Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xviii + 328 pp.
Illustrations, bibliographical references, index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN
R. B. Bernstein , New York Law School.
Henry Steele Commager as Historian and Public Intellectual
In December of 1998, midway through the House Judiciary
Committee's hearings on the impeachment of President Clinton, the
Committee called as witnesses a panel of historians and legal scholars who
sought to cast light on the history and purposes of the impeachment
process. Members of the H-LAW community would have recognized such names
as Bruce Ackerman of Yale Law School, Jack N. Rakove of Stanford, and Sean
Wilentz of Princeton. The odd thing about this panel, and about the other
efforts of historians and other scholars to take part in the public
controversy about impeachment, was that they either seemed or were treated
as being out of place. Indeed, in his new book on the impeachment
controversy, Judge Richard A. Posner argues that one lesson of the Clinton
impeachment is just how unsuited historians are to offer guidance on
matters of public policy.
Twenty-five years before this puzzling episode, the nation
was roiled by another crisis posing the risk of Presidential
impeachment--the Watergate controversy that finally drove President
Richard Nixon to resign his office. One of the foremost participants in
that great public argument was the historian Henry Steele Commager, and
virtually nobody questioned Commager's place in the fray. Not only was
Commager probably the most famous historian of his time; he also was a
highly respected participant in public debate. Indeed, his fame was rooted
at least as much in his engagement with great public issues over nearly
six decades of lecturing and writing--from the era of Franklin D.
Roosevelt's New Deal through the age of Ronald Reagan--as in his work as a
historian or as a professor.
Commager's role as a public intellectual takes center stage
in the biography under review. Its author, Neil Jumonville, who teaches
American history at Florida State University, previously wrote Critical
Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991), a significant examination of
"public intellectuals" and their role in public debate. In his new book,
Jumonville juxtaposes two worlds: "As few have been able to do in the past
half century, Commager brought together the two worlds of scholarship and
public intellectual activity" (p. xiii). He defines these two worlds in
sharply different terms: "... I've used the example of Commager to ask
whether the intellectual life is compatible with scholarly life. Can an
intellectual (who writes as a partisan generalist for the wide public on
contemporary issues) still operate as a scholar (who is a "neutral"
archival academic who writes for his or her professional peers)?" (p.
In some ways, Jumonville's sharp dichotomy makes
sense--particularly when historians have come under increasing fire for
writing only for one another and not for the general reader, and when
young historians seeking to bridge the gap between professional and
general audiences are regularly advised not to do so, at least until they
have won tenure. However, Commager would have rejected Jumonville's
dichotomy. Indeed, as Jumonville acknowledges, Commager is notable
precisely because he scorned gaps separating professional and general
audiences and rejected the idea that a historian had to choose between
cloistered pursuit of scholarship and vigorous, even polemical discourse
in the public realm. Jumonville's stark distinction between the role of
the historian and that of the public intellectual poses problems for his
attempt to understand a historian who not only was also a public
intellectual but saw no contradiction between those roles.
Jumonville ably chronicles Commager's career, showing him
as a man with a foot in both worlds who seemed effortlessly to maintain
his balance between them. He also conveys at least some of Commager's
inspiring energy, his ability to write vigorous yet elegant prose, his
scholarly and political enthusiasms, and his wry, sardonic humor. In this
last connection, one passage of his book is of special relevance for the
writer or reader of book reviews. In 1925, the young Commager reported to
his friend Hans Duus that, while sojourning in Europe and paging through
his host's extensive file of back issues of the American Historical
Review, he had realized "that all book reviews were innocuous and not
worth the effort. 'There is an unvarying formula, ... and I guarantee to
write an 800 word review of any book within 12 hours.'" Jumonville
continues, blending quotation and paraphrase (p. 15):
First, from the book's dust jacket copy you talk about the
title and author. You note that the book and its style are fair, "point
out typographical errors at great length," discuss the bibliography,
"noting with sorrow" its missing monographs, and "end up saying that all
students of the period are under debt to the author for his piece of
research." He assured Duus that this latter compliment is "bunk because
students of the period do their own research and no one else cares to read
the book as it is too dull."
Jumonville structures his book largely by reference to two
interlocking chronologies--that of Commager's life and career, and that of
the public controversies and political battles in which Commager took
part. He traces Commager's life from his birth in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, on 25 October 1902, his orphaning at an early age and his
struggles to put himself through the University of Chicago (where he
earned the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.), through his teaching stints, first at
New York University and then at Columbia (1936-1956) and finally at
Amherst College, which he joined in 1956 and where he taught through the
early 1990s, dying on 2 March 1998.
