Henry Steele Commager

Citation metadata

Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 6,720 words

Document controls

Main content

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



  • The Growth of the American Republic, by Commager and Samuel Eliot Morison (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1930).
  • Theodore Parker (Boston: Little, Brown, 1936).
  • Our Nation, by Commager and Eugene C. Barker (New York: Row, Peterson, 1941).
  • America: The Story of a Free People, by Commager and Allan Nevins (Boston: Little, Brown, 1942).
  • Majority Rule and Minority Rights: A Study in Jeffersonian Democracy and Judicial Review (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1943).
  • A Short History of the United States, by Commager and Nevins (New York: Modern Library, 1945).
  • The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880's (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950; London: Oxford University Press, 1950).
  • America's Robert E. Lee, by Commager and Lynd Ward (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951).
  • Civil Liberties Under Attack, by Commager and others (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951).
  • Europe and America Since 1492, by Commager and Geoffrey Brunn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954).
  • Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1954).
  • The Great Declaration (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958).
  • The Great Proclamation (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960).
  • Education in a Free Society, by Commager, R. W. McEwen, and B. Blanshard (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1960).
  • The Great Constitution (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961).
  • Crusaders for Freedom (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962).
  • Our Schools Have Kept Us Free (Washington: National School Public Relations Association, 1962).
  • The Nature and the Study of History (Columbus: C. E. Merrill, 1965).
  • Freedom and Order: A Commentary on the Political Scene (New York: Braziller, 1966).
  • Was America a Mistake?: An Eighteenth Century Controversy, by Commager and E. Giordonetti (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
  • The Search for a Usable Past, and Other Essays in Historiography (New York: Knopf, 1967).
  • Colonies in Transition, by Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).
  • Commonwealth of Learning (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).
  • Jefferson, Nationalism and the Enlightenment (New York: Braziller, 1975).
  • The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Garden City: Doubleday, 1978; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978).


  • Documents of American History, edited by Commager (New York: Crofts, 1934).
  • The Heritage of America, edited by Commager and Allan Nevins (Boston: Little, Brown, 1939).
  • The Story of the Second World War, edited by Commager (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945).
  • America in Perspective: The United States Through Foreign Eyes, edited by Commager (New York: Random House, 1947).
  • St. Nicholas Anthology, edited by Commager (New York: Random House, 1948).
  • Selections from "The Federalist", edited by Commager (New York: Appleton, 1949).
  • Second St. Nicholas Anthology, edited by Commager (New York: Random House, 1950).
  • The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants, two volumes, edited by Commager (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950).
  • William Dean Howells, Selected Writings, edited by Commager (New York: Random House, 1950).
  • Living Ideas in America, edited by Commager (New York: Harper, 1951).
  • The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by the Participants, two volumes, edited by Commager and Richard B. Morris (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958).
  • The Era of Reform, 1830-1860, edited by Commager (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1960).
  • James Bryce, Reflections on American Institutions: Selections from "The American Commonwealth," edited by Commager (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1961).
  • Immigration and American History: Essays in Honor of Theodore C. Bleger, edited by Commager (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961).
  • Chester Bowles, The Conscience of a Liberal, edited by Commager (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).
  • Winston Churchill, History of the English-Speaking Peoples, abridged and edited by Commager (New York: Bantam, 1963).
  • Noah Webster's American Spelling Book, edited by Commager (New York: Teachers College Press, 1963).
  • The Defeat of the Confederacy: A Documentary Survey, edited by Commager (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1964).
  • Fifty Basic Civil War Documents, edited by Commager (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1965).
  • Lester Ward and the Welfare State, edited by Commager (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).
  • The Struggle for Racial Equality: A Documentary Record, edited by Commager (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
  • Winston Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times, edited by Commager (New York: Scribners, 1968).
  • Britain Through American Eyes, edited by Commager (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973; London: Bodley Head, 1974).
  • Edward M. Kennedy, This Day and Generation, edited by Commager (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).


