, where we’ve been … has been as great as right now,” McCullough said in an interview. “To have a leader in Washington who’s pathetically ignorant, who thinks that Canada tried to burn down Washington, is heartbreaking. It makes you cry. But we have to keep the faith.”
(For the record: the British set fire to the White House during the War of 1812, not Canadians, as President Trump recently proclaimed.)
Carpenters’ Hall, a small, elegant Georgian building on Chestnut Street between Third and Fourth Streets, had just opened in 1774 when representatives from the increasingly unsettled colonies convened there for the First Continental Congress.
The delegates, angered by what they perceived as increasingly aggressive actions on the part of the British Parliament, agreed to petition King George III for a redress of various grievances and, if the king’s response proved inadequate, to convene a second congress to pursue perhaps more extreme measures.
The Second Continental Congress began meeting a block away in 1775 in what is now Independence Hall, and in 1776 declared the colonies an independent nation.
Carpenters’ Hall, a National Historic Landmark within Independence National Historical Park, was designed by Robert Smith for use as a meeting hall for the Carpenters’ Guild.
Sam Katz, executive producer of History Making Productions, which put together the film for the event, noted that public history, as distinct from academic history, focuses on “bringing the stories of American history to the public.”
McCullough is perhaps the most distinguished practitioner of public history. Twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he is the author of John Adams, The Great Bridge, Truman, The Path Between the Seas, and several other works.
“The ignorance of history is heartbreaking,” McCullough said. “It’s a form of national creeping amnesia.”
A panel of nominators for the McCullough Prize will also be announced Thursday morning, Katz said.