Publication Date

March 1, 1998

Editor's Note: This is the second article in a new series on and by eminent practitioners of history; the first was the 1996 Lincoln Prize acceptance speech of David Herbert Donald. We had already scheduled publication of the 1997 Lincoln Prize acceptance speech when we heard the sad news of Professor Fehrenbacher’s death. Below we reprint his speech prefaced with a memoir written by Gabor Boritt, director of the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute.


Don Fehrenbacher died in his home in Stanford, California, on December 13,1997. He was an important historian of the era of the American Civil War during which, to quote his words, "not only the survival but the constitutional form and moral character of the nation was at stake."

He was born in Sterling, Illinois, in 1920. He was educated in, and with, the U.S. Army during World War II, flying 30 combat missions over Germany and occupied Europe ("including one that gave us a splendid view of the D-Day armada"); at Cornell College, Iowa; and at the University of Chicago, where he obtained his PhD as part of a distinguished cohort of students mentored by Avery Craven. He is survived by his wife and coworker, Virginia, two daughters, a son, eight grandchildren, the many students of his teaching years (nearly all of them at Stanford, from 1949 to 1984), and a significant body of scholarly work.

His first book, Chicago Giant (1957), about the Illinois politician John Wentworth, won the award of the American Association for State and Local History. His second book, Preparation for Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (1962), established him as one of the leading figures of a century and more of Lincoln scholarship. This careful analysis of the political milieu of Lincoln’s rise was followed by four other substantial contributions, including two collections of Lincoln’s speeches and writings: Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait (1964; trs. Spanish and Bengali), and Lincoln (2 vols., 1989) for the Library of America; also the Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (1996), a treasure trove of carefully evaluated recollected comments, compiled and edited with Virginia Fehrenbacher; and studies chiefly of sources: Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays (1987). Don told me last summer, “When I was a little boy, I lived on the Lincoln Highway. I guess I have stayed on it ever since.”

In 1976 Don completed The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 that the death of his Stanford colleague, David Potter, had left unfinished. Harvard’s William E. Gienapp described the volume as “the best analysis of the period.” The book received the Pulitzer Prize. Don further edited, or coedited, three other Potter volumes. In The South and Three Sectional Crises (1980), delivered as the Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University, he looked at three major crises in the ante-bellum Congress.

Probably Don's major work is The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (1978). The book focused on the crucial slavery case decided by the Supreme Court in 1857, and it, too, won the Pulitzer Prize. After generations of study, at last a scholar had carefully deciphered not only the highly complicated origins of the case, but also the equally difficult to understand opinions expressed by the members of the Court. The large role played by the Dred Scott case in the coming of the Civil War is considered as well.

Columbia University's Barbara Fields summed up matters eloquently about Don Fehrenbacher: "All of his books display an uncanny flair for communicating the most abstruse and technical points of law or historical evidence in prose that reads as though sculpted in marble by a master's hand."

Don's honors included the presidency of the Pacific Coast Branch of the AHA; two Guggenheim and one NEH fellowship; the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford; the Harrison Professorship at William and Mary; the Commonwealth Fund Lectures at the University College, London; the Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College; and the Seagram Lectures at the University of Toronto.

In 1997 Don Fehrenbacher received the Lincoln Prize for a lifetime of contributions to the study of the Civil War era. He was not well enough to attend the award banquet, which was therefore canceled. In July, my Wife, Liz, and I had the privilege of taking the prize to him in California. The presentation dinner included an intimate group: Don and his wife, Virginia; one of their daughters and her husband; Carl and Catherine Degler, for the historical profession; and representing the Lincoln Prize, Richard Gilder.

Don did not deliver the acceptance address that follows, which recounts his beginnings as a scholar. But he sang his own version of Gilbert and Sullivan's "When I was a Lad" We all came in on the refrained by Liz Boritt, the soprano who sang on the same stage with Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, and Renata Scotto.

When I was little more than a babe,
I saw a pretty picture of honest Abe.
I gazed at his face with admiring eyes,
And now I am the winner of the Lincoln Prize.
(He gazed at his face with admiring eyes,
And now he is the winner of the Lincoln Prize.)

Stanza followed stanza in an unforgettable evening. After completing the song, Don told Virginia, "inside this shell of a body, I still feel like a little boy."

On Saturday, December 13, 1997, Don spent the morning working on the next to last chapter of his book, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery. In the afternoon he did research in the Stanford library, went home, ate dinner with his wife of 53 years, and died in her arms.

