HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: AMERICAN PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL 1902-1998
Jumonville, William Warren Rogers Professor of History, Florida
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 Lettersnone 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.
at age 14 . Courtesy of Lisa Commager.
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'sand 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 mattersdenouncing
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 publicthe
public to which Emerson and Lincoln spoke."
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
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.
campaigning against McCarthyism. Courtesy of Lisa Commager.
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.
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
cultureto 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
Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the
Present by Neil Jumonville (Durham: University of North Carolina
In the spirit
of Theodore Parker, Henry Steele Commager sometimes
filled the pulpit of the Unitarian Society in Amherst,
In 1960, on
the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth
and the centennial of his death, the Beacon Press of
the American Unitarian Association reissued Theodore
Parker: Yankee Crusader in its paperback "Series
in Liberal Religion." What follows is the new introduction
published in the June 1960 issue of The Unitarian Register.
GREAT AMERICAN PREACHER: Theodore Parker"
by Henry Steele Commager
and Allan Nevins in California in 1963. Courtesy
of Lisa Commager.
It is just
one hundred years, now, since Theodore Parker died in
Florence, Italy, his last thoughts with the country he
so deeply loved, and with old friends and neighbors. Yet
he is still very much alive; what he said, what he did,
what he stood for, still have meaning for us. What is
there about Parker that makes him not only an historic
characterone of those Historic Americans about whom
he wrote so vigorouslybut also a vital and living
in the Protestant Cemetery in Florence calls him "The
Great American Preacher"; and we must never lose sight
of the fact that Parker was first and last a preacher,
that he thought of himself as a spiritual rather than
a secular leader. Where others among the transcendentalists
ostentatiously left the church, Parker refused to leave
itand as firmly refused to be thrown out. But it
was the spiritual rather than the historic church that
he continued to serve. He marks, perhaps, the final break
with that Calvinism which had already abandoned Trinitarianism
for Unitarianism, and which took refuge, in his day, in
an odd combination of arid intellectualism and insistence
on the validity of miracles. Parker turned Unitarianism
upside down: he rejected the miracles but embracednay,
insisted uponthe spiritual and emotional rather
than the rational element in religion. As James Russell
Lowell said, when it came to the Unitarian dissenters,
went a step further, without cough or hem
He frankly' avowed he believed not in them,
And before he could be jumbled up or prevented
From their orthodox kind of dissent he dissented."
dissertations and his sermons mark the final emancipation
of New England Unitarianism from orthodoxy; and the
church which disavowed him in his lifetime looks upon
him today, aswith Channingits true architect
of Lisa Commager
it possible to combine religious liberalism with piety
and devoutness; he found it possible, and indeed natural,
to combine Transcendentalism with what we would now
call Pragmatism. In few things does the American character
reveal itself more characteristically than in the reception
of German Idealism (as filtered through Coleridge) and
its application to the American scene.
In the Old
World, Transcendentalism was, for the most part, highly
individualistic and deeply conservative. When it crossed
the sea, it suffered a sea change and took on a new
character. We know how it should have acted even in
the New Worldthe Vermont school of Transcendentalists
showed us that, and James Marsh's contempt for the vagaries
of the Bostonians was perfectly logical. But the Vermont
version is interesting now only to the historians of
philosophy, while the Concord-Boston version made history.
It was not content to assert the existence of great
moral truths that transcend sensational proofthe
benevolence of God, the beneficence of nature, the divinity
of man. It insisted on translating these truths into
programs, in actualizing them, in putting them to work.
If man was
divine, then it was wicked that his body should be confined
in slavery, his mind clouded by ignorance, his soul
corrupted by superstition or by sin. Let there be light!
Let us restore all men to that divinity with which God
endowed them! Let us bring freedom to the slave, learning
to the ignorant, enlightenment to the superstitious,
prosperity to the poor, health to the sick; let us give
to all mankind those rights and privileges that God
and nature intend them to enjoy. As Emerson so well
put it: "The power which is at once spring and regulator
in all efforts of reform is the conviction that there
is an infinite worthiness in man, which will appear
at the call of worth, and that all particular reforms
are the removing of some impediment."
Of all the Transcendentalists
who addressed themselves to the removing of impediments,
Parker was the most energetic and the most effective.
More efficiently than any other, he married the deductive
and the inductive, the transcendental and the sensational,
the intuitive and the pragmatic; and more indefatigably
than any other, he embraced the whole arsenal of social
and moral reforms. "Why so hot, my little man?" Emerson
asked of some of the more enthusiastic Transcendentalists,
but he called Parker "Our Savonarola" and counted him
one of the great men of his generation.
