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Pulitzer Prize-winning history Professor Don E. Fehrenbacher dies

Don E. Fehrenbacher, the William Robertson Coe Professor Emeritus of History and American Studies at Stanford and a Pulitzer Prize winner, died on Saturday, Dec. 13, after suffering heart failure at his campus home. He was 77.

Among his many honors and awards, Fehrenbacher won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in history for The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, a comprehensive study of American political, legal and constitutional history in the context of the 1857 Supreme Court decision.

It was the second time he had been associated with the Pulitzer in history: The 1977 award went to the late Stanford Professor David M. Potter, whose posthumous book on The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 was completed and edited by Fehrenbacher.

Historian C. Vann Woodward, writing in the New York Review of Books, described Fehrenbacher's The Dred Scott Case as "probably the most thorough study of any Supreme Court decision ever undertaken."

Earlier this year, Fehrenbacher was selected as recipient of the 1997 Lincoln Prize, the nation's highest annual award for Civil War studies. He received $50,000 and a bronze bust of Lincoln from the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College.

"Don Fehrenbacher was one of the two or three top Lincoln scholars in the United States, as his recent Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College made clear," said Carl Degler, professor of history at Stanford and Pulitzer winner.

"He also wrote general political history, as well as [the] superlative constitutional study of the Dred Scott decision," Degler added. "Although he was known for his penetrating yet imaginative documentation of original materials, Fehrenbacher was a stylist in his writing, always impatient with that extra or redundant phrase, pleased that he could introduce a touch of humor or wry comment into a serious subject."

It was a measure of Fehrenbacher's breadth of scholarship on the history of the 19th century that David Potter had asked him to complete his unfinished magnum opus on the coming of the Civil War, Degler said. Fehrenbacher was in the middle of his largest study yet, a constitutional history of slavery, at the time of his death.

"I knew Don as a person of strong convictions and gentle manner, a man of integrity and honest expression even in the face of disagreement," Degler said. "His historical achievements reflected his character, and I'll miss him."

A native of Sterling, Ill., Fehrenbacher received his bachelor's degree at Cornell College, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1970. He received both his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty, he was assistant professor of history at Coe College from 1949 to 1953. He taught at Stanford from 1953 to 1984.

A specialist in 19th-century U.S. history, the westward movement, the Civil War, American constitutional history and the history of California, Fehrenbacher was Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in 1967-68, Harrison Professor of History at the College of William and Mary in 1973-74, Commonwealth Fund Lecturer at University College London in 1978, and Walter Lynwood Fleming Lecturer in Southern History at Louisiana State University in 1978.

Fehrenbacher's Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, an investigation of the maturing political opinions of the 16th president in the decade prior to his rise to national prominence, was published in 1962. It is widely regarded as one of the foremost modern studies of Lincoln's career. Fehrenbacher also published A Basic History of California in 1964, The Era of Expansion, 1800-1848 in 1969, and several books as well as many scholarly articles on 19th-century American history.

"He was the foremost Lincoln scholar of his generation," said George Fredrickson, chair of the Organization of American Historians and the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History at Stanford. "His Prelude to Greatness is still the best book on Lincoln's political thought and behavior in the 1850s, and his essays and edited works on Lincoln have proved invaluable for all students of our greatest president.

"Don was also a master of the legal and constitutional history of the sectional crisis," Fredrickson added. "He brought much glory to Stanford and to the history department, and he will be sorely missed."

Fehrenbacher and his wife, Virginia, spent 12 years compiling the Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, a collection of 1,900 quotations attributed to Lincoln by more than 500 of his contemporaries that advanced scholarship of testimonial or oral history. It was published in 1996 by Stanford University Press.

Fehrenbacher held Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, and was elected to membership in the American Antiquarian Society in 1976. He also was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Southern Historical Association and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. In 1957 he received the annual prize from the West Coast branch of the American Historical Association, and the following year he received the Award of Merit of the American Association for State and Local History. Both awards were given in recognition of his first book, Chicago Giant: A Biography of "Long John" Wentworth, published in 1957.

Fehrenbacher served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. As a flight navigator, he flew 30 missions over Germany and occupied Europe for the 8th Air Force, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal with three clusters.

Fehrenbacher is survived by his wife, Virginia Ellen Swaney Fehrenbacher, and their three children, Ruth Gleason of Ridgecrest, Calif.; Susan Koprince of Grand Forks, N.D.; and David Fehrenbacher of Cary, N.C. The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln is dedicated to the couple's eight grandchildren, Jennifer and Adrienne Gleason; Steven, Karen and Peter Koprince; and Caitlin, James and Jesse Fehrenbacher. Karen Koprince currently is a freshman at Stanford.

He is also survived by three siblings, Shirley Drew of Mesa, Ariz.; Robert Fehrenbach of Mesa; and Marvin Fehrenbach of Lake Forest, Calif.

No memorial services are planned, and the family requests no donations.


By Diane Manuel

A reproduction quality picture of Prof. Fehrenbacher is available by anonymous ftp from our site at with the file name Fehrenbacher.

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