For over half a century Henry Steele 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. His efforts have included the publication of textbooks for youth and university students, the editing of volumes of original source material, the writing of biographies of prominent Americans, the exploration of the American character, and the hectoring of the reading public in numerous popular articles demanding that Americans live responsibly and prove worthy of their heritage. He proudly calls himself a Jeffersonian, and his 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 was born in Pittsburgh in 1902, the son of James Williams and Anna Elizabeth Dan Commager, and moved as a child to Chicago. He received his Ph.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Chicago and did further study at Copenhagen, Cambridge, and Oxford universities. His teaching career began at New York University (1926-1938), but the bulk of it was spent at Columbia University (1939-1956) and Amherst College (1956-1972). During World War II Commager served as a historian with the army and the Office of War Information. He became a visiting lecturer at a dozen foreign universities over the next thirty years and interpreted America to students from Oxford to Santiago to Jerusalem, and he also found time to lecture at American universities, including Duke, Virginia, Harvard, California, Indiana, and Brandeis.

A central interest of Commager's has always been to reach the widest possible audience with an optimistic and didactic story of America, complete with its ideas, ideals, foibles, and personalities. For the college student, this purpose was accomplished in 1930 when Commager collaborated with Samuel Eliot Morison to produce The Growth of the American Republic, a revision of the New Englander Morison's 1927 The Oxford History of the United States, 1783-1917 . According to James Truslow Adams, the collaboration had the great advantage of balancing New England biases with the Midwesterner Commager's Southern leanings. For half a century the supple style and tolerant, balanced judgment of this standard text served to bring pleasure and enlightenment to generations of survey students. Allan Nevins pronounced the original version of The Growth of the American Republic "the most entertaining, stimulating, and instructive single-volume history ... that meets a demand for all the principal facts...." What Commager helped to do for the college student with The Growth of the American Republic , he did for the high-school reader in 1941 with Our Nation and for the layman with America: The Story of a Free People, written with Allan Nevins in 1942. His aim was always to provide the facts within the matrix of an unobtrusive liberal interpretation and to provoke thought on the part of the reader.

While at Columbia, Commager compiled his most valuable work to date, Documents of American History (1934), which has gone through several editions and has remained the best single-volume source book in its field. It was the first volume (followed in 1939 by his and Allan Nevins 's The Heritage of America; The Blue and the Gray, 1950; Living Ideas in America, 1951; and The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six, written with Richard B. Morris , 1958) in a series of massive editions of original sources and earned him the Nation's description of "our most prolific anthologizer." Such collections were intended to put the words and ideas that shaped America within easy reach of both the generalist and interested layman. As editor, his choices were dictated by his experience in the classroom, personal interest, and availability. The generations of survey students weaned on Morison and Commager's text often developed a love of history and then turned to Documents of American History as a vital reference equipped with brief introductory notes and bibliography.

In 1936 Commager had published his first monograph, Theodore Parker , a biography of the New England preacher and abolitionist hailed as "the best hated man of his generation." Parker was an appealing subject because, like Commager, he was an intellectual who used history to fashion moral lessons for the present. Throughout his career Commager "applied" history cautiously, but he was always omnivorous and drew on any evidence from his massive knowledge of American history to buttress his views. In the Parker biography, Commager intended to see men and events through Parker's eyes, but he never judged the use to which "America's Savonarola" put his energies. The Nation saw the book as succeeding as art and failing as criticism because the man Parker came alive on the page, but questions of value were avoided; judgment was never passed on the abolitionists, the Higher Law, or the Inner Light. Other present-oriented critics faulted Commager for not distilling parallels for the present from the past: they thought fascism and communism, as the twin imperialisms of 1936, should have been echoed in a book touching on the prelude to conflict between the expanding imperialisms of the slavocracy and Northern capitalism. That was not Commager's intention, and he did not succumb to the temptation of the facile, presentist analogy.