Jumonville weaves around the central thread of Commager's
career a rich but uneven account of Commager's participation in many
pivotal controversies. He is effective on Commager's courageous stand
against blacklisting in the 1940s and 1950s, a campaign that Commager
undertook at some personal risk but with thorough disregard for that risk.
Jumonville also ably limns Commager's other forms of political activism,
including his enthusiasm for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and for John,
Robert, and Edward Kennedy in the 1960s and 1970s, and his longstanding
opposition to the Vietnam Conflict on political and constitutional
grounds. He is somewhat cursory as his book enters the 1970s--in
particular, devoting surprisingly little attention to Commager's extensive
activism during the Watergate crisis of 1973-1974 and his vigorous
criticism of the Reagan Administration throughout the 1980s.
Jumonville presents his biography of Commager as an
extended meditation on the clashing roles of the historian and the public
intellectual. Unfortunately, the book's focus means that it lacks or
slights discussion of other questions and topics equally important to
understanding Commager's role in the intellectual life of his time--in
particular, his work as a historian and the relationship between his
status as a professional historian and his enthusiastic engagement in
First, Jumonville brackets Commager with other notable
historians who were also public intellectuals--principally Commager's
longtime friend and Columbia colleague Allan Nevins, as well as Richard
Hofstadter (also of Columbia) and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (of Harvard
and later of the CUNY Graduate School). All these men function as prisms
through whom Jumonville can recount and analyze the roles of historians as
public intellectuals. Indeed, sometimes Jumonville focuses so much on
Nevins or on Hofstadter that Commager vanishes from his own biography for
pages at a time.
A second, more important gap is Jumonville's apparent
reluctance to engage much of Commager's work as a historian. To be sure,
he mentions Commager's major contributions to historical scholarship his
1936 biography of the Unitarian minister and abolitionist, Theodore Parker
, his 1943 lectures on judicial review, Majority Rule and Minority
Rights, his 1950 monograph The American Mind, his 1977
study The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized
the Enlightenment, and his 1993 series of lectures, Commager on
Tocqueville. And he also notes the famed Growth of the American
Republic, the textbook that Commager wrote, first with his revered
senior colleague Samuel Eliot Morison and then with his protege William E.
Leuchtenburg. And yet Jumonville mostly limits his comments on these
books to contemporary reviewers' assessments, with little sustained effort
to integrate them into an interpretation of Commager's evolving work as a
historian or his place in the historiography of the fields to which he
contributed. Jumonville notes Commager's admiration for Vernon L.
Parrington, whose Main Currents in American Thought was both the
inspiration and the model for The American Mind and, to a lesser
degree, The Empire of Reason. But Jumonville's specific attempt
to situate Commager in the currents of American historiography by
reference to Parrington is the exception rather than the rule.
Many readers of H-LAW may know Commager's scholarship best
through his coeditorship with the late Richard B. Morris of the New
American Nation series, which eventually produced more than forty volumes
covering the span of American history from the earliest civilizations in
America to the "unraveling of America" in the 1960s and the emergence of
the "New South" between the 1950s and the 1990s. (Although Morris was
a close friend and a valued Columbia colleague of Commager's, Morris
appears rarely in this biography--perhaps because he was more firmly
planted than Commager or Nevins or Hofstadter on the "scholarly" side of
Jumonville's divide.) Jumonville does not address the significance for
American historiography of the series as a whole or of such notable
individual volumes as Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished
Revolution, 1863-1877 , David M. Potter's The Impending Crisis,
1848-1861, Arthur S. Link's Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era,
1910-1917, or William E. Leuchtenburg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and
the New Deal, 1932-1940. To be sure, the correspondence among
authors, editors , and publisher pertaining to the series is still sealed
-- but the lack of access to those sources does not preclude an assessment
of the series' place in American historiography or of Commager's role in
it. Furthermore, Jumonville nowhere refers to Commager's editorship of
Documents of American History, for more than forty years the
leading documentary sourcebook for anyone studying the history of the
United States. Nor does he mention Commager's two great documentary
histories--The Blue and the Gray, on the Civil War, or The
Spirit of Seventy-Six, on the American Revolution (the latter coedited
with Richard B. Morris), nor Commager's programmatic Living Ideas
in America, a book that its editor deliberately designed as both a
window onto the American past and a statement of Commager's vision of
enlightened "midcentury liberalism" (to use Jumonville's own phrase) for
its time and posterity. With these documentary anthologies, Commager not
only set standards of rigor and usefulness that are models of their kind,
but also helped to shape the teaching and study of American history for
generations of teachers and students.
