Henry Steele Commager

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Date: 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,103 words

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About this Person
Born: October 25, 1902 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: March 02, 1998 in Amherst, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality: American
Other Names: Commager, Steele
Updated:Oct. 28, 2003
 
PERSONAL INFORMATION:

Family: Born October 25, 1902, in Pittsburgh, PA; died March 2, 1998, in Amherst, MA; son of James Williams and Anna Elizabeth (Dan) Commager; married Evan Carroll, July 3, 1928; married Mary E. Powlesland, July 14, 1979; children: (first marriage) Henry Steele (deceased), Nellie Thomas McColl, Elisabeth Carroll. Education: University of Chicago, Ph.B., 1923, M.A., 1924, Ph.D., 1928; attended University of Copenhagen; Cambridge University, M.A.; Oxford University, M.A. Politics: Independent Democrat. Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Scandinavian Society (fellow), American Antiquarian Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, Phi Beta Kappa, Century Association, St. Botolph's (Boston), Athenaeum Club (London).

 
CAREER:

New York University, New York City, instructor in history, 1926-29, assistant professor, 1929-30, associate professor, 1930-31, professor, 1931-38; Columbia University, New York City, professor of American history, 1939-56, adjunct professor, 1956-59, Sperenza Lecturer, 1960; Amherst College, Amherst, MA, Smith Professor of History, 1956-72, Simpson Lecturer, beginning 1972, then professor emeritus. Pitt Professor of American History, Cambridge University, 1941, 1947-48; Bacon Lecturer, Boston University, 1943; Richards Lecturer, University of Virginia, 1944; Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University, 1952-53; Gottesman Lecturer, Uppsala University, 1953; Ziskind Professor, Brandeis University, 1955; Commonwealth Lecturer, University of London, 1963; Harris Lecturer, Northwestern University, 1964; Patton Lecturer, Indiana University, 1977. Visiting professor or lecturer at several universities in the United States and abroad. Member of War Department Commission on History of the War; travelled to Britain for War Department, Office of War Information, summer, 1943, and to France and Belgium, 1945. Military service: Served with U.S. Army Information and Education Division, 1945.

 
AWARDS:

Herbert B. Adams Award of the American Historical Association, 1929; special award from Hillman Foundation, 1954, for Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent; Guggenheim fellowship, 1960-61; Gold Medal Award for history from American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1972; Sarah Josepha Hale Award, 1973; decorated Knight, Order of Dannebrog. Honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities.

 
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

  • The Literature of the Pioneer West, Saint Paul, 1927.
  • (With Samuel Eliot Morison) The Growth of the American Republic, Oxford University Press, 1931, 7th edition, 1980, abbreviated and newly revised edition published as A Concise History of the American Republic, 1977.
  • Our Nation's Development, Harper, 1934.
  • Theodore Parker, Little, Brown, 1936, reissued with a new introduction, Beacon Press, 1960.
  • (With Allan Nevins) America: The Story of a Free People, Little, Brown, 1942, Oxford University Press, 1976, reissued in paperback as The Pocket History of the United States, Pocket Books, 1943, revised edition, 1982.
  • Majority Rule and Minority Rights, Oxford University Press, 1943.
  • (With Nevins) A Short History of the United States, Modern Library, 1945, 6th edition, Knopf, 1976.
  • The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880s, Yale University Press, 1950.
  • (With others) Civil Liberties under Attack, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951.
  • (Contributor) Courtlandt Canby, editor, The World of History, New American Library, 1954.
  • (With Geoffrey Brunn) Europe and America since 1492, Houghton, 1954.
  • Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, Oxford University Press, 1954.
  • Federal Centralization and the Press, University of Minnesota, 1956.
  • (Contributor) Conference on the American High School, University of Chicago Press, 1958.
  • (With Robert W. McEwen and Brand Blanshard) Education in a Free Society, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961.
  • The Nature and the Study of History, C. E. Merrill, 1965.
  • The Role of Scholarship in an Age of Science, Laramie, 1965.
  • Freedom and Order: A Commentary on the American Political Scene, Braziller, 1966.
  • The Study of History, C. E. Merrill, 1966.
  • (With Elmo Giordonetti) Was America a Mistake?: An Eighteenth-Century Controversy, Harper, 1967.
  • The Search for a Usable Past, and Other Essays in Historiography, Knopf, 1967.
  • (With Richard B. Morris) Colonies in Transition, Harper, 1968.
  • The Commonwealth of Learning, Harper, 1968.
  • The Defeat of America: Presidential Power and the National Character, Simon & Schuster, 1974.
  • Britain through American Eyes, McGraw, 1974.
  • Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment, Braziller, 1974.
  • The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, Doubleday, 1977.
  • (Author of text) Mort Kuenstler's Fifty Epic Paintings of America, Abbeville Press, 1979.
  • (With Raymond H. Muessig) The Study and Teaching of History, Merrill, 1980.
  • (Author of introduction) The Civil War Almanac, Facts on File, 1983.
  • (Author of introduction) Of America East and West: From the Writings of Paul Horgan, Farrar, Straus, 1984.
  • (Contributor) John Grafton, editor, America: A History of the First 500 Years, Crescent Books (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Commager on Tocqueville, University of Missouri Press (Columbia), 1993.
  • The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman), 1995.

