Alan Brinkley
The New Republic
September 27, 1999
Vol. 221 No. 13; p. 42


Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present by Neil Jumonville (University of North Carolina Press, 328 pp., $49.95)

Henry Steele Commager was one of the best-known and most revered American historians of the twentieth century, which his long life almost exactly spanned. And yet few people read, or even recall, his work today. This is partly because Commager's scholarship, like most historical scholarship, has been superseded by that of his successors; but the obscurity of his work is also a result of his decision-taken early in his career and embraced with increasing fervor-to be not just a scholar, but a public figure. Commager wrote not just for the academy, but for a broad general public. He focused less on producing works of scholarship than on providing historically informed commentary on public affairs. He wrote some significant books, to be sure; and he was immensely learned, enormously well read, and an astute critic of the work of students and colleagues. Yet his role as a scholar often seemed secondary to his role as what we now call a public intellectual. Gradually, his public activities seemed to replace his scholarly ones almost completely.

Neil Jumonville has written this thoughtful and intelligent biography precisely because of his interest in Commager's decision to choose a public role over a scholarly one. For Jumonville, the author of Critical Crossings, a study of the New York intellectuals, Commager's life stands as a rebuke to the insularity, the specialization, and the straitened careerism of the contemporary scholarly world. Historians, he remarks, "as a rule have shied away from contemporary public enthusiasms and have had less impact on political life than they could have." They have feared being dismissed as partisans or journalists and have sought the recognition of the academy, not the public. But Commager exemplified a different and admirable model. Historians, Jumonville insists, "must reach out and engage the wider public in a dialogue about historical issues if history as a field is to continue to have relevance in our national culture."

In addition, Jumonville argues, Commager's lifelong attachment to an ardent and perdurable liberalism makes him an emblematic figure of his generation of scholars, most of whom were, even if less visible to the public, also committed to the achievements and the ideals of the liberalism of their time. That generation has been challenged, and in many cases scorned, by many recent historians, who have bridled at what they consider the excessively celebratory tone of post-war scholarship and its inadequate attention to social and cultural diversity. Jumonville does not dispute these charges; but he insists that Commager and his contemporaries were not the complacent defenders of the status quo that their critics sometimes describe. Commager may have resisted the cultural radicalism that has so enamored the poststructuralist left, but he remained true to an essentially Jeffersonian faith that kept him consistently and often even stridently critical of conservative domestic policies and foreign misadventures. His career, Jumonville insists, is a fine illustration of the continuing value of midcentury liberalism.

COMMAGER WAS BORN in 1902 into a modestly prosperous midwestern family that dissolved around him before he was nine. His parents divorced, his mother died, and he spent the remainder of his youth in the home of his maternal grandfather, Adam Dan, a well-known Danish Lutheran minister in Chicago and part of a democratic reform faction of the American church. He provided his grandson with an example of social and political activism. Commager entered the University of Chicago at the age of 16 and studied under the famous constitutional scholar Andrew McLaughlin, who, like Commager's grandfather, believed in the importance of political engagement as an integral part of the scholarly life. McLaughlin's example helped to spur Commager's commitment to a career in history and his decision to enroll in the university's doctoral program. By the time he earned his degree in 1929, he had spent several years studying in Europe, had accepted a position teaching American history at New York University, and had gotten married.

Despite the examples of his grandfather and his mentors, Commager did not enter the history profession in search of a major public role. His first ventures into the world beyond the academy resulted less from his commitments than from his finances. Struggling to support a family in New York on his meager NYU salary, Commager began reviewing books for the Herald Tribune and very quickly became one of the paper's most frequent contributors. In 1932, he wrote a glowing review of Allan Nevins's biography of Grover Cleveland; and soon after that, Nevins, a decade older and an eminent figure at Columbia University, contacted Commager and began a relationship that continued for more than thirty years and became the most important friendship in both men's lives.

Already one of the nation's best-known historians, Nevins had begun his career as a journalist and never abandoned his commitment to engagement with a broad public. He was less political (and considerably less liberal) than Commager, but his example nevertheless reinforced, and strengthened, Commager's own movement into a more public life. It also helped facilitate Commager's move from New York University to Columbia in 1938. And by then Commager had himself become a prominent figure in American intellectual life.

That prominence was due partly to his visibility as a reviewer and essayist and to his wide acquaintances within the New York literary community. It was also a result of his collaboration with the noted Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison on the most successful American history textbook of the mid-twentieth century: The Growth of the American Republic. Known for its self-consciously literary style, filled with anecdotes and rhetorical flourishes, it presented American history as a brave adventure in progress. There was tension at times between Morison's patrician conservatism and Commager's populist liberalism, but they were eclipsed by the skill of both authors for producing smooth and lively narratives.

PERHAPS THE LEAST significant contribution to Commager's growing reputation came from his own scholarly work. His dissertation was on the nineteenth-century Danish reformer John Friedrich Struensee, a social crusader who attracted Commager's attention both because he offered a vehicle for exploring his own Danish heritage and because Struensee's politics seemed to Commager compatible with his own. The thesis won a prize from the American Historical Association, but it was never published. His first major work, a biography of the abolitionist Theodore Parker, published in 1936, was recognized as a significant achievement, but it was widely criticized for its absence of critical interpretation, for its almost Rankean effort at "objectivity." This study of one of the most passionate figures of nineteenth-century America seemed curiously passionless, and all the more curiously because its author was a man who, in other contexts, was not at all reluctant to express strong opinions in print.