In Parker, Commager saw part of America in microcosm: Parker voiced convictions derived from his Inner Light, then tried to prove them objectively; he loved facts, but he was more interested in results than in principles. For Commager, Parker's transcendentalist dilemma mirrored a problem in America's history: how to prove the validity of innately felt ideals such as democracy, equality, and liberty. As always in Commager's books, the reader's task of assessing the working out of this dilemma was made easier by a pleasing style and the reassuring soundness of Commager's research.

In 1943, amid a world war between alliances of massive governments, Commager delivered his first exposition of another great theme--that Thomas Jefferson 's philosophy and practice were timeless and highly appropriate for twentieth-century America. Majority Rule and Minority Rights was a cogent historical and philosophical pleading that independent power was by definition subject to abuse. Subtitled A Study in Jeffersonian Democracy and Judicial Review , the series of lectures (originally delivered at the University of Virginia) was primarily an attack on the Supreme Court. For Commager the Supreme Court's protection of civil liberties had always been more theory than fact. He flirted with advocating the end of judicial review because it was undemocratic, and he argued that the potential tyranny of the majority would be limited by the realities of politics.

In the light of the experience of the civil rights crusade of the 1960s, Commager's view that the rights of minorities and individuals should best be left to the wisdom of legislators might seem naive. Nevertheless, Commager made a strong case that a responsible legislature elected by an informed and involved people should be a more supple, responsible, and wise medium for deciding public questions than any bench of wise and impartial jurists. He pointed out that the courts have intervened to thwart Congress in efforts to free the slaves, guarantee Negroes' civil rights, protect workers, outlaw child labor, assist poor farmers, and establish a democratic tax system. He wrote before the 1954 Brown case and the Warren era that provoked civil libertarians to look to the Court as a friend, and his writings pleaded that final trust could never be placed in a wise elite and that citizens' responsibilities could never be abdicated. Commager's books were dedicated to producing that informed electorate and provoking them to the necessary involvement.

Commager has always trusted the good sense of Americans and believed that the majority would not trifle with the minorities' rights. On the basis of the historical record, he did not trust the courts to protect minorities' rights and argued that if the majority could not be trusted to protect the individual's rights, then neither could any minority. This did not mean that the majority was always right, only that the democratic method of arriving at a decision was right.

Jefferson's means to avoid the tyranny of the majority were education and self-government: let the people experiment and make mistakes because mistakes teach wisdom. Do not let judicial review become a crutch or excuse that allows the sovereign people to avoid their responsibility and their right of good government. Commager knew judicial review was here to stay, but he argued to keep it in its historical function--preserving the Federal system.

In addition to producing books, during the 1930s and 1940s Commager also developed a habit of writing articles for the general audience interested in history and current events. His examples were different, but his 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. He argued from the record of the past that a government created by the people should be trusted rather than feared, but that the distrust of government, "a curious anachronism," was still a vibrant psychological fact of American life. He approved of the New Deal in 1938 as a "natural and spontaneous expression of American democracy" which was consonant with the Founding Fathers' ideals, and he objected to Republican opposition as a repudiation of the GOP's heritage.

As America's interdependence with the rest of the world became more obvious, Commager devoted more effort to writing for the informed lay audience that read such magazines as Harper's, the Atlantic, and the Saturday Review of Literature. In February 1946 he asserted that the nation had no coherent security policy and that Americans did not understand that the atom bomb made war, sovereignty, and even security obsolete. America's reliance on the bomb for security was simply admitting the bankruptcy of its statesmanship. He argued that there was no American security outside the United Nations and that the United States probably could not win an arms race with the Soviets because the American public would not tolerate the garrison state which would be required. He proposed internationalizing the atom bomb, working out American military plans in the UN Security Council, and avoiding meddling in other nations' affairs. To some, this blueprint sounded irresponsibly naive, but Commager, aware that the nuclear age was radically different from any past epoch, sought new, appropriate solutions.

