Commager, Henry Steele (1902–1998)

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Henry Steele Commager was one of America's most widely read and influential historians. His two dozen books and scores of articles reflect his keen interest in constitutional history as well as an elegant and vivid style. He earned his degrees from the University of Chicago and taught for over sixty years at New York University, Columbia, and Amherst. He also held endowed chairs at Oxford and Cambridge and was a visiting professor at universities on four continents. His first book, The Growth of the American Republic (1930) with Samuel E. Morison, has been a standard text for over six decades, and his Documents in American History, often updated since its original publication in 1934, dominates its field. Theodore Parker (1936) is a riveting study of a transcendentalist reformer. Majority Rule and Minority Rights (1943) is a critique of judicial review based on Commager's devotion to majoritarianism and respect for dissent. Civil Liberties Under Attack (1951) and Freedom, Loyalty, and Dissent (1954) blasts mccarthyism and defends constitutional freedoms.

Commager co-edited the New American Nation series in over forty volumes and co-authored The Encyclopedia of American History (1953). His Search for a Usable Past(1967) is historiographical, and Freedom and Order (1966) is an incisive commentary of contemporary America. The American Mind (1960) is an interpretation of American thought and culture as influenced by constitutionalism, pragmatism, evolution, and economics. Empire of Reason (1977) stresses the ways America fulfilled Enlightenment ideas by institutionalizing them, as in constitutional conventions, federalism, and bills of rights. Commager concerned himself with describing the American national character as a product of history, which he regarded as a branch of belle lettres. His books reveal the influence of Emersonians as well as pragmatists such as William James, Lester Frank Ward, and John Dewey, whom he depicted as exponents of Americanism. His work also reflects his liberalism and acceptance of government as an agency of popular welfare.

Leonard W. Levy