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Henry Steele Commager (October 25, 1902 – March 2, 1998) was an American historian who wrote (or edited) over forty books and over 700 journalistic essays and reviews. He won fame as one of the most active and prolific public intellectuals of his time, and he based his activism in support of the causes he advocated, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and criticism of the constitutional agendas of the administrations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, on his authority as a historian and educator. The most widely used textbook Commager co-authored has been criticized, in its early editions, for racial bias.

Summary of life and career[]

Commager, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, worked his way through the University of Chicago, having earned the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees by the time he was twenty-eight. He taught at New York University from 1930 to 1936, Columbia University (from 1936 to 1956), and Amherst College in Massachusetts (from 1956 to 1992). He retired in 1992 from the John Woodruff Simpson Lectureship.

Commager originally studied Danish history, and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the Danish philosopher and reformer Johann Friedrich Struensee, a major reformer during the Enlightenment. Under the influence of his mentor at Chicago, the constitutional historian Andrew C. McLaughlin, Commager shifted his research and teaching interests to American history. He was coauthor, with Samuel Eliot Morison, of the widely-used history text The Growth of the American Republic (1930; 1937; 1942; 1950, 1962; 1969; 7th ed., with William E. Leuchtenburg, 1980; abridged editions in 1980 and 1983 under the title Concise History of the American Republic). His anthology, Documents of American History (1938), reaching its tenth edition (coedited with his former student Milton Cantor) in 1988, half a century after its first appearance, remains a standard reference work. His two documentary histories, The Blue and the Gray and The Spirit of Seventy-Six (the latter co edited with his longtime friend and Columbia colleague Richard B. Morris), treat the Civil War and the American Revolution, respectively, as seen by participants.

With Richard B. Morris, he also co-edited the New American Nation Series, a multi-volume collaborative history of the United States under whose aegis appeared many significant and prize-winning works of historical scholarship. (This series was a successor to the American Nation series planned and edited at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Harvard historian Albert Bushnell Hart.)

Commager's first solo book was his 1936 biography, Theodore Parker: Yankee Crusader, a life of the Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, reformer, and abolitionist Theodore Parker; it was reissued in 1960, along with a volume edited by Commager collecting the best of Parker's voluminous writings. His most characteristic books were his 1950 monograph The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Character Thought since the 1880s; and his 1977 study The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment. As these books suggest, he was principally an intellectual and cultural historian, deeply influenced by the historian Vernon L. Parrington, but he also worked in the fields of constitutional and political history. His work on this subject includes his controversial 1943 series of lectures, Majority Rule and Minority Rights.

At Columbia, Commager mentored a series of distinguished historians who earned their Ph.D. degrees under his tutelage, including Harold M. Hyman, Leonard W. Levy, and William E. Leuchtenburg. They joined together in 1967 to present him with a festschrift, or commemorative collection of essays, dedicated to him, titled Freedom and Reform (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). When he moved to Amherst, he no longer mentored Ph.D. candidates, but he continued to serve as a mentor and role model for nearly forty years worth of undergraduates at Amherst College, one of whom is the constitutional historian Richard B. Bernstein.

Commager was an ardent defender of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which he understood as creating a powerful general government that at the same time recognized a wide spectrum of individual rights and liberties. Commager opposed McCarthyism in the 1940s and 1950s, the war in Vietnam (on constitutional grounds), and what he saw as the rampant illegalities and unconstitutionalities perpetrated by the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. One favorite cause was his campaign to point out that, because the budget of the Central Intelligence Agency is classified, it violates the requirement of Article One of the Constitution that no moneys can be spent by the federal government except those specifically appropriated by Congress.

Commager wrote hundreds of essays and opinion pieces on history or presenting a historical perspective on current issues for popular magazines and newspapers. He collected many of the best of these articles and essays in such books as Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent; The Search for a Usable Past and Other Essays in Historiography; Freedom and Order: A Commentary on the American Political Scene; The Commonwealth of Learning; The Defeat of America: War, Presidential Power and the National Character; and Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment. He often was interviewed on television news programs and public-affairs documentaries to provide historical perspective on such events as the Apollo XI moon landing and the Watergate crisis.