Once the Cold War was underway, Commager struck a theme to which he returned often in the next decades: the pernicious effects and "un-American" nature of an insistence on "loyalty." He based his arguments on historical experience as well as "bottom line" practical grounds. He railed against the conformity demanded by defenders of "Americanism," whom he portrayed as uncritically accepting the status quo, abandoning the idea of progress, and perceiving America as finished and complete. For Commager these attitudes denied the essence of America. The distinctively American philosophies were transcendentalism (which extolled the higher law) and pragmatism (which exalted experiment and pluralism), which were contrary to the "Loyalists'" impulse to confine Americanism to a single pattern and to reject free inquiry. He also warned against defining loyalty as attachment to capitalism, because he feared that if that economic system failed, then America would be discredited too. He reminded his readers, after they had read the headlines in 1947 on Truman's Loyalty Oath, that America had always been a rebellious nation, that its tradition was one of protest and revolt, and that to demand a puny, formal loyalty oath was worse than useless. If readers were not convinced by appeals to the American heritage, Commager also had practical objections to witchhunting: if an orthodoxy were proclaimed, first-rate minds would rebel and refuse to work, and America would lose its leadership in research. Commager was adamant that there was no conflict between freedom and loyalty, an idea to which he returned later.

While he was telling Americans that their own heritage held the principles for their Cold War conduct, Commager brought out another anthology in 1947, America in Perspective: The United States Through Foreign Eyes, a book marked by cogent biographical sketches of those foreign visitors who were both curious about America and literate. But Commager gave no yardstick to enable the reader to evaluate the hodgepodge of judgments. The "perspective" in the title was not delivered. Howard Mumford Jones accurately criticized the book as being too cozy; there was no dirt or brutality, no underside of American history. Cromwell's "warts and all" admonition was not adhered to. The volume was a fine bedside table "dipper," but it was more superficial than it needed to be.

Between 1948 and 1952 Commager turned his pen to a variety of tasks. He edited an anthology of children's stories from the St. Nicholas magazine, which had brightened his childhood. He wrote a youth's biography of Robert E. Lee that did not talk down to children but told fairly (although it indulged in a forgivable degree of romanticism) a dramatic story and kindled a love for the spectacle of history and personality in thousands of young minds. Further juvenile works--on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and other subjects--appeared in subsequent years. On a harsher mission, he lectured New Republic readers on the folly of red-baiting on college campuses. As in his criticism of the Loyalty Oath, in this matter his reasoning was pragmatic: the meager benefit derived from ferreting out a few Communist party members was not worth the cost in time to the hunters, and, most crucially, the effort poisoned the fragile atmosphere of free inquiry so necessary on a campus. He advised that free inquiry is a fragile thing and that it is the first casualty in the effort to impose orthodoxy.

Commager's Jeffersonian trust of the people showed in his critique of a 1949 case involving the firing of three tenured University of Washington professors accused of Communist affiliations. Commager argued that college students were not idiots, that they could judge for themselves when they heard the views of the small number of Red professors that they had. There was no compelling need to protect the students' minds. The impulse to exorcise threatening ideas worried Commager: the nation feared false ideas, and that was evidence of the citizen's insecurity, his lack of faith in his political system and in his own intelligence.

After twelve years of collecting the material, Commager brought out another source book in 1950, a two-volume work, The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants, dedicated to his gallant forebears who had fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. Naturally there were omissions in the anthology: there was little sense of total war engulfing the two societies; there was little on the war behind the lines or on the war's impact on the development of capitalism or labor. With his editorial flair Commager succeeded in assembling from participants' accounts a vivid portrait of Americans on both sides: ordinary Americans hated war, but they would not turn away from it; they were resourceful at meeting emergencies, generous to their foes, and generally went about their grim tasks with humor and sportsmanship. Laughter was the medicine to make palatable the unendurable. Douglas Southall Freeman praised the book as a "long-desired collection" by a man whose knowledge of the literature was unexcelled and whose penetrating judgment in selection was just.