EDITOR

  • Documents of American History (Volume 1, to 1898; Volume 2, from 1865), F. S. Crofts, 1934, 10th edition, Prentice-Hall, 1988.
  • (With Nevins) The Heritage of America, Little, Brown, 1939, revised and enlarged edition, 1949.
  • (And author of historical narrative) The Story of the Second World War, Little, Brown, 1945, Brassey's (Washington), 1991.
  • (And author of introduction and notes) America in Perspective: The United States through Foreign Eyes, Random House 1947, abridged edition, New American Library, 1959.
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Henry Reeve, Oxford University Press, 1947.
  • Selections from "The Federalist, " Appleton, 1949.
  • (With others) Years of the Modern: An American Appraisal, Longmans, Green, 1949.
  • The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants, two volumes, Bobbs-Merrill, 1950, revised and abridged, Meridian (New York, NY), 1994, revised edition, Black Dog & Leventhal (New York, NY), 2001.
  • William Dean Howells, Selected Writings, Random House 1950.
  • (And author of commentary) Living Ideas in America, Harper, 1951, enlarged edition, 1967.
  • (With Morris) The Spirit of '76: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by the Participants, two volumes, Bobbs-Merrill, 1958, bicentennial edition, Harper, 1975.
  • Official Atlas of the Civil War, Yoseloff, 1958.
  • Living Documents of American History, Washington, 1960.
  • The Era of Reform, 1830-1860, Van Nostrand, 1960.
  • Theodore Parker: An Anthology, Beacon Press, 1960.
  • James Bryce, Reflections on American Institutions: Selections from "The American Commonwealth, " Fawcett, 1961.
  • Immigration and American History: Essays in Honor of Theodore C. Blegen, University of Minnesota Press, 1961.
  • Chester Bowles, The Conscience of a Liberal, Harper, 1962.
  • Winston Churchill, History of the English-Speaking Peoples (one volume of a four volume series), Bantam, 1963.
  • Noah Webster's American Spelling Book, Teachers College Press, 1963.
  • The Defeat of the Confederacy: A Documentary Survey, Van Nostrand, 1964.
  • Fifty Basic Civil War Documents, Van Nostrand, 1965.
  • (Consulting editor) Encyclopedia of American History, Harper, 1965.
  • Lester Ward and the Welfare State, Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
  • The Struggle for Racial Equality: A Documentary Record, Harper, 1967.
  • Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times, Scribner, 1968.
  • (With others) The West: An Illustrated History, Promotory Press, 1976.
  • Edward M. Kennedy, Our Day and Generation: The Words of Edward M. Kennedy, Simon & Schuster, 1979.
  • (With others) Illustrated History of the American Civil War, Orbis, 1979.