Commager and his co-author Samuel Eliot Morison received vigorous criticism from African American intellectuals and others for their popular textbook The Growth of the American Republic, first published in 1930. (Although Morison was responsible for the textbook's controversial section on slavery, this has not spared Commager from charges of racism.) [1] These scholars focused their attack on the textbook's stereotypical depiction of slavery in America and of African American life after emancipation and during Reconstruction. The original editions of the textbook echoed the thesis of American Negro Slavery (1918) by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. This view, sometimes called the Phillips school of slavery historiography, was popularized by most white historians until the mid-twentieth century and was the mainstream, traditional view of the subject.[citation needed] It relied on the one-sided personal records of slave-owners and portrayed slavery as a mainly benign institution.[1] Given the mainstream nature of the Morison and Commager textbook, it should be noted that its early editions' material on slavery was not particularly groundbreaking. Be that as it may, its popularity and prestige made it a popular target for critics. Criticism of the textbook was begun in 1944 by the NAACP; by 1950, under pressure from students and younger colleagues, Morison, while denying any racist intent, reluctantly agreed to most of the demanded changes. He refused, however, to remove references to the anti-abolitionist caricature of "Sambo", which he claimed were vital in understanding that period of time. August A. Meier, a young professor at a black southern college, Tougaloo College, corresponded with Commager and Morison during this period of time in an effort to get them to change their textbook and reported that while Morison "just didn't get it", Commager was, although at first woefully unaware of black history, open-minded on the subject and willing to learn and change. Morison did not agree to remove Sambo until the next edition, which appeared in 1962. [2] For a more detailed discussion of this issue see the Samuel Eliot Morison Wikipedia article.

While Commager was not deeply concerned with race in the early part of his career, he showed considerable growth on this issue, becoming an advocate for civil rights for African-Americans as he already was for others. As early as 1943 he was harshly critical of the Supreme Court for blocking Congressional attempts to free the slaves, guarantee civil rights of Negroes, and protect workers. In 1949 he fought to allow the African-American historian John Hope Franklin to present a paper at the Southern Historical Association and agreed to introduce him to the group. In 1953 the NAACP Legal Defense Fund asked Commager for advice for their argument before the Supreme Court for the case of Brown vs Board of Education, but at the time he was not persuaded that this litigation would succeed on historical grounds, and so advised the lawyers. Commager also had close personal and professional relations with historians of the new multicultural school of history. [3]

Later, as co-editor of The New American Nation Series, Commager wrote the introduction to Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Foner's book, commissioned by the editors as a critical component of their multi-volume history of the United States, was (as the editors noted in their introduction), a "scholarly convincing Reconstruction of what is indubitably the most controversial chapter in our history." Foner's prize-winning book presented a vision of the era of Reconstruction far closer to that originally presented by Du Bois than that presented by Phillips, or by Morison in his chapter on Reconstruction in The Growth of the American Republic.

Commager insisted, and taught generations of his students, that historians must write not only for one another but for a wider audience.

Commager once said about teaching, "What every college must do is hold up before the young the spectacle of greatness."

Commager married author Evan Alexa Carroll (b. Feb 4, 1904, d. Mar 28 1968) of Bennettesville, South Carolina on July 3, 1928; the couple had three children, Henry Steele Commager Jr., Elizabeth Carroll Commager, and Nellie Thomas McCall Commager(now Nell Lasch). On July 14, 1979, he married his second wife, the former Mary Powlesland, a professor in Latin American studies, in Linton, England. With her he lived out the rest of his days. Commager died of pneumonia at the age of ninety-five under Mary's care at their home in Amherst.

Selected publications[]

  • The Growth of the American Republic (with Samuel Eliot Morison, New York: Oxford University Press, 1930 [as Oxford History of the United States]; 7th ed., 1980.. Revised and abridged edition with Samuel Eliot Morison and William E. Leuchtenberg published by Oxford University Press in 1980 as A Concise History of the American Republic, rev. 1983.
  • Documents of American History (1934 and later editions through 1988)
  • Theodore Parker: Yankee Crusader (1936)
  • Readings in American History (with Allan Nevins, 1939)
  • Majority Rule and Minority Rights (1943)
  • The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (1950)
  • Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
  • The Search for a Usable Past and Other Essays in Historiography (1965)
  • Freedom and Order: A Commentary on the American Political Scene (1966)
  • The Defeat of America: War, Presidential Power, and the National Character (1974)
  • Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment (1976)
  • The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1977, and later reprintings.)
  • Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples, arranged for one volume (New York: Greenwich House, 1991, ISBN 0-517-06019-1)
  • Commager on Tocqueville (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993)


  • NAACP ["Statement of Principle" (ms, 15 June 1944), frames 265–66; press release by Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., 15 June 1944, frame 264, both in reel 22, Part 16B, Papers of the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1994)]
  • Neil Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999)
  • R. B. Bernstein, "Scholarship and Engagement: Henry Steele Commager as Historian and Public Intellectual: Review of Neil Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, October, 1999. [URL: ]


  • Censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates in the end the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion. — Henry Steele Commager
  • The greatest danger we face is not any particular kind of thought. The greatest danger we face is absence of thought. — Henry Steele Commager, 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. — Henry Steele Commager, Letter to the Editor, in The New York Times (1971).

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