Henry Steele Commager

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Henry Steele Commager

Henry Steele Commager (born 1902) was an American historian who achieved much fame as a textbook author and as an editor of books of documents. He also earned a reputation as an historian of ideas and as a participant in the debates on the public issues of his day.

Henry Steele Commager was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 25, 1902, the son of James Williams and Anne Elizabeth (Dan) Commager. His parents moved to Toledo and then to Chicago when Commager was growing up, necessitating several changes in schools.

Commager matriculated at the University of Chicago, earning three degrees in history, a Ph.B. in 1923, an A.M. in 1924, and a Ph.D. in 1928. In 1924 Commager spent a year in Copenhagen doing research on his dissertation, "Struensee and the Reform Movement in Denmark."

Although his early interest was in Danish history and although that interest persisted throughout his life, Commager made his reputation and did most of his writing on American history. In 1926 he became an instructor of history at Columbia University. He married Evan Carroll on July 3, 1928, and the couple had three children, Henry Steele, Elizabeth Carroll, and Nellie Thomas McCall.

In 1929 he received the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize for a first book in the field of European history, but his reputation was made the next year when he became the co-author of The Growth of the American Republic with Samuel Eliot Morison. The book became one of the best-selling texts in the subject and went through many editions. He next wrote several texts in collaboration with others and published Documents of American History (1934), which was also widely used. In 1936 he wrote Theodore Parker, a biography of the New England radical. In 1939 he edited, with Allan Nevins, another book of documents, The Heritage of America. In the 1930s Commager was a Progressive historian, a self-styled Parrington, who was isolationistic and a believer in an economic interpretation of American history.

World War II changed his views. In 1942 he gave the James W. Richards' Lectures at the University of Virginia. These appeared under the title Majority Rule and Minority Rights (1943) and argued for the implementation of the will of the majority. In 1942 Commager and Allan Nevins also published America: The Story of a Free People, which presented a sympathetic view of American life. Commager lectured for the Office of War Information in England in 1943 and was active in writing and giving broadcasts all during the war. In the spring and summer of 1945 he assumed the temporary rank of colonel and acted as an information and education specialist for the United States Army in Paris.

His experience in the war led him to publish The Story of the Second World War in 1945. This popular account consisted of a series of stories and vignettes which was not a critical success. In 1947-1948 he became Pitt Professor of American History at Cambridge University.

In 1950 he published what was probably his best book, The American Mind, an intellectual history of America from 1890 through the 1940s. The book became a classic and moved Commager into the rank of one of the top intellectual historians in the nation. The same year he also edited a two-volume work, The Blue and the Grey, which included eyewitness accounts from participants on each side during the Civil War. In 1953 he was Gottesman Professor at the Royal University of Uppsala; the next year he was the Zuskin Professor at Brandeis.

By this time Commager's concern had shifted to preserving minority rights, particularly against the witch-hunting techniques of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His book Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954) spoke to issue of constitutional protection of free speech and won a Special Award from the Hillman Foundation.

In 1956, in a surprising move, Commager left Columbia to become a professor of history at Amherst College. Amherst made him Emerson Professor of History and Simpson Lecturer in 1971. The move to Amherst did not diminish his tremendous productivity. The year he arrived was also the year of the publication of Joseph Story, a biography that Commager had been working on for years.

Commager continued to write in a number of areas: contemporary political events, constitutional rights and theory, historiography, and the enlightenment. He also wrote books for juveniles as well as editing books of documents and historical series. By 1967 Harold W. Hyman and Leonard W. Levy counted over 400 items in the Commager corpus, including the authorship of 19 books and the editorship of 22 others. In this list were such books as Freedom and Order: A Commentary on the American Political Scene (1966), which was retrospective of his own work, and Was America a Mistake? (1967), an edited collection of the European arguments over the consequences of America's discovery.

Reaching his 65th birthday did not still Commager. The 1970s were a particularly fertile period as Commager wrote The Discipline of History (1972), ideas about historiography; Britain Through American Eyes (1974), selections from traveler's accounts; The Defeat of America: Presidential Power and the National Character (1974), a book inspired by the Nixon debate; Jefferson, Nationalism and Enlightenment (1975), a consideration of that leader's ideas; and The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (1977), a comparative study of the impact of ideas on two continents.

In 1979, Commager wrote the text for Mort Kuenstler's 50 Epic Paintings of America, and he continued to write prolifically into the 1980s and 1990s. He co-authored The Study and Teaching of History (1980) with Raymond Muessig, and wrote the introduction for The Civil War Almanac (1983). In 1992 he published two new works, Commager on Tocqueville, which met mixed reviews, and The Story of the Second World War, a critical success. In 1994 he wrote the text for a book of paintings by Mort Kuenstler, The American Spirit.

In 1984, Commager suffered a personal loss when his son, Henry Steele Commager, Jr., also an historian and author, died of cancer. His son's death created some confusion in biographies, as it was sometimes reported incorrectly to be the death of Commager, Sr.

Commager also continued as a visiting professor or lecturer at a number of universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1975 and 1977), McGill University (1977), Indiana University (1978), University of Washington (1981), and University of Illinois (1982). He had collected over 45 honorary degrees to add to his Guggenheim Fellowship, his Fellowship in the American Scandinavian Society, and his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Gold Medal for History the academy had bestowed on him. His career was a tribute to hard work and a wide interest in the world of both past and present.

Further Reading

There is an appreciation of Commager by two of his students, Harold W. Hyman and Leonard W. Levy, in Freedom and Reform: Essays in Honor of Henry Steele Commager (1967), which was published on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Robert Allen Skotheim analyses Commager's approach to the history of ideas in his American Intellectual Histories and Historians (1966). Commager is mentioned briefly in John Higham's History (1965). There is an interview with Commager in John A. Garratys' Interpreting American History (1970) which sheds light on Commager's ideas on nationalism. There is biographical information in Twentieth-Century American Historians (1983) and Contemporary Authors (1989), Volume 26. □