Gabor Boritt, Gettysburg College

Becoming a Historian


For the Lincoln Prize and the great honor that accompanies it, I thank the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute, the selection jury, the board of trustees and its chairman, Gabor S. Boritt, and the founders of the Lincoln Prize, Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman. I owe much to my wife Virginia for her unfailing help; I am grateful to many other family members and friends who have encouraged me in my work; and I remember with special affection those teachers whose guidance and example influenced the course of my life.

Memory has a will of its own and often pushes its way into present experiences and expectations. In recent weeks, while looking forward to this bright moment, I have found myself looking backward to the evening 40 years ago when I received my first recognition as a professional historian. It was the Pacific Coast Branch Award for Chicago Giant: A Biography of "Long John" Wentworth, presented to me in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.

My wife's parents were visiting us from the Midwest during that Christmas season, and, together with our three children, we spent the day at some of the city's familiar tourist attractions. Then, leaving the six of them at one of those movie houses showing newsreels and other short features, I set out for the hotel where the meeting was being held. My plan was to get there near the end of the presidential address by Max Savelle of the University of Washington. After that would come the presentation of awards and my swift departure. A half hour, I thought, should be enough time for the whole operation.

On arriving at the hotel, however, I found that the program was running late. Professor Savelle was obviously just beginning a narration of his intellectual development as a historian. I had no choice but to find a seat and listen-and listen. Savelle avoided use of the first person singular by calling himself "Historicus," thus adding a good many syllables to an already substantial manuscript. To everyone in the audience that oration of some ten or eleven thousand words must have seemed rather long. To me, wriggling about on my chair and nervously eyeing my watch, it seemed interminable.

Meanwhile, back at the newsreel theater, six of its patrons were periodically checking the street outside and then returning for further contemplation of the now familiar images on the screen. They were a weary, somewhat out-of-sorts group when I finally showed up and let them gaze briefly on my prize check of $100.

Recall of the episode led me to seek out the text of Savelle's address, which began, I discovered, with some reflections on how he came to be a historian. There had been his fascination with the Arthurian cycle. There had been his memory of seeing Theodore Roosevelt ride through town in an open carriage and of hearing Woodrow Wilson deliver a notable speech. But most of all, there had been the shock of a terrible war and his being drafted into naval service. "That," he said, "finally crystallized the vague and unformed curiosities of Historicus's mind into the determination to seek the meaning of things." Why did men fight? Were wars caused by the acts of men, or were men at war caught up in elemental forces beyond their control? Could a grand pattern of human experience be discerned behind the apparently senseless chaos of events? There was, he decided only one way to search for answers to such questions. He must study history. He would try to understand man and his destiny by learning what man had been and done and thought. In this way, he would come to know the truth that sets men free; he would find wisdom and thus become "a worthy servant of mankind."

Reading this passage brought considerable discomfort as I thought of my own commonplace, meandering approach to the profession of history and the realm of Civil War scholarship. My story is scarcely worth telling, except that in a small way it offers some illustration of the imponderable elements that make historical explanation so difficult—elements such as the play of contingency, the restraints of circumstance, and the reach of the human will.

On the grounds of the grade school, I attended for nine years there was a boulder designating the spot where Abraham Lincoln delivered a political speech in 1856. And, on a more personal note, my maternal grandmother often talked about the death of her father at the great battle of Stones River. Yet neither of these stimuli turned me into a junior Civil War buff. My unremarkable and generally happy be hood in the industrial town of Sterling, Illinois, was not seasoned with any extraordinary interest in history. To be sure, I did learn many things about the past in school, at the movies, and from historical fiction such as the lively juvenile novels of Joseph Altsheler, and, later, the works of Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, and Kenneth Roberts. No doubt my first step toward the profession of history was to become an avid reader, though admittedly an undisciplined one. On the day when, upon turning 12, I received an adult's card at the public library, my first choice for checkout was no volume of history or biography, but rather Sax Rohmer's The Case Book of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Of course, over the years I devoured not only the works of S. S. Van Dine, Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse, and Richard Halliburton, but also many of the classics, from Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island toDavid Copperfield and my all-time favorite, Pride and Prejudice. Reading literature of all sorts stimulated a yearning to be a writer of some sort—perhaps a journalist or an author of mystery novels, or a humorist like Robert Benchley. In high school, I wrote skits for performance at school assemblies I crafted an elegant 10-minute address for entry in the American Legion’s annual oratorical contest. I did my first work as a stringer, reporting school news for the Sterling Daily Gazette. And to the school newspaper, I contributed a series of facetious stories burdened with such titles as “Mumps the Word, or A Pretty Girl Is Like a Malady” and “From Baker to Movie Star, or From Cinnamon Rolls to Cinema Roles.”