Commager noted that the Civil War had left the deepest impression of any of America's wars. From it came the mythic creations of the nation's greatest national hero, Lincoln, and greatest sectional and military hero, Lee. From figures such as these, the standards for patriotism and courage were transmitted through songs, novels, and Hollywood. In his introductory comments, Commager noted ideas that have since become commonplace: that the war did not end either emotionally or psychologically in 1865; that it was the last of the old wars and the first of the modern wars; that both sides were Americans who displayed common characteristics; that both Blue and Gray were practical, experimental, intelligent, self-reliant, careless, amateurish, sentimental, moral, humorous, and generous. Similar ideas were found in Bell Wiley's books on the common soldiers of the war and later in Bruce Catton 's studies, but The Blue and the Gray was unique in presenting participants' own words in a format which made those ideas come vividly to life. These two volumes exhibit two of Commager's principle goals in writing: to provide original sources to allow the lay reader to reach judgments on his own and to generalize from particulars and to arrive at a list which describes the character of Americans.

Also published in 1950 was Commager's single most influential interpretative book, The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880's , which represented the fruition of his perspectives gained in lecturing and working abroad for the Office of War Information. He left the historian's safe ground of documents and facts and launched into the highly subjective and treacherous field of sketching an "American character." In Commager's view this character was forged in a crucial intellectual struggle between a brutal social Darwinism and a socially minded pragmatism. The former preached the sanctity of laissez-faire economics and the status quo; the latter protested the socioeconomic ravages engendered by accepting this frowning doctrine and affirmed government as an agent of social welfare. Within this framework Commager's concern was with the ideas that have directed American intellectual and social traffic for sixty years, and he sprinted through the vast areas that interested him: literature, journalism, philosophy, religion, sociology, economics, law, and architecture.

Commager accepted the 1890s as a watershed of American history, but he argued that the American character had remained essentially the same before and after that crucial decade. He found the nineteenth-century American optimistic, materialistic, prone to quantitative and experimental thinking, amiable, and convinced of both the dignity of the individual and the superiority of "God's country" to the rest of the world. Between 1890 and 1950 dramatic changes occurred, especially in the shift in paradigms from Newton to Darwin. The first half of the book dealt with the disintegration of the Newtonian orthodoxy and the second half with reintegration through the affirmative responses of Americans to the challenge of the new Darwinian universe. The good men Commager described could not really put the universe back together; they could only devise techniques for living precariously among the ruins. It was not difficult to discern Commager's favorites among those dedicated to accomplishing this task. He was always, like V. L. Parrington, a Jeffersonian liberal, putting his trust in the people, so his favorites in The American Mind were Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who both shaped law and government in the service of man.

Accompanying this change in paradigms were changes from rural to urban, from faith to doubt, from security to insecurity, and from isolationism to internationalism. Yet the differences in the American character were quantitative and material, not qualitative or moral. Commager found that his nineteenth-century generalizations could be applied to the mid-twentieth century, albeit with some qualifications: the optimism of Americans was tempered; conformity was much more important; there was intolerance of political dissent; and the past was of more concern than the future. The American Mind ended in ambiguity: the nation in 1950 was urban, but not urbane; it possessed leisure but was hurried; technology had largely freed women of drudgery, but one-quarter of American marriages ended in divorce; there was mass education, but this had not raised the level of knowledge; there was anxiety in the midst of complacency. Commager perceived the central problem as a struggle to prevent a centralized economic system from homogenizing all the ideas and values and freedoms that gave life meaning. The American Mind is an overview of the moral and intellectual resources with which the American people met this problem.

The great virtues of The American Mind are rich style and breadth of interest, but the effect is often a blur rather than a pattern. Nevertheless, Commager provokes the reader to probe several questions: In the realm of ideas, should the historian look for vertical eminence or horizontal spread? Which should be stressed, the thinker or his popularized thought? In what sense does a nation have a "mind" or a "character"?

