When Henry Steele Commager died on 2 March 1998 at the age of 95, the historical profession lost a distinguished writer and teacher, the nation lost a brave and eloquent public intellectual and the American Academy of Arts and Letters lost one of its oldest and most devoted members.
Born of Danish stock in Pittsburgh on 25 October 1902, Commager worked his way through the University of Chicago, Class of ’23. After a year at the University of Copenhagen investigating the 18th century reform movement in Denmark, he took his Ph.D., also at Chicago, in 1928. For all his enduring pride in his Danish ancestry, it was American history that became his lifelong enthusiasm and commitment.
In 1926 he joined the faculty at New York University as an American historian. In 1938 he moved uptown to Columbia University where he taught for the next 21 years, and thereafter to Amherst College, where he spent the rest of his life. He meanwhile served as Pitt Professor at Cambridge, as Harmsworth Professor at Oxford and as visiting lecturer in Denmark, France, Austria and other European countries, carrying everywhere the gospel of the American experiment in democracy. He was elected to the institute in 1952 and to the Academy in 1956. In 1972 he received the Academy’s Gold Medal for History.
Commager’s first major work, Theadore Parker: Yankee Crusader (1936), was an elegant biography of the hard-hitting Unitarian minister and abolitionist. It represented one of his few excursions into archival research. His developing interest was more in historical argument and synthesis, especially in constitutional history and in the history of ideas.
For Commager was a great educator. He was a fluent, lucid and graceful stylist, cogent and highly readable. His scholarly books, particularly The American Mind (1950) and The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (1978), opened up for a season new vistas in intellectual history. His last book, the pensive Commager on Tocqueville, came out in 1993 in his 92nd year. In a broader vein, he collaborated with Sameul Eliot Morison in writing the most famed and successful textbook of the time in The Growth of the American Republic (1930, 1939) and with Allan Nevins in a shorter history, widely distributed to the troops during the Second World War, America: The Story of a Free People (1943). He was an indefatigable and imaginative anthologist, covering everything from Documents in American History (1930) and Living Ideas in America (1951) through the Civil War (The Blue and the Gray, 1950) to a couple of St. Nicholas anthologies (1947, 1948) drawing from the children’s magazine he had enjoyed as a boy.
And he was a remarkably effective face-to-face teacher, witty and stimulating on the lecture platform, rigorous and provocative in seminars, with impressive erudition, astonishing memory and great generosity in disposing of his time and knowledge. He loved teaching and continued to teach into his early 90s. With his buoyant personality— his contemporaries called him Felix, appropriating the Latin word for “happy”— he won the lasting affection of several generations of students.
He was also a great educator in the public domain. Never doubting that scholars had duties as citizens, he did not look down on the political process, for he well understood that democracy is ultimately an educational enterprise. As his beloved Tocqueville put it, “If education enables men at all times to defend their independence, this is most especially true in democratic times.” He happily undertook the public responsibilities of scholarship by instructing citizens, legislators and presidents as well as graduate students in the meaning of the Constitution and in the rights and obligations of the democratic project.
Felix was an ardent New Dealer, a fearless champion of civil liberties against Joe McCarthy and his gang, a courageous and impassioned opponent of the war in Vietnam. An authentic patriot, he was determined to hold his country up to its highest ideals. The Vietnam War and the Nixon and Reagan presidencies darkened his temperamental optimism about the American experiment. He also worried a great deal about the retreat of historians from public debate. After Allan Nevin’s death in 1971, he wrote his widow, “his kind of scholar is pretty well a thing of the past; modern scholars are technicians who are afraid of big projects, or public enthusiasms; what is really at stake her is the attitude towards history, and modern historians have lost faith in history — as Allan never did.
Commager too never lost his faith in history, in the use of the past to instruct the present and improve the future. As he grew older, he was increasingly drawn to the American moral and intellectual foundations in the 18th century, above all to the Enlightenment and to that extraordinary document The American Constitution. The great original contribution of the Founding Fathers, he argued was Jefferson’s faith that history was not exhausted and had new lessons to teach. The Founders had learned the lessons of the classical world.
But at the same time they emancipated themselves from that world,
or at least from the limitations which it threatened to impose upon them.
They were the creatures of history but not the prisoners.
They were indebted to history, but
they triumphed over it.
Commager was in fact a Founding father manqué. Two centuries after, he evoked the moral vigor, the disciplined passion, the intensity and nobility of commitment that brought the American republic into being, and he did his damndest to transmit the ideals of the Founders to new generations.
He was a lovely man. I knew him for more than half of his 95 years and found him such a wise counsellor and generous friend, an abiding source of instruction, encouragement, edification and joy. One remembers his defiant horn-rimmed glasses under flowing white hair, his explosions of indignation at betrayals of American ideals, his wry amusement at the absurdities of life, his delight in the conviviality of the Century and the Garrick in London, his invincible faith in the power of reason and his passionate hope for the future of the republic. His style of history may have passed out of fashion in these disordered times, but his principled role as public educator remains a model for scholarly generations to come.