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A Tribute to Robert W. Johannsen

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 78-82 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0010

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A Tribute to Robert W. Johannsen

Robert W. Johannsen was known for his numerous and painstakingly researched works in nineteenth-century American history, particularly for his magisterial and award-winning Stephen A. Douglas. For nearly fifty years Johannsen was a prodigious researcher, writer, and editor. Johannsen's major monographs included Frontier Politics and the Sectional Conflict: The Pacific Northwest on the Eve of the Civil War, "To the Halls of Montezuma": The Mexican War in the American Imagination, and Lincoln, the South, and Slavery: The Political Dimension. Among his most popular edited works were The Lincoln and Douglas Debates of 1858, Democracy on Trial, and The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas. He earned the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize in 1973 for his Douglas biography. A native of Portland, Oregon, Bob attended Reed College, although his undergraduate career was interrupted by service in the army in World War II. After earning his doctorate from the University of Washington in 1953, Johannsen spent five years in Lawrence, teaching at the University of Kansas. In 1959, he accepted an appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he taught in the history department until his retirement in 2000. Bob served as the department chair for four years in the 1960s and in 1974 was appointed the James G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History.

To Bob Johannsen, as dedicated as he was to historical research, publication was only one aspect of the historical craft. Some academics, once they have earned their stripes, want to focus their efforts almost exclusively on [End Page 78] research and the training of graduate students. Bob never lost his interest in teaching undergraduates. Well into his sixties, he continued to offer History 261, an undergraduate survey of nineteenth-century American history. His course on the American Civil War became one of most popular upper-level undergraduate courses at the University of Illinois. Bob never capped the class size, which meant he would often teach classes in excess of 150 students; that this many students were interested in studying the American Civil War was rewarding in itself. As a teacher and lecturer, he was organized, interesting, and original. Every day before class, he would arrive and write out his lecture points by hand on the blackboard as well as hang a map on hooks above the blackboard. He mixed social, economic, and political history, often drawing on primary sources to illustrate his main points. He firmly believed that the study of literature was important for historical understanding, and, accordingly, novels routinely appeared on his courses' reading lists. Always a teacher who encouraged questions, Bob was calm and gracious even when a tongue-tied undergraduate might ask a confused and unclear question.

To his graduate students, Bob Johannsen was a mentor, friend, and role model. During the last decade of his professional career at the University of Illinois, Johannsen experienced a renaissance in popularity and at one time had more graduate students than any other faculty member. The best experience any of his students could have was a Johannsen seminar. Always upbeat and affable, he was, nevertheless, dogged and rigorous in his supervision and criticism of graduate papers. For his own doctoral students, he was the most demanding. As many of us would find out in his Civil War seminar, handling peer criticism was one thing, but when one went head to head with Bob (or RWJ, as we often referred to him) it was a different matter altogether. He questioned and challenged points that the graduate student thought were self-evident. Was that really the best interpretation of source? Was there not another way of looking at the matter? Many of us referred to him as a "contrarian" because he would often take the opposite position on what we considered well-established historical points or interpretations; however, he employed this technique as a method to remind his students to keep an open mind and always be ready to rethink a historical issue. On some occasions, Bob would vigorously contest a minor point, such as the selection of an adjective. I remember one occasion when I used "wily" in reference to Republican politician William H. Seward...