In the 1960s, following the publication of Arthur M.
Schlesinger's A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House,
a spirited controversy raged over whether, as Commager put it in two
essays he wrote at that time, "the historian should sit in judgment" and
"the historian should write contemporary history." At issue in the
Thousand Days controversy (which eerily presages elements of the
current controversy over Edmund Morris's Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald
Reagan) was Schlesinger's remarkable access to a sitting
President, his use of the information he gleaned that way, and the effects
of his relationship with Kennedy on his interpretation of the Kennedy
Presidency. Commager collected these essays and a series of others on
various aspects of history and historiography in his 1967 collection
The Search for a Usable Past -- a book valuable for understanding
Commager's approach to such matters, yet again one that Jumonville cites
only in passing, despite its potential to illuminate the question that
forms the core of Jumonville's interpretative enterprise.
Third, Jumonville often characterizes Commager as a
Jeffersonian, but his use of the term reflects a surprisingly uncritical
adoption of Commager's use of the term. Commager's Jefferson was an
enlightened and far-seeing philosophical statesman, a tolerant man with a
sweeping commitment to human freedom and a confident,
philosophically-rooted pragmatism about politics and governance. But
other historians have discerned other, more complex, and sometimes less
recognizably modern versions of Jefferson. Indeed, Commager's
Jeffersonianism was refracted through his admiration for Franklin Delano
Roosevelt and the New Deal -- just as his friend and counterpart Arthur M.
Schlesinger has often been accused of rendering in The Age of Jackson
a portrait of Andrew Jackson unnervingly reminiscent of Roosevelt. This is
not to denigrate Commager's interpretation of Jefferson or his
presentation of himself as a Jeffersonian. Rather, it is simply to
recognize, as Jumonville surprisingly does not, that Commager was
representative of his time in following Roosevelt's oft-quoted
prescription of applying Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends, and in
regarding Jefferson and many of the other great figures of the
Revolutionary generation almost as contemporaries and intellectual
Finally, Jumonville often notes that Commager acted as a
public intellectual while maintaining an academic and professional base as
a historian--but he does not address sufficiently the relationship between
the two. Nor, despite his apparent intention to do so, does he suggest
whether Commager's linked roles as historian and public intellectual are
worthy of anything more than respectful study. To what end does Jumonville
propose that we understand Commager as a public intellectual and "midcentury
liberal"? Is it solely to study Commager as a representative figure of a
body of thought that is of historical interest only? Or does Jumonville
have a more prescriptive aim in view?
For one thing, Jumonville overlooks that Commager's status
as a professional historian anchored his credibility as a participant in
the public controversies into which he threw himself. For another, as
already noted, Commager would have insisted both that his work as a
historian informed his engagement with contemporary political affairs, and
that his engagement with the politics of his day inspired his most
creative and effective explorations and interpretations of the American
past. Commager saw these two roles not as divided realms but as points on
a spectrum of activity. It is thus not surprising that Commager was most
often drawn to two earlier generations of engaged intellectuals who also
worked closely with history--the Progressives of the early twentieth
century and the Revolutionary generation of Americans of the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--nor that he also devoted
careful and respectful study to two other nineteenth-century figures who
were both scholars and engaged intellectuals, Justice Joseph Story and
Alexis de Tocqueville.
Even so, Commager's primary professional identity--the way
he saw and defined himself--was as a historian, and it was that sense of
himself and of the historian's calling that he sought to communicate to
generations of students, both at Columbia and Amherst, and to thousands or
millions of readers of his books, articles, essays, lectures, documentary
collections, "op-ed pieces," and letters to the editor. Indeed, he thought
of, and often referred to, those activities--which Jumonville too neatly
cabins off as those of a public intellectual--as teaching by other means.
