In Memoriam

Henry Steele Commager (1902-98)

Hugh Hawkins | May 1, 1998

Although his name was often mispronounced and misspelled, probably no American historian of recent times was as widely known to the public as Henry Steele Commager. Many had studied from his textbooks, heard his lectures, or seen him interviewed on television. For fellow historians he was a presence. If they had met him, they told anecdotes. If not, they asked questions of those who had. Doubtless, Commager and his ideas will be the subject of future historical study; in fact, the process has already begun.

Although often associated with his Danish ancestry (he had spent a year of graduate study in Denmark and wrote his dissertation on 18th-century Danish reform), Commager's surname traced to French Huguenot ancestors. Born in Pittsburgh on October 25, 1902, and orphaned by age 10, he was reared in Toledo by his Danish American maternal grandfather. At the University of Chi cago, where he earned three degrees (1923, 1924, and 1928), he was an assistant to constitutional historian Andrew C. McLaughlin.

The young scholar never published his dissertation (though it won a prize from the AHA). American history soon dominated his teaching, beginning with his appointment at New York University in 1926. The same was true of his publications, notably The Growth of the American Republic (1930), coauthored with Samuel Eliot Morison; Documents of American History (1934), which he sometimes cited as his most important historical contribution; and Theodore Parker: Yankee Crusader (1936). His articles, particularly his frequent book reviews in the New York Herald Tribune, enhanced his reputation as a historian of unusual energy and reach, and he moved to a professorship at Columbia University in 1938.

World War II cast Commager in a new role as intellectual ambassador abroad and public intellectual at home. He consulted, lectured, and wrote for the Office of War Information and the War Department, besides holding the Pitt Professorship at Cambridge University in 1942--43. His social commentaries, drawing on historical parallels, appeared in journals of opinion, most often the New York Times Magazine and a magazine for students, Scholastic. As with his historical writings, his liveliness of style engaged readers, and his confident liberalism reaffirmed the idealism of the war years.

Increasing recognition came after the war. In an enlarged edition, The Growth of the American Republic became for a time the most popular of all college American history textbooks. The American Mind (1950) enlivened the then-rising field of intellectual history, and its concept, "the watershed of the Nineties," stimulated debate and elaboration. Commager taught abroad in the summer and was Harmsworth Professor at Oxford in 1952--53. Whereas his 1943 volume Majority Rule and Minority Rights had stressed the justice of majority rule in a democratic society, his Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954) declared the need for a free society to tolerate all sorts of dissenters, including Communists. As Neil Jumonville's forthcoming study shows, Commager in the McCarthy era was bolder than most intellectuals in making the case for civil liberties, in part because he himself had no radical past to cause hesitation. Not that he was ever a hesitator.

At Columbia some of his lecture courses became legendary, especially his course in American constitutional history, where auditors added to the crowd of enrolled students. Though he supervised fewer PhD dissertations than did some of his colleagues, those whose work he guided commented in the festschrift they issued in 1967, "If he sometimes seemed irascible and cutting, it was because he always demanded the utmost of which we were capable and never confused impersonal professional standards with his personal feelings toward us."

The 1956 shift of this historical celebrity to a small liberal arts college caused widespread comment. Commager's move to Amherst, in the long run a distinct success, entailed a somewhat difficult period of adjustment. An urbanite, university-oriented public figure found himself in a small town at a college that prided itself on close faculty interaction with students and collaborative teaching among faculty. Commager's three-year continuation as an adjunct at Columbia and his heavy schedule of lectures elsewhere caused some collegial irritation. Students in his classes complained that he did not remember their names. His inability to drive, no handicap in New York, was a source of frustration in Amherst.

Before long Commager found a modus vivendi in the new setting. He hired student assistants, some of whom became lifelong friends. He offered not lecture courses, but small seminars often focusing on the Constitution and the judiciary. Students welcomed the stimulation of his classes, even if there was less colloquy than under the Amherst norm. Appreciating his bold assertions of the limits of administrators' power, colleagues also experienced the charm of his conversation with its sage advice, surprising quotations, and anecdotes about the famous.

Perhaps most important in his adjustment to his new milieu was the role of Evan Commager, whom he had married in 1928. A gifted hostess, an author of children's books, her gentle wittiness balanced Henry's ebullient, but sometimes abrupt, social encounters. In time Amherst came to seem like home to this peripatetic expounder of ideas. He kept the same residence for over 40 years, a large Victorian house to which he added a huge office-study. He suffered blows that brought him closer to others--the death of Evan in 1969 and the onset of impaired vision. In 1979 he married Mary Powles land, a historian of Latin America with whom he shared various editorial projects and who became a lively presence in the Amherst community.

Commager's fearlessness in addressing controversial public issues never appeared more dramatically than in his opposition to the Vietnam War. At a teach-in, which by chance directly followed a TV address by President Johnson, Commager eloquently challenged the president's rationale for the war and argued the inadequacy of his peace initiatives.

This articulate willingness to speak with both historical and moral authority made Commager a favorite of the media. The resulting exposure ranged from pithy quotations in AP stories to extended interviews with Dick Cavett or Bill Moyers. His lectures drew large audiences, and often an honorary degree was part of the occasion. Other honors included election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and awards from the American Civil Liberties Union. Eager to reach a broad audience, he published in Look and TV Guide, as well as Daedalus and the Saturday Review.

Commager evinced no interest in the offices of the professional associations. If he ever served on an academic committee, he soon came to look on such involvement as a waste of time. At Amherst, he rarely spoke in faculty meetings, but when he did, his British style of address delighted his colleagues.

From 1972 until 1992, though formally retired, Commager continued to teach at Amherst as Simpson Lecturer, a position once held by Robert Frost. His death, from pneumonia, came on March 2, 1998. Although age took its toll, he was able to remain in his own home, and could speak articulately, sometimes eloquently, even when he was not sure of his visitor's identity.

Praiseful friends, and there have been many, found no easy characterization for Henry Commager. To Harold Hyman and Leonard Levy, he was "an implacable rationalist," but to Allan Nevins, "essentially a romantic." A believer in progress, Commager embraced dominant national developments of the past three centuries--the Enlightenment framework set by the founders, the reformist moralism of the 19th century, and the stronger central government of the 20th. But the longer he lived, the clearer it became that he cared most about the first.

—Hugh Hawkins
Amherst College

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