During the 1950s Commager constantly attacked conformity and argued that the vitality of society depends on open discussion and on cherishing the right of dissent. Efforts to restrict thought would inevitably lead to an absence of thought and thereafter the death of society. The politicians who thundered their fears of an alien ideology were simply admitting that they had failed, or refused, to remove the social evils which communism could exploit, the theme of Commager's 1951 Swarthmore lecture published in Civil Liberties Under Attack and the theme of Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954), a collection of essays written between 1947 and 1953. Commager touched on legal and natural rights arguments for freedom of expression, but he contended that we paid lip service to each but actually ignored both. He lamented that, "uncertain of principles, we fall back on emotion, unfamiliar with the past we guess at the future." Despairing of convincing Americans of the 1950s that their heritage demanded freedom of inquiry, Commager argued from the "practical necessity for freedom" and showed that choking dissent would drive the best minds away from research and soon jeopardize America's preeminence in technology and science. Civil Liberties Under Attack contains Commager's famous comment, "The great danger that threatens us is neither heterodox thought nor orthodox thought, but the absence of thought."

The dread sterility of the absence of thought was the price demanded by such pied pipers as the honorable junior senator from Wisconsin. Commager put McCarthyism in some historical perspective when he argued that only the antebellum South compared to the McCarthyite 1950s for the suppression of free speech and a generalized attack on nonconformity. Commager anticipated the coroners of American Viet Nam policy of the 1960s by attacking the McCarthyites of the 1950s for making diplomats afraid to tender unpopular advice and blasted guilt by association by reminding us that the nation was founded by voluntary associations and that the nation retained its unique vitality because of them. He ended his argument by elevating McCarthyism to global significance--Western civilization rested on America's preserving a free society, which in turn required a proper regard for dissent and free inquiry.

Critics of Commager, such as Sidney Hook, argued that he warned of the dangers of stupid reactions to current problems, but that he did not offer any solution to such problems as preventing Communists from infiltrating sensitive agencies. Commager was accused of not realizing that there even was a security problem and that the very act of joining the Communist party was a conscious act on behalf of a hostile foreign power and therefore a punishable crime. To his critics Commager failed to live up to his own standards: he lauded pragmatists and their concern with concrete problems, but that was precisely what his woolly paeans to abstract rights failed to grapple with. Hook argued that there was a problem on American campuses with Communist professors under orders to indoctrinate students, and there was danger from fellow-traveler government officials. "Naive" was the damning epithet used to dismiss Commager's plea for civil liberties. The Saturday Review and other defenders of Commager countered the "naive" charge by declaring that he was not "just another egghead," that he had served his government in wartime, that he possessed unimpeachable loyalty, and that he was no "academic word-mincer." The tone of these defenses reveals the climate of opinion against which Commager aimed in his fight for free speech.

Whether or not he ever consciously reacted to the "naive" criticism, in his 1966 Freedom and Order: A Commentary on the Political Scene, Commager struggled to preserve his twin labels as "liberal and realist." For thirty years he had been consistent in both his theme and in his reasoning: both national security and a free society depended on preserving free inquiry. There were valid abstract arguments to demonstrate this, but Commager preferred to present practical reasons why this free inquiry was vital. When he returned to Viet Nam, Commager demanded that the government explain its blatant contradictions and abrupt policy shifts because lack of accurate information, a prerequisite to free inquiry, was itself a threat to national security. Freedom of inquiry was the only method of avoiding error, and to keep from wading deeper into the morass of Viet Nam, straight talk by policymakers was essential. Commager noted the pernicious habit of the government of equating hostility to the Viet Nam War with disloyalty or of dismissing dissent with the epitaph of "Communist dupe."

In his 1967 The Search for a Usable Past, Commager offered a collection of pieces written during the previous thirty years. As always, his style was limpid, simple, straightforward, and assertive as he explored the thesis that the United States was thrust into nationhood without any history and described how it proceeded to create a usable past. The primary ideas were that one could learn from history, that reason will eventually prevail over error, and that it was worthwhile to search for an American character. It is not now fashionable to talk in terms of a "national character." Such efforts are perceived as being woolly and not subject to quantification, but Commager thought the search for the national character was desirable, and he used the device well as a tool to shed light on what was distinctive in the American experience and what in our history was applicable to current predicaments.

Commager was not interested only in helping Americans interpret their nation for themselves. Since 1945 the Institute of International Education had published a survey, Meet the U.S.A., which included a "Practical Guide for Academic Visitors." Commager did the 1970 edition, which met a real need since foreign academic visitors had increased from 7,500 in 1945 to 147,600 in 1969. He covered the main elements of American life and dwelt on his view of the American character. His was a successful effort because he had periodically studied and taught abroad since the 1920s, and he understood what struck foreigners as peculiar in America; and he had the happy facility of being able to explain these peculiarities to strangers.

Commager swept foreign visitors through the political, economic, and social development of the nation, admonishing them to remember unique features of the country: the size and emptiness of the bountiful domain in 1600; that the United States was the only nation whose whole history took place within the era of the Industrial Revolution; that the United States was the nineteenth century's greatest colonizer, but kept all her emigrants because the colonies became states; that Americans have a longer experience with self-government than anyone except the Swiss and Icelanders; that for 350 years Americans have been the most politically creative people on earth--they did put something new under the sun: a continental federal system. He reminded visitors, distressed to see all the unrest in America in 1970, that the idealism of the 1960s was a reassertion, not a repudiation, of our Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality.

In Meet the U.S.A. Commager explained how he reconciled his admiration for Jefferson with his devotion to New Deal liberalism. Major social concerns, such as education, pollution, justice, health, and transportation, could no longer be the simple local affairs they had been in 1800. The states had made little effort to solve social problems and possessed little ability to cope with the problems of an integrated, continental economy. The result was that the national government had to step in to fill the voids and provide the greatest possible freedom and bounty for the individual.

In the mid-1970s, Commager's optimism faltered a trifle as he lamented in several forums that Americans no longer felt a sense of commitment to posterity. He argued that Americans had preserved the Founding Fathers' institutions but had betrayed their principles--government's just power was derived from the consent of the governed; the people could alter or abolish their government; there were constitutional limits on all power; the civil was always superior to the military; government's purpose was to establish justice and to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For Commager the problem was that we no longer practice these principles because we no longer really believe them. We have lost the Revolutionary generation's sense that the happiness of future generations depends on us. We plunder our natural resources, pile up a national debt, and flirt with atomic war. To our minds progress is simply material, and we fear innovation in the political arena. Commager laid responsibility for this betrayal on the threat of nuclear war, because of which we have no genuine conviction that there will even be any posterity, and therefore we feel that there is no pressing need to plan for the future. He was afraid that this prophecy might be self-fulfilling.

In Jefferson, Nationalism and the Enlightenment (1975) Commager elaborated on his notions about Jeffersonianism and argued that our third president was "a man for the 1970s" because he believed man could determine his own destiny, man could triumph over history, and human nature could change in such a favorable environment as America. After a decade of racial turmoil, war, and Watergate, Commager felt that America needed a reminder that our national intellectual heritage included an optimist such as Thomas Jefferson who demanded that ordinary people be given--and exercise--responsibility over their own fates.

Commager realized there were two Jeffersons: one was the Jefferson of the Declaration, the Statute of Religious Freedom, and the Kentucky Resolutions. That Jefferson was an inspiration to resist unjust wars, to decry invasions of privacy, to root out discrimination, and to champion a free press. But there was another Jefferson: the Jefferson who was ambivalent on slavery, who spent profligately at Monticello, who at the University of Virginia censored textbooks and selected professors for their political opinions, who as governor required loyalty oaths and built detention camps for dissidents, who as president persecuted Aaron Burr on flimsy evidence, who fought an undeclared war, and who used the army to enforce his Embargo. Commager was aware of this Jefferson, but he did not really confront the contradictions.

In Jefferson, Nationalism and the Enlightenment Commager worried over how we came from Independence Hall to Watergate, from Yorktown to the Ia Drang Valley, from George Washington to Richard Nixon. He really did not answer these questions but devoted much of his energy to writing a hymn of praise to the Founding Fathers, whom he thought had done a remarkable job. He explored the relationship of America to the Enlightenment: Europe invented the Enlightenment, but America institutionalized it. In Europe philosophers tried to convert kings; in America philosophers were elected to power. The political genius of a generation forged institutions which allowed America to exploit its natural wealth and to disperse it on a wide scale and also to show that a far-flung democracy could work. Though Americans had lived off this political capital for 200 years, Commager was optimistic that the country could continue to flourish, if only it remained true to the ideals of this remarkable founding generation and lived up to their standards of responsible participatory democracy.

Commager continued his optimistic analysis of the acts of the Founding Fathers in The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (1978), which J. H. Plumb said was almost "a prose hymn to the Republic." It is true that Commager passed over lightly such blights as bigotry, corruption, and plunder of the Indians, but his perspective was basically right: the Founding Fathers did create a world of hope that man had never before experienced and a nation that, for whites at least, was more equitable, prosperous, just, and free than any society before it. Commager was sufficiently wise to acknowledge that slavery bred doubt about this optimism, but he refused to remain skeptical of a society that achieved more sociopolitical democracy, more constitutional order, more limits on government, more religious and press freedom, more popular education, and more abundance than any other society in human history.

For more than fifty years Commager argued in books, lectures, and articles that a historian's task was not to judge but to understand, recalling Justice Holmes's statement that "I prefer champagne to ditch water, but I see no reason to suppose the cosmos does." Commager argued that it displayed an intellectual arrogance to impose our moral standards on the past. The historian's task was to make the past vibrant and germane to the present. Commager wanted the reader to judge for himself; he believed that if people were given accurate information, they could be trusted to make their own decisions. There were vital, pragmatic missions for historians: their task was to explain and interpret, but Commager also realized that "doing" history was great fun and had aesthetic purposes. He argued that the study of history added perspective, that it allowed one to live vicariously through great events, to travel to new lands, and to gain new companions. History was also basically a humbling experience because its devotees were constantly faced with their own ignorance. For Commager, a historian was much like a lawyer: both reconstructed the past, both were confronted with evidentiary gaps, both made judgments on character, both tested their evidence and arguments by precedent, and neither could hope to arrive at ultimate truth, only its reasonable approximation. Any reader of his works would suspect, however, that Commager thought historians had much more fun than lawyers.

In addition to having fun, the historian had a definite function to perform for society. History was the collective memory of mankind, and the past was a model for the present. Jefferson had seemed to believe that America was unique, outside history, and therefore immune from its lessons, but on that point Commager parted with Jefferson. America's history was definitely a usable past for citizens of the United States, and this history was also a living proof to all the people of the world that such "good things" as continental self-government and socioeconomic mobility were possible. America's great accomplishment was that she had hardened the ideals of Europe's Enlightenment into two centuries of reality and accomplishment. This heterogeneous, ambivalent, and maddeningly contradictory American society had many flaws, but it disappointed the world precisely because American history and example showed the world it could expect so much from the nation. For Commager, the key to transcending that disappointment was to study America's heritage and remain true to the ideals and practical experience which constituted its history; surmounting that disappointment was not just an elite's task, it was everybody's task, and every person was capable of fulfilling that challenge, if only he were provided with sufficient information. Commager thought the philosophical and practical epitome of these challenges was Thomas Jefferson , and in 1967 he summed up his favorite American with words that might be applied to himself: "Vigor, breadth, energy, simplicity, ruggedness, homeliness, enthusiasm characterized his thought rather than depth, subtlety, refinement, or serenity."




  • John A. Garraty, "Henry Steele Commager: American Nationalism," in his Interpreting American History: Conversations with Historians (New York: Macmillan, 1970; London: Collier-Macmillan, 1970), I, pp. 93-115.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200006057