By then, my vague thoughts about a career had crystallized into one simple resolve. I must go to college. That, I knew, would be far from easy, and, indeed, unprecedented in our family. Neither my parents nor any of my grandparents had ever attended high school, let alone college. My father, the son of a German immigrant, had risen by apprenticeship to the ranks of skilled labor, but his wages had been cut during the Great Depression, and the times remained hard in 1939. A family of six living not much above the poverty line had no money for college.

So, after graduating from high school, I looked for a job and found one eventually as a "scaleman" at the Northwestern Steel and Wire Company for $75 a month. There in tandem with three other young men, I weighed nails, wire, and other materials as they were produced and kept production records that had to be balanced periodically. All of us were on a "merry-go-round" schedule of frequent rotation from day shift to swing shift to night shift. The ensuing year seemed endless and empty, except that my savings grew to $500, and Cornell College responded favorably to my applications for admission and scholarship aid. Like a man awaiting release from prison, I crossed off each passing day on the calendar. At last, as it was bound to do, the sun rose on September 12, 1940.

I began the day by working eight final hours at the wire mill. Then I hurried home, changed clothes, seized my already-packed suitcase, and hitchhiked the hundred miles to Mount Vernon, Iowa, arriving in time to attend the president's reception for new students. The wonder of that sudden transfer from the gray factory world of my fathers to a beautiful hilltop campus of the liberal arts remains vividly with me. The Cornell of those years is forever bathed in a glow of remembered happiness, especially so as the place where I fell in love with the right girl and with the academic way of life.

To the hope of becoming a writer I now added the determination to become a college teacher. The two occupations were, after all, frequently combined for economic as well as intellectual reasons. Just how I carne to fix more specifically on the teaching of history is not clear in my mind. It appears to have been a gradual process substantially influenced by the current of world events. As early as the spring of my freshman year, I wrote a term paper on the origins of the war in Europe, taking an isolationist point of view and relying heavily on a provocative new book by Frederick L. Schuman titled Europe on the Eve.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor six months later, the war became an American conflict, and by the middle of my junior year it was having a revolutionary effect on every college and university in the country. Called to active duty by the Army Air Corps in February 1943, I did not return to Cornell until three years later. During the interval, I saw something of history in the making (including the D-Day armada), had my first experience as a classroom teacher (of aerial navigation), and took on the responsibilities of a husband and father. I resumed life as a college student with the set purpose of pursuing the study of history an the way to a PhD, such a venture having been made financially feasible by the GI Bill of Rights. After a semester of classes, my final summer months at Cornell were devoted largely to writing a thesis on "The Diplomacy of the American Civil War." Extensive use of government documents in the project immersed me for the first time in the fascination of exploring primary source materials. It was with a whetted appetite for historical research that I enrolled at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1946.

My choice of graduate school, which set the direction of my career as a historian, was to a great extent dictated by family need in the midst of a postwar housing shortage. In Chicago we could stay with my parents-in-law until accommodations for married students became available on campus. Meanwhile, along with many other returning veterans, I plunged into the whirl of lectures, seminars, reading lists, examinations, and papers. Soon I also began to teach courses downtown at Roosevelt College, covering in one of them the history of Europe since the fan of Rome. My PhD preparations were similarly broad, ranging over modem European and all American history. I wrote papers, for instance, on such topics as the Antimachiavel of Frederick the Great, the British slave trade, Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, the Mexican venture of Napoleon ill, and the ideology of National Socialism. When it came to planning a doctoral dissertation, however, I was again affected by the constraints of my personal situation. The best research project for me would obviously be one with abundant source materials close at hand.

Fortunately, this practical consideration merely reinforced a growing interest in antebellum Illinois politics. When I arrived .at Chicago, the liveliest subject in American historiography was the coming of the Civil War, and my adviser, Avery Craven, had established himself as one of the leading figures in the field. Craven's "revisionist" outlook never suited me, but I was thoroughly infected with his insatiable desire to unravel the causes of the conflict. Under his light-handed supervision, I wrote a master's thesis on John Wentworth's Chicago Democrat and then set to work producing a dissertation titled “Illinois Political Attitudes, 1854–1861.” Among the many resources available to me were the papers of Stephen A. Douglas right there at the university library. But of course the central theme was the rise of the Republican Party, and that drew me close to Abraham Lincoln at a time when the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of his papers had just been opened for public use and reproduced on microfilm.