Also editor with Morris of the "New American Nation" series, published by Harper; editor-in-chief of The American Destiny: An Illustrated Bicentennial History of the United States, twenty volumes, published by Danbury Press.

FOR CHILDREN

  • (With Eugene Campbell Barker) Our Nation, Row, Peterson, 1941.
  • (Editor) St. Nicholas Anthology, Random House, 1948.
  • (Editor) Second St. Nicholas Anthology, Random House, 1950.
  • America's Robert E. Lee, Houghton, 1951, Marshall Cavendish Corporation (North Bellmore, NY), 1991.
  • Chestnut Squirrel, Houghton, 1952.
  • The First Book of American History, illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher, F. Watts, 1957.
  • The Great Declaration, Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.
  • A Picture History of the United States of America, F. Watts, 1958.
  • The Great Proclamation, Bobbs-Merrill, 1960.
  • The Great Constitution, Bobbs-Merrill, 1961.
  • Crusaders for Freedom, Doubleday, 1962.

OTHER

Contributor of essays to scholarly and popular journals, including Book Week, New York Times Book Review, New Republic, Saturday Review, New York Review of Books, and American Scholar.

 

Sidelights

Henry Steele Commager is revered by many as among America's most preeminent historians of the twentieth century. His writings include textbooks for children and college students, edited compilations of historical source material, original studies of the nature of U.S. democracy, and biographies of prominent U.S. citizens. As Lawrence Wells Cobb explains in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Commager "has devoted his energies to making it easier for scholars and lay readers both to `get at' the sources of the American historical record and to understand their heritage more fully. He has undertaken these tasks so that his readers might become more informed and responsible participants in the great experiment launched in the eighteenth century to make a free, democratic, and bountiful society a reality on the North American continent." New Republic contributor Alexander R. Butler calls Commager "one of America's most distinguished historians," an educator and scholar whose "excellent reputation" stems from his "simple, straightforward, and assertive" style. Behind that style lies serious conviction, however. Butler notes that Commager is "convinced that the reader can learn from history" and profit from the lessons of the usable past. Cobb likewise observes that in his writings the historian demands "that Americans live responsibly and prove worthy of their heritage." Commager's sprightly style, his eye for the illuminating vignette, his catholic knowledge, and his optimistic perspective have served him well in bringing his insights to generations of readers.

Commager's best known book is The Growth of the American Republic, a title he co-authored with Samuel Eliot Morison. First published in 1931, the work continues to be read by students of U.S. history. According to New York Times Book Review correspondent Esmond Wright, the "limpidly clear style and the easy marshaling of arguments . . . have made `The Growth of the American Republic' one of the most unusual and certainly one of the most readable of textbooks." Commager's other books for lay readers include 1941's Our Nation for high school students, and the popular study America: The Story of a Free People, co-authored by Allan Nevins in 1942. Commager's aim, in Cobb's words, has been "always to provide the facts within the matrix of an unobtrusive liberal interpretation and to provoke thought on the part of the reader." As early as 1934 Commager also began the editing duties for which he has become well known; his Documents of American History collects in two volumes the important primary sources on the creation and development of the United States. Cobb calls the work "the best single-volume source book in its field." Throughout the following forty years Commager has continued to publish anthologies of historical source material; his efforts have produced, among others, The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants, The Era of Reform, 1830-1860, and The Struggle for Racial Equality: A Documentary History. Cobb claims that such collections are "intended to put the words and ideas that shaped America within easy reach of both the generalist and interested layman." In the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Bernard DeVoto contends that these books provide "a way of experiencing the nation's most tremendous experience. No one can read them without being impelled to think searchingly about the American people, the American nation, the American past and future."

