Robert W. Johannsen (1925–2011)
John Hoffmann, December 2011
Historian of 19th-Century America
Robert W. Johannsen, the J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Illinois, died in Urbana, Illinois, on August 16, 2011, six days shy of his 86th birthday.
Best known for Stephen A. Douglas (1973), his biography of the Little Giant which was awarded the Society of American Historians' Francis Parkman Prize for Literary Distinction in the Writing of History, Johannsen also wrote extensively on Lincoln, the Pacific Northwest in the frontier period, and American perceptions of the U.S.-Mexican War.
A native of Portland, Oregon, Johannsen graduated from Reed College in 1948, after his studies were interrupted by combat service in World War II. He received his MA and PhD degrees from the University of Washington. After teaching a year at Washington and five years at the University of Kansas, he joined the history department at Illinois in 1959.
Each semester for the next four decades, he attracted hundreds of students to his courses on 19th-century American history, the age of Jackson, and the Civil War and Reconstruction. He also directed more than 35 dissertations. His courses retained their popularity in the 1990s, even as the discipline changed, the department abandoned the chronological framework of American history, and younger colleagues embraced more theoretical approaches. To explain the continuing attraction of his courses, he once laconically remarked, "I teach history, not theory."
In his writings, he endeavored to document the importance of Douglas in his own day. He sought to explain, not to defend, the Little Giant. Conversely, he attempted to moderate the popular, and even the professional, tendency to magnify Lincoln, to lift him beyond his own time and place. In Lincoln, the South, and Slavery: The Political Dimension (1991), for instance, he carefully and concisely traced the emergence of Lincoln in reaction to what Douglas said and did.
Johannsen published not only a number of books and anthologies but also dozens of articles and reviews, all written in precise and well-crafted prose. The list of his writings in Politics and Culture of the Civil War Era: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Johannsen (2006) runs to 20 pages. His aim was always that of the true historian—to understand his subject by the assumptions and circumstances of that person's day, not by ours.
Deeply committed to the study of the past, exceptionally productive in writing about it, devoted beyond measure to teaching it, Johannsen never let recognition of his work erase the humility that befits the historian. Those fortunate to have known him will always cherish the gentleness, warmth, and civility that pervaded his conversation and demeanor.
University of Illinois Library