In addition, Jumonville's too-neat characterization of the
work of the scholar, which stresses the scholar's neutrality, does not fit
with our recognition today that "neutrality" or "objectivity" are goals
and aspirations rather than realities easily and unreflectively
achieved. There were indeed subjects and occasions, as Jumonville
notes, in which Commager's political views obscured certain complexities
from his view. For example, as Garry Wills acidulously complained in his
study of religion and American politics, Commager never fully grasped the
power of religious currents in American life and thought-- a point
usefully noted by Jumonville. Even so, Commager's achievement--his
ability to distill the history of the United States, in particular the
confluence of ideas and politics, with skill and elegance--is of
continuing value despite, or perhaps because of, the clarity with which
Commager's formal historical writings express his values and political
Thus, although Jumonville's biography is enlightening and
perceptive, he does not succeed in his stated central mission: to consider
the challenges facing those who would, as Commager did, blend scholarship
with engagement, who would view taking part in professional discourse
about the past and seeking to reach that oft-yearned for, oft-scorned
"wider audience" as equal parts of the academic historian's mandate.
. A disclosure of potential conflict of interest is in
order. I knew Henry Steele Commager from 1971 till his death in 1998. He
was my first mentor; throughout my career as a historian he provided
encouragement and moral support, and he remains a profound influence on my
work as a historian and teacher. I have tried to draw on my familiarity
with Commager as a historian and a teacher in preparing this review, but I
have also tried not to let it prejudice me either for or against the book
or its subject.
I am grateful to Professor Joanne B. Freeman of Yale
University and to Felice J. Batlan for their nuanced and constructive
advice in the preparation of this review.
. Richard A. Posner, An Affair of State: The
Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
. Jumonville also scants Commager's work as a teacher at
Amherst while he held the Simpson Lectureship from the 1960s through the
1980s -- partly due to his reliance on interviews with colleagues in
Amherst's history and American studies departments. Had Jumonville also
secured the input of students in his seminars in those years, a different
portrait of an active, engaged, and inspiring teacher would have emerged.
This sketchiness contrasts with Jumonville's evocative picture of Commager
as a mentor to such Columbia students as Milton Cantor, Harold M. Hyman,
William E. Leuchtenburg, and Leonard W. Levy.
. Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker (Boston:
Little, Brown, 1936). Commager also edited a modern anthology of Parker's
writings: Henry Steele Commager, ed., Theodore Parker: An Anthology
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).
. Henry Steele Commager, Majority Rule and Minority
Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1943).
. Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind: An
Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1950).
. Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason: How
Europe Imagined and America
Realized the Enlightenment
(New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977). Commager planned but did not
complete a second volume that would address the American Revolution's
effects on the United States and the American people. In 1991, Gordon S.
Wood published The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); his prize-winning and controversial study comes
remarkably close to the book that Commager envisioned as the complement to
Empire of Reason.
. Henry Steele Commager Commager on Tocqueville
(Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993).
. Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, The
Growth of the American Republic (New York and Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1930); Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and
William E. Leuchtenburg, The Growth of the American Republic, 7th
ed. in 2 vols. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
Leuchtenburg assumed primary responsibility for the abridged edition.
Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and William E. Leuchtenburg,
The Concise History of the
(New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977; 2d ed., 1983). See
also Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, The Pocket History of the
United States (New York: Pocket Books, 1942; ninth ed., with Jeffrey
B. Morris, 1993).
. Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American
Thought, 3 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927-1930). On Parrington,
see Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard,
Parrington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), part IV. Parrington left
his volume III, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America,
unfinished at his early death; Commager deliberately launched The
American Mind at the point when Parrington laid down his pen.
. Allen U. Matusow, The Unraveling of
America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s
(New York: Harper & Row, 1984); Dewey W. Grantham, The South in Modern
Region at Odds
(New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
. Eric S. Foner, Reconstruction: America's
Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); David M.
Potter (completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher), The Impending
Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); Arthur S. Link,
Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (New York: Harper,
1960); William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New
Deal, 1932-1940_ (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
. Henry Steele Commager, ed., Documents of American
History (New York: Appleton, 1934; 9th ed., in 2 vols., New York:
Appleton Century Crofts, 1973); Henry Steele Commager and Milton Cantor,
eds., Documents of American History, 10th ed. (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1988).
. Henry Steele Commager, ed., The Blue and the Gray
(Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950).
. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds.,
The Spirit of Seventy-Six (New York: Harper & Row, 1967; bicentennial
. Henry Steele Commager, ed., Living Ideas in
(New York: Harper, 1951; rev. ed., Harper & Row, 1967). In this
connection, it should also be noted that Commager published a pioneering
anthology drawn from the revised edition of Living Ideas in America:
Henry Steele Commager, ed., The Struggle for Racial Equality (New
York: Harper & Row, 1967). Jumonville does not mention this anthology,
either, nor does he note Henry Steele Commager and Elmo Giordanetti, eds.,
America a Mistake? An