As a scholar Commager has sought to define the strengths of democracy. Cobb suggests that the historian's theses "always revolved around Jeffersonian liberalism: give the public the maximum amount of information and the people can be trusted to make the right decisions in the long run." Such a view stresses the importance of education as well as the necessity for free speech and dissent; not surprisingly, Commager would become one of the strongest opponents of the intellectual purges of the communist-fearing McCarthy Era conformity of the 1950s. His comment in the 1951 volume Civil Liberties under Attack has since become famous: "The great danger that threatens us is neither heterodox thought nor orthodox thought, but the absence of thought." Throughout the following decade, as the Vietnam War and social unrest escalated, Commager continued to argue for the preservation of free speech and inquiry. According to Cobb, the historian "reminded visitors, distressed to see all the unrest in America, . . . that the idealism of the 1960s was a reassertion, not a repudiation, of our Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality." Since then, in such essentially optimistic books as Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment and The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, Commager has maintained that America is an ongoing experiment in the practical implementation of philosophy; the nation's continued strength depends on its forging a link with the ideals of the founding generation. As Cobb puts it, history is "definitely a usable past for citizens of the United States, and this history is also a living proof to all the people of the world that such `good things' as continental self-government and socio-economic mobility are possible."

Commager's 1993 work, Commager on Tocqueville, provides another link with the past that has much to teach modern America. Based on the classic Democracy in America, a political study of the young American republic written by French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 and translated by Commager in 1947, Commager on Tocqueville focuses on several areas of concern in the historic nineteenth-century critique of early democracy. While the French historian evinced concern by what he perceived as the potential for a tyranny of the majority, the difficulty of finding an equilibrium between individuality and equality, the role of a military arm of government within a democratic state, and the advocacy of personal liberty by a central ruling body, Commager contends that many of these concerns have been proven to be unfounded. However, he warns, such things as the overly large federal and state governmental bureaucracies and the extreme economic inequity that have manifested themselves in the United States over the past century may be symptomatic of some of de Tocqueville's concerns. While D. J. Maletz dubs Commager on Tocqueville "an ardent defense of all the institutions of the contemporary liberal welfare state," Commager maintains throughout the work that the problems facing the United States at the close of the millennia--including environmental depredations, overpopulation over much of the earth's inhabitable surface, and chronic political upheavals--call for a revisioning of democratic government along global rather than nationalistic boundaries.

In his continued commitment to educating the public, Commager attempts to offer readers a spectrum of facts, thereby enabling them to judge history objectively. Critics such as New York Times columnist Herbert Mitgang note, however, that the educator's enthusiasm for history, coupled with his "crystalline clarity of his writing," causes "explosions in the reader's mind," resulting in "history to be pondered and cherished." Cobb sees Commager as a popularizer of the love of history, an author who has "kindled a love for the spectacle of history and personality in thousands of young minds" through his juvenile literature and his many source books. Atlantic contributor C. J. Rolo also contends that Commager's value as a writer "is that he combines an exhilarating enthusiasm for his subject with a keenly critical viewpoint and an absence of cant that is becoming increasingly rare."

A prolific writer, Commager has continued to edit and compile historical texts that reveal both the benefits and the challenges of democratic government since retiring from his professorial duties at Amherst College. In the New York Times Book Review, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. concludes that in Henry Steele Commager, "learning and reason are at the service of a mind whose understanding of democracy gains brilliance and power from a passion for democratic freedom."

