Henry Steele Commager

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Commager, Henry Steele (25 October 1902 - 2 March 1998)

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Commager was the son of James Williams and Anna Elizabeth (Dan) Commager. In 1923 he received his Ph. B. from the University of Chicago; his M.A. in 1924; and his Ph. D. in 1928. As an American-Scandinavian Foundation scholar, he did post-graduate work at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and was an honorary fellow of Peterhouse Cambridge University (England).

On 3 July 1928, he married Evan Carroll, and their children were Henry Steele, Nellie Thomas McColl, and Elisabeth Carroll.

After receiving his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago in 1928, Commager taught history at New York University (1926 - 1938), Columbia University (1938 - 1956), and Amherst College (1956 - 1994).

An outspoken opponent of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Vietnam War, Commager was one of the leading defenders of civil liberties during the 20th century.

One Unitarian Historian Assesses Another Unitarian Historian

A Unitarian, he has been described by Neil Jumonville, a professor of history at Florida State University:

Although Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) is remembered chiefly as a prolific American historian who taught at New York University, Columbia, and Amherst College, he also lived a notable public life outside the gates of scholarship. His academic credentials included more than forty books that he wrote and edited, visiting positions at Cambridge and Oxford, and the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters - none of which saved his scholarly position from some erosion by criticism from a later generation of historians.
What remains important in Commager's influence is found as much in his journalistic essays and reviews as in his scholarly books. From the beginning of his career he was one of those figures who was able to bring together the two worlds of scholarship and public discourse. By the late 1920s, then only 26 years old, Commager already had teamed with Samuel Eliot Morison to write The Growth of the American Republic, the most respected American history survey of its time. At the same moment, Commager also dove into the world of cultural journalism, which is how he met his best friend Allan Nevins who later brought him to Columbia. In 1928 Commager began reviewing books for the New York Herald Tribune, and the editors found his first attempt so good that he was given 24 more books to review that year and compiled 234 more reviews for the newspaper within a decade.
This combination of an active intellectual life interwoven with his academic duties was the pattern for his life. Frequently he contributed articles to magazines such as Saturday Review, Atlantic, the New Republic, the Nation, and Harper's - and he even wrote a biweekly column for the Senior Scholastic, a magazine for high schoolers. Commager nearly single-handedly provided the lead essays for the New York Times Magazine from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. During his career he published over 700 articles, most of them aimed at the general public, and most of them on the historical context of contemporary social issues.
Clearly, Commager was what we now call a public intellectual. In addition to his magazine articles he kept up a crushing schedule of lecturing around the country on political and social matters - denouncing McCarthyism, explaining why the United States did not belong in a war with Vietnam, or warning against an abuse of American power in the Nixon administration. His schedule was enough for a half-dozen people: teaching, writing newspaper and magazine columns, editing a series of books, collaborating on textbooks, doing research on his historical projects, flying here for political lectures or there to give the government historical advice, being interviewed by reporters, doing a radio talk-show, being filmed for a special program for CBS or PBS, giving Congressional testimony. Sometimes he flew to a dozen spots around the country in a month to address audiences, as though he were a secular itinerant preacher. Commager believed that it was his responsibility, whether by writing in magazines or standing at a podium, to address what his friend Nevins called that "one democratic public - the public to which Emerson and Lincoln spoke."
Commager in the 1940s. Courtesy of Lisa Commager
His was a vision of the historian's role that recalls the public lives of nineteenth century historians such as George Bancroft. A scholar should be a generalist, in this view, an exhorter as well as an interpreter. No less than a preacher, a historian should address the moral principles of life, the necessary commitments to justice and equality and opportunity, the responsibility that the powerful owe to the weak. The historian's badge was not a license to retreat to the archive away from the pain of the world. Instead it was an obligation to join in current debates and to propose solutions that might be divined from the experience of history.
No wonder, then, that Commager's first book, published in 1936, was a biography of the nineteenth century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. If most histories and nearly all biographies are also autobiographies, it is certainly true of Commager's Theodore Parker. In the transcendentalist Parker, Commager saw his own passion for mounting the stage and addressing a national congregation about the problems at hand. If Parker denounced slaveowners and selfish merchants, Commager struck out at militarism, covert government actions, and restrictions on civil liberties.
Because of Commager's own commitments, particularly his concerns about civil liberties, it is fitting that his best known campaign was against McCarthyism. It was here that he spent much of his energy in the most productive period of his life. From the mid-1940s through the 1950s, Commager wrote a long list of articles that ended up in two of his most notable books: Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954) and Freedom and Order (1966). It was during this period that he lectured about the importance of intellectual freedom in front of any audience that would listen. Many Americans incorrectly interpreted Commager's defense of dissenters as the words of a leftist who sympathized with communists. As a result, his lectures were occasionally cancelled by those who considered him a radical, and a publisher warned that one of his textbooks might be discontinued by high schools.
Although Commager was not a leader on race, neither was he offensive for his time. He was a liberal universalist who supported integration and liberal pluralism instead of multiculturalism. In a celebrated case in 1950, students at the City College of New York complained about the racism in the Morison and Commager textbook Growth of the American Republic. Instances of racism and the use of such terms as "Sambo" were real, but while Commager bore responsibility as co-author of the text, the offensive passages were part of Morison's section of the book.
During that same year, Commager published what became a part of the canon of early American Studies volumes. The American Mind, in addition, was a work of intellectual history written at the height of the influence of American intellectual history as a field. Although much of the book is a description of the cultural transformation from the late 19th to the early 20th century, especially tracing the growth of pragmatism, the study is justifiably seen in retrospect as a claim that particular American traits add up to a national character. Commager thought that the American character, while roughly recognizable, was flexible and inexact. Like many Americanists at mid-century he searched for a common bond of commitment to principles of democracy, opportunity, pragmatism, and intellectual freedom in American culture - to offset the dangers of totalitarianism abroad. For this search, a later generation of American historians has written off Commager as a conservative who is irrelevant, at best, to the multicultural agenda of our current society.
While his scholarly and intellectual reputation in recent decades has not flourished as much as he might have liked, in the end he championed the principles he thought important. Commager fought against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, and battled to protect intellectual freedom and a common democratic culture. While other historians gravitated to the library, he spent part of his time fostering public debate and bringing history to his fellow citizens. Like Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister so admired, Commager was happy to stay his course in the face of hostility and indifference. To describe Commager's legacy, we can borrow the words the historian Richard Hofstadter once used about Charles Beard: "Some scholars," Hofstadter noted, "choose to live their lives, usefully enough, amid the clutter of professional detail. [He] aimed to achieve a wisdom commensurate with his passion, and to put them both in the public service. No doubt he would rather have failed in this than succeeded in anything else."

