By John O'Brien
Saturday, May 22, 2021
The Lincoln Group encourages prospective history writers to pursue their passion to learn and share insights. New topics and interpretations come from good research and fresh thinking about historical personalities. Lincoln Group member Reg Ankrom caught the bug and followed his topic all the way to a prize-winning biography series. This interview highlights his inspiration and process that led to success outside of traditional academics. Ankrom considers himself a late comer to making the study of history his avocation. He retired from an executive position at a power utility when he was 53 . He has a consulting practice in Quincy, Illinois, but still makes time to research and write history. His first book, Stephen A. Douglas: The Political Apprenticeship, 1833-1843, received the Illinois State Historical Society annual award for scholarship. I wanted to know how he was inspired to take on a major biography project.
Reg Ankrom credits Abe Lincoln for introducing him to Stephen Douglas. “I bought Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln at an auction,” Ankrom said. “By the time I finished Sandburg’s Lincoln, I was hooked.” Lincoln had first seen the 5’4” Douglas in the state capitol in 1834. He didn’t think much of him. “That’s the least man I ever saw,” Lincoln told a fellow state representative. Like Lincoln, Ankrom grew more impressed with Douglas. He was ambitious, cunning, and always calculating, moving from one political perch to the next higher one. Lincoln, at 6’4” and a full foot taller than Douglas, found himself confined for nearly two decades under Douglas’s expansive shadow.
Ankrom never wrote a book before, but now he discovered his passion and decided to write a Douglas biography. What he found about Douglas surprised him and kept the work interesting. Ankrom was fascinated to learn that Douglas developed his political vision based on an expansive view of the country early in his career. “I would make this an ocean-bound republic and have no more disputes about boundaries or red lines [showing British, French, and Spanish interests] upon the maps,” he said. Douglas vowed to push the nation westward. For him, the expansion of the nation was the expansion of liberty. The Compromise of 1850 was his effort to secure agreement on organizing western states. Douglas thought it his greatest legislative achievement but it became the cause of his undoing and that of the country. Lincoln had a different view of “liberty” and used this issue to propel his rise to national prominence.
A challenge for any new author is finding a publisher. Ankrom said his first volume sat on a shelf for two years. He did not know how it might be published. “I decided to call McFarland & Co. (Jefferson NC), which published several books I had enjoyed,” Ankrom said. “I reached Charlie Perdue, the acquisitions editor and now a vice president, and he was kind enough to have me send him the manuscript. He called back a week or so later and said McFarland wanted to publish my book. ‘Knock your socks off, Charlie,’ I told him.
Stephen A. Douglas: The Political Apprenticeship, 1833-1843, the first of Reg Ankrom’s three-volume biography about the Little Giant came out in 2015, and the second volume, Stephen A. Douglas, Western Man: The Early Years in Congress, 1844-1850, in late April 2020. Ankrom is writing a third volume with the working title Stephen A. Douglas and Union, 1851-1861. Reg’s work has received accolades from history professors including Brian Dirck (Anderson University), Douglas Egerton (Le Moyne College), and Joseph R. Fornieri (Rochester Institute of Technology). Ankrom’s books are available through most national booksellers.