There is a widespread
notion nowit is almost a traditionthat preachers
should keep aloof from politics and, indeed, from all
the affairs of this world. Their business is with the
spiritual realm, and this excludes them from the secular.
To Parker this notion would have been incomprehensibleand
so to many other preachers of his generation. He made
no distinction between the realm of practical conduct
and the realm of morality. but insisted that morality
permeate and control all conduct. In one great sermon
after another, in a hundred lectures, he addressed himself
to the moral and spiritual problems of the secular world.
He passed all major institutions in reviewthe
church, the state, the political party, the military,
the economy, the schools, the family. He required that
each justify its conduct before the bar of morality.
And he spoke for morality. His influence was pervasive
and profound: he had the largest parish in Boston, but
regarded the whole nation as his parish. Thousands heard
him every, Sunday in the spacious Music Hall; tens of
thousands listened to his lectures; hundreds of thousands
read his printed sermons that circulated throughout
He was, in short, a moral
agitator. Now, when agitation of almost any kind is
looked upon as bad manners. and moral agitation as dangerous,
this is a dubious tribute. The moral agitator, as we
know, is apt to be an extremist and even a fanatic:
he inflames opinion and hardens hearts; he sets man
against man and class against class; he makes compromise
difficult, and substitutes revolution for evolution.
All true enough of Parker
and his associates in the reform movement. They were
not unaware of the danger of extremism; at the same
time, they were prepared to be absolutists on some matters.
They thought slavery a great moral wrong, and insisted
on saying so, regardless of the cost. For this refusal
to compromise, a later generation finds it hard to forgive
them. Yet Lincoln, too; for all his moderation and his
humility, insisted in his debates with Douglas, that
slavery was a moral issue and that that made all the
difference. This may have been one problem that would
not yield to compromise, but had to be forced to a conclusion.
That, in any event, was what Parker thought, and he
provides us with one of the most illuminating examples
in our history of the role of the agitator.
Parker is not only one
of the striking examples of the moralist in American
history; he is also perhaps the most impressive example
of the scholar in politics. The responsibility of the
American scholar weighed heavily on the conscience of
that generation. Did the New World make demands on the
scholar unknown in the Old? Was scholarship national,
rather than cosmopolitan? Did the scholar have any special
responsibilities to democracy; and if so, could he fulfill
these without damage to scholarship? The leading scholars
of Parker's generation brooded over these and similar
questions. Parker himself wrote a memorable essay on
The Position and Duties of the American Scholar.
But here again, what was
remarkable about Parker was not so much the philosophical
argument as the course of action. The duties that Parker
assigned to the scholar were arduous, and he himself
undertook them. His scholarship was prodigious; it was
even esoteric; but it was never private. Throughout
his life, Parker put it to useto confound the
orthodox Unitarians who had fancied themselves as scholars;
to counterbalance the inherent anti-intellectualism
of Transcendentalism (compare the Massachusetts Quarterly
Review, which Parker edited, with The Dial);
and to provide ammunition to statesmen, to reformers,
even to lawyers and judges (see, for example, the "Defence"
that he so hopefully drafted when he thought he might
have the good luck to be brought to trial for obstructing
the fugitive slave law!). His career challenges not
only those who think that the clergy should stay out
of the secular world, but also those who think that
scholars have no business in practical affairs, and
that scholarship is somehow tarnished if put to work.
All this gives meaning
to Parker's career. But there is something more, something
beyond these particular contributions: there is Parker
himself. Who touches any part of his thought, touches
a man. That he had failings is readily conceded: harshness,
impatience, a certain intellectual arrogance, vanity,
a desire for martyrdom. But these failings were venial.
It is his virtues, rather, that impress usa shining
sincerity that permeated his every thought and action;
courage that was instinctive and unquenchable; a forthrightness
that left no room for doubt or mistake; intellectual
and moral integrity; the resourcefulness of the countryman
ready to turn his hand and his mind to any righteous
enterprise; a love of learning that was never satisfied,
but generously shared; untiring diligence; industry
that would have exhausted a dozen ordinary men and did,
in the end, exhaust Parker himself at fifty; absolute
selflessness; and with all this, sweetness, gentleness,
and love for his fellow men, a nobility of mind, and
a greatness of spirit.