The loftier academic climate of Columbia did nothing to diminish Commager's protean non-academic energies. He wrote constantly for the Herald Tribune, the New York Times Magazine, the Saturday Review, Senior Scholastic (a magazine aimed at high-school students), and many others. He lectured widely across the nation and in Europe, in universities and before non-academic groups. He accepted visiting professorships at Oxford and Cambridge, and in the early l940s became involved in the public life of Britain, helping the government prepare its people for World War II (at the same time that he was exhorting the American public to commit itself to the struggle). He and Nevins helped launch the Columbia Oral History Project and, years later, the popular history magazine American Heritage.

FROM A DISTANCE, his life looked like his Columbia office, which was chaotic, with huge piles of books and papers always sitting on his desk and on the floor, and with dozens of projects, large and small, competing for his attention. There was an almost frantic air about him, as he dashed around town with his over-stuffed briefcase and as he seized whatever spare moments he could find to pound away on his portable typewriter in an effort to finish whatever essay or review had the most pressing deadline.

Perhaps inevitably, Commager's busy life left him little time for research, and his life of Theodore Parker was his only book that was heavily based on archival sources. Majority Rule and Minority Rights, which appeared in 1943, was a tour de force of erudition and vigorous argument, a staunch defense of Jeffersonian democratic ideals and an attack on what he considered the undemocratic institution of judicial review. His bestknown book was The American Mind, published in 1950, a wide-ranging and highly opinionated survey of American intellectual history from the 1880s to the 1940s, dedicated to the proposition that "there is a distinctively American way of thought, character, and conduct." In it, he gave pride of place to the strain of modern American thought that Commager himself most admired: pragmatism. "It was," he wrote with typically Jeffersonian passion, a democratic philosophy, held every man a philosopher, gave every man a vote, and counted the votes of the simple and the humble equal to those of the learned and the proud. It took its truths where it found them, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. It made philosophy a servant, not a master, an instrument, not an end. It assumed that men could direct their spiritual as they did their political destinies; it overthrew the tyranny of philosophical authoritarianism and substituted the democracy of popular representation.

Read today, both these books are impressive for their literary quality and for their boldness. Yet they also seem dated and superficial: the product of a talented scholar musing on the issues and the scholarship of his time, not of any genuine independent research. Similar criticisms greeted Commager's work at the time, but the criticism did not prevent his books from achieving popular success.

Commager lamented from time to time his inability to produce more conventional works of history. For years, he nursed research projects of one kind or another, among them a biography of William Jennings Bryan, only to pass them on to others or to abandon them altogether for lack of time. But he never lamented for very long, because there was always much else to do. His real achievement during his long and active life was less to contribute to scholarship than to contribute, often influentially, to the public discourse of his time. He sustained and advanced an academic tradition that is now increasingly rare: the scholar as public intellectual.

In the historical profession alone, there were numerous mid-century figures who, like Commager, were prominent public figures committed to communicating with a non-academic audience and influential in shaping intellectual life. Commager's Columbia colleagues Allan Nevins, Richard Hofstadter, and Lionel Trilling were all part of this tradition, and so were, in various ways, such others, older and younger, as Samuel Eliot Morison, Charles Beard, Carl Becker, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith. But Commager moved further into the world of public activism than most other scholars. He was a more natural crusader than all but a few of them, and he gave up more of his academic life than most of them.

Commager's public activism was not an exercise in self-promotion, as is the case with some academic talking heads today. It was an effort to use his stature as a scholar to advance a set of beliefs to which he was deeply committed, and that were imperiled by the circumstances of his time. He was an indefatigable advocate for American aid to Britain after 1939 and, soon thereafter, for American intervention in World War II. He was undoubtedly the most outspoken American academic in the battle against McCarthyism in the early 1950s. He was a fervent opponent of the Vietnam War and what he considered the misuse of American power in the world beginning in the 1960s. He denounced corruption in government and in the corporate world. He was a particularly outspoken critic of the Nixon scandals.

Those were causes that many of his academic colleagues also addressed. But Commager was not just more outspoken than they were; he also embraced a brand of liberalism different from the kind most academics chose. To many of the academic liberals of the 1950s and early 1960s, the key to a progressive future was to rescue the nation's public life from the narrow, provincial concerns of local politics, and to create a new national culture capable of overcoming prejudice and producing a genuinely tolerant and enlightened community. This has often been described as the "cosmopolitan" sensibility, and it carried with it an unspoken belief in the importance of vesting authority in enlightened educated people.

Many cosmopolitan liberals were deeply fearful of popular passions, convinced that "mass politics" run amok had produced fascism and Stalinism in Europe and McCarthyism and racial bigotry in the United States. A cosmopolitan politics, they believed, would not only ensure tolerance, it would also keep popular prejudice in check. Such liberals believed in democracy, certainly, but in a democracy structured in a way that prevented the people from exercising authority too directly.

