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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.”
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.”
— By Neil Jumonville, William Warren Rogers Professor of History, Florida State University
“The Great American Preacher: Theodore Parker”
by Henry Steele Commager
In the spirit of Theodore Parker, Henry Steele Commager sometimes filled the pulpit of the Unitarian Society in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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.
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 character—one of those Historic Americans about whom he wrote so vigorously—but also a vital and living character?
The headstone 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 it—and 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 embraced‚ nay, insisted upon—the spiritual and emotional rather than the rational element in religion. As James Russell Lowell said, when it came to the Unitarian dissenters,
“He 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.”
His theological 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, as—with Channing—its true architect and spokesman.
Parker found 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 World—the 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 proof‚ the 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 now—it is almost a tradition—that 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 incomprehensible—and 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 review—the 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 the North.
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 use—to 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 us—a 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.
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Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Jumonville, Neil. Henry Steeler Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.