OBITUARY:

--Born October 25, 1902, in Pittsburgh, PA; died March 2, 1998, in Amherst, MA. Historian, educator, and author. One of the preeminent historians of the United States, Commager was also a defender of the U.S. Constitution, calling it the "greatest monument to political science in literature." In addition to writing and editing scores of books about the history of America, he devoted some sixty-five years to teaching history. Early in his career he joined the faculty of New York University in 1926. After twelve years he switched to Columbia University, where he taught until 1960. During World War II, he also worked as a consultant to the Office of War Information and he assisted the U.S. State Department in compiling a history of the war. During the Red Scare days after World War II, Commager took a stance against Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigation of alleged communist activities. As noted in the New York Times: "David Oshensky, a Rutgers University historian, [said] that Mr. Commager waged `one of the great battles of his era--when it was very dangerous to do so and other intellectuals were cowed.'" Commager would also step forward to urge Congress to keep America out of Indochina (now Vietnam). In 1956 he began a lengthy association with Amherst College, first as Smith Professor of History, then as Simpson Lecturer (and ultimately as professor emeritus) until 1992. During his career he also taught for short periods at Cambridge University, Boston University, University of Virginia, Brandeis University, and the University of London, among others. Commager began writing in his late twenties; his first published book was The Literature of the Pioneer West. He followed with volumes such as the classic Growth of the American Republic, Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, America: The Story of a Free People (with noted historian Allan Nevins), Majority Rule and Minority Rights, A Short History of the United States (also with Nevins), The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880s, Britain through American Eyes, Commager on Tocqueville, and The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment. He also edited various books, including his popular Documents of American History and his Living Documents of American History, Noah Webster's American Spelling Book, Official Atlas of the Civil War, The Defeat of the Confederacy: A Documentary Survey, Fifty Basic Civil War Documents, and The Blue and the Grey: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants. He also edited Edward M. Kennedy's Our Day and Generation: The Words of Edward M. Kennedy and Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Commager penned volumes for children as well, such as Our Nation (with Eugene Campbell Barker), Chestnut Squirrel, The First Book of American History, and Crusaders for Freedom. Despite Commager's seemingly serious nature, he was nicknamed "Felix, " meaning happy in Latin. Although he had a memory for historical facts and details, he sometimes had difficulty remembering students' names. When this would occur he would refer to his pupils as Mr. or Miss McGillicuddy.

 
OBITUARY SOURCES:

BOOKS

  • Who's Who, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

PERIODICALS

  • Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1998, sec. 1, p. 10.
  • CNN Interactive (electronic), March 3, 1998.
  • Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1998, p. B8.
  • New York Times, March 3, 1998, p. D23.
  • Washington Post, March 3, 1998, p. D6.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Commager, Henry Steele, with others, Civil Liberties under Attack, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 17: Twentieth Century American Historians, Gale (Detroit), 1983.
  • Garraty, John, Interpreting American History: Conversations with Historians, Macmillan, 1970.
  • Hyman, Harold M. and Leonard W. Levy, editors, Freedom and Reform: Essays in Honor of Henry Steele Commager, Harper, 1967.

PERIODICALS

  • Atlantic, May, 1950.
  • Choice, November, 1993, p. 535.
  • Christian Century, July 5, 1950; October 24, 1962.
  • Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1936; March 18, 1950.
  • Commonweal, May 5, 1950.
  • Library Journal, May 15, 1993, p. 81; October 15, 1995, p. 96.
  • Nation, April 22, 1950; December 23, 1950.
  • New Republic, April 24, 1950; May 24, 1954; May 20, 1967; December 21, 1974.
  • New Statesman, June 2, 1967.
  • Newsweek, November 15, 1948.
  • New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 12, 1950; November 19, 1950; May 30, 1954.
  • New York Times, March 12, 1950; November 12, 1950; June 7, 1977.
  • New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1950; October 23, 1966; June 25, 1967; November 26, 1967; August 14, 1977; November 4, 1979; April 8, 1984.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, March 24, 1950; November 26, 1950.
  • Saturday Review, March 11, 1950; December 2, 1950; May 1, 1954; January 28, 1967; May 14, 1977.
  • Survey, April, 1950.
  • Time, December 11, 1950.
  • Times Literary Supplement, November 17, 1950; July 23, 1954; September 27, 1974; August 4, 1978.
  • Yale Review, summer, 1950.*

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000019880