My interest in Lincoln, which has acquired diversity over the years, was then focused on his rise to national leadership and, more abstractly, on the interplay of personal effort and political circumstance in that achievement. I discovered, for instance, that the Lecompton controversy of 1857-58 was every bit as crucial in his career as the earlier passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Without it, there would have been no formal nomination for the United States Senate and consequently no Lincoln-Douglas debates to give him standing as a presidential candidate. My thoughts on the subject eventually crystallized into an article. I submitted it to the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly and can still remember racing up several flights of stairs to show Craven the letter of acceptance. The article appeared early in 1950 and received favorable mention in Benjamin P. Thomas’s new biography of Lincoln. By then, we five Fehrenbachers were living in Cedar Rapids, where I had just finished my first semester as an assistant professor at Coe College. My initiation into the fraternity of professional historians seemed more or less complete. But a final chapter of the story was yet to unfold.

At Coe, a small liberal arts college like Cornell, research scholarship was bound to be difficult. The teaching load was heavy, the library resources were limited, and there was no pressure for publication. Nevertheless, I felt lucky to have a job with the promise of permanency at a time when openings for fledgling historians were pretty scarce. Working among congenial colleagues and enjoying my classes, I was reasonably content. Indeed, a good many years might have passed without my actively seeking another position, if the academic environment at Coe had not turned sour.

Like many other American colleges, Coe suffered a decline in enrollments during the early 1950s. The board of trustees, thrown into a panic and led by a headstrong chair, inaugurated a program of reducing the emphasis on liberal arts and offering more vocational courses. In the process, appointments and dismissals were arbitrarily accomplished. Two presidents were fired before the board found a pliant successor in the person of the college business manager, a man without suitable educational credentials. A majority of faculty members joined in lodging a series of protests, several of which I drafted and signed in my capacity as secretary of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Sometime in the late spring of 1952, the new president summoned me to his office. Conceding that my performance as a teacher was more than satisfactory, he went on to say that there was no future for me at the college because of my alignment with the dissidents and my dose friendship with their leader, a fellow historian. There was nothing penitent in my response, and I left knowing that the next academic year at Coe would probably be my last.

Accordingly, I began to hunt for another job, writing many letters of inquiry and enlisting the help of friends in the profession. I also made arrangements to attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C. Just before my departure in late December, I learned that Thomas A. Bailey, head of the history department at Stanford University, would be there seeking to fill an opening in American history at the junior level. In the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, I had a pleasant and encouraging interview with Bailey but noted ruefully thereafter that he always seemed busy talking with other applicants. I returned home with my thoughts glued to Stanford, yet well aware that all alternative possibilities must be explored. In one moment of desperation, I even made application to the C.I.A. and received an offer at a grade not financially acceptable.

At Coe, on February 25, the ax fell. Having waited until almost the last day under rules sanctioned by the Association of American Colleges, the president notified me that the board of trustees had decided against my reappointment. The impact of this communication was softened by several brightening prospects elsewhere, but March came and went with nothing firmly set. Then, on April 3, I received a telegram from Bailey offering an acting assistant professorship for one year at $4,500. In a following letter, he assured me that if I lived up to "expectations," the appointment would probably be renewed. So one day in mid-September, after I had spent the summer doing research on Wentworth and teaching at Roosevelt College, we Fehrenbachers boarded the streamliner called the City of San Francisco. As a result more of external forces than my own initiative, I was on my way to a potentially permanent job in a superlative workplace.

I am not prepared to add, however, that my career in history was also leading me toward the truth and wisdom so earnestly sought by Historicus. Half a century of peering into what Marcus Aurelius called the "boundless abyss of the past" has left me uncertain about the net influence of historical knowledge on human intellect and behavior. Too often, for instance, it serves to perpetuate old hatreds that ought to be laid aside. Yet the reading of history, which is in some ways like visiting another country, can have the enlightening effect commonly attributed to travel. I am also convinced that the practice of history—that is, the employment of its methods in the analysis of data—can sharpen one's critical faculties. But if asked to state in minimal terms the essential value of historical study, I would say simply that it lends perspective to personal experience and, like literature and the arts, enrichment to the life of the mind.

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