Closely tied to this sensibility was the belief, among many historians, in the existence of what became known as the American "consensus," the conviction that despite the many disagreements in the nation's public life the American people shared what Richard Hofstadter called "a common climate of opinion," a basic belief in the value of individual liberty and acquisitive capitalism. Consensus, not conflict, was the key to understanding the American past. The rise of the consensus idea helped shape another scholarly movement that gained momentum after World War II: the American Studies movement. American Studies began in the 1930s as an effort to link the study of history with the study of literature. But it gradually became as well an attempt to define an American "national character," to illustrate the traits that most Americans had in common as members of a shared ideology and culture.

Commager was different. He was throughout his life an ardent Jeffersonian, convinced that the struggle for democracy was a struggle to wrest authority from elites and to place it in the hands of the people, whose basic wisdom he seldom doubted. Hence his astonishing position in Majority Rule and Minority Rights against judicial review of legislative decisions, and his later hostility to the growth of presidential power. Commager did not doubt the importance of intellectuals and elites in shaping public discourse, and he took his own role in that task very seriously. Nor was he a populist by temperament. A fervent Anglophile, he took great pride in having held professorships at both Oxford and Cambridge and, some of his colleagues believed, self-consciously adopted the stentorian demeanor of an Oxbridge don. He liked to live well, and he spent money lavishly. Yet he remained, at heart, a philosophical populist, looking to "the people" to solve problems created by the "elites" and the "interests." He was, ultimately, a liberal more in the spirit of Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington, figures of an earlier scholarly generation, than in the spirit of more contemporary intellectuals such as Hofstadter and Trilling.

This, perhaps, was why he displayed a relative reticence on the issue of race, the issue that so inflamed many of his scholarly contemporaries and that Commager himself had at least indirectly addressed in his early biography of Theodore Parker. Commager supported the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, certainly, and he deplored the combat; but he never embraced the cause with the same fervor that he brought to other issues. This may have reflected his difficulty in fitting that battle, much of it between poor blacks and only slightly-- less-poor whites, into the class-based intellectual framework with which he generally tried to explain the world. Commager also never felt comfortable with the multicultural agenda of the left in the 1980s and 1990s-perhaps because by then he was growing too old to absorb new ideas, but more likely because of his lifelong commitment to a democratic ethic in which power, not culture, was the critical ingredient.

Commager's differences with the prevailing liberalism of his generation of scholars no doubt accounts for his relatively smooth passage through the 1960s and 1970s. While many of his colleagues found themselves deeply alienated from, and pilloried by, the student left, and while some of them became increasingly conservative as a result, Commager looked more sympathetically at the new radicalism and particularly at its criticism of the Vietnam War. He was generally tolerant of popular dissent, welcomed the engagement of citizens in public discourse, and showed none of the fear of "mass politics" that troubled many of his contemporaries. He was also, despite the intensity with which he denounced people and policies that he disliked, a generally optimistic man. He tended to believe that most things-particularly things that welled up from below-would work out well in the end.

Commager resigned from Columbia in 1956 to assume a position at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He left New York in part because Allan Nevins was retiring and would soon move to California, but mainly to escape the heavy teaching demands of a research university and the heavy social demands of New York. "I am buying time," he told his friend Merle Curti. aI feel mortality these days." He spoke wistfully of returning to research, of writing more scholarly books. But being in Amherst did not reduce the invitations to write and to speak, nor did it reduce Commager's eagerness to accept them. For more than thirty more years, until old age finally slowed him, he traveled ceaselessly, wrote incessantly, and taught at Amherst rather intermittently. He died in 1998, at the age of 95, commenting on the world around him almost to the end.

The lives of scholars are not usually the stuff of biography, and in many ways Commager's life was no exception. After his difficult childhood, he enjoyed decades of almost uninterrupted success, and his busy life fell into a pattern that shifted only marginally over the years. There were no major crises, no traumas, few important disappointments. Jumonville has not tried to create drama where there is none. Instead he has used Commager's life to illustrate a tradition of politically engaged scholarship that is imperiled in today's far more professionalized and insular academic world. In the process, Jumonville has produced short but perceptive portraits of many other important midcentury academics-Nevins, Morison, Hofstadter, and others-and an interesting analysis of such important scholarly developments as the growth of the American Studies movement and the birth of"consensus" scholarship. He has written not simply a life of Commager, but a valuable, generous, and scrupulous interpretation of historical scholarship in Commager's time.

Commager's contributions to the world of history may have been more modest than his talents might have led his colleagues to expect. But his contributions to the public conversations of his time were much greater than those of almost any of his contemporaries, let alone the generations of scholars who have followed him. Jumonville closes his book with an apt passage from Richard Hofstadter's study of Charles Beard, the greatest public scholar of the first half of the twentieth century. It could describe Commager as well: "Some scholars 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:' Commager may have failed in other things, but not in his mingling of wisdom and passion.

ALAN BRINKLEY is the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Liberalism and its Discontents (Knopf).