Commager On Theodore Parker

From time to time, Commager spoke at the Unitarian Society in Amherst, Massachusetts. On one occasion there, he called Theodore Parker "the great American preacher."

On Humanisms


In 1951, asked about the various categories of humanism Warren Allen Smith, he replied to,

  • I know nothing about naturalistic humanism and have therefore nothing to write you.

Later, however, he accepted a pending Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association.


Critics complained that although he arguably was “the greatest anthologist American ever produced,” he gave too little attention to Native Americans and African Americans.

Andy Lindstrom has written,

  • Today, Commager's star has faded. His unabashed boosterism of America the beautifully harmonious is regularly trashed by a new generation of historians who see our national destiny no so much in consensus as in diversity. Instead of a melting pot, they say, we function best as a loose-knit confederacy of independent subcultures with little in common and nothing to be gained from working together.

But Florida State University historian Dr. Neil Jumonville (Ph.D. Harvard) disagrees. In Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), Jumonville makes a case for the lessons still to be learned from Commager and his peers. Wrote Jumonville:

  • Unfashionable as it might seem to those who now wage multicultural warfare against the old-time liberals and their so-called "climate of popular opinion," the idea of a permanently divided society doesn't ring much truer.

Ironically, Jumonville says, those who write off Commager and his colleagues as a bunch of conservative, irrelevant, dead white males are actually far less politically active and probably less "liberal" than they were. Today's political correctness, he says, has rejected their open marketplace of tough ideas. Deconstruction by experts and comprehensible only to the initiated has replaced narrative history and literature written for all to read. Ethnocentrism rules in place of common identity.

In 1972 Commager was awarded the Gold Medal for History by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he was an elected member.


“History is a story,” Commager once wrote, and “if history forgets or neglects to tell a story, it will inevitable forfeit much of its appeal and much of its authority as well.”

Censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates in the end the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.

"The greatest danger we face is not any particular kind of thought. The greatest danger we face is absence of thought." - in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954).

"The Bill of Rights was not written to protect governments from trouble. It was written precisely to give the people the constitutional means to cause trouble for governments they no longer trusted." - in The New York Times (1971).

An opponent of the war in Vietnam, he said “Having the United States in Vietnam is like having the Chinese invade the shores of Long Island!”

Final Years

When he died of pneumonia at the age of 95, Commager was buried at Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was survived by his wife, daughters Nell and Lisa, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

{CE; FUS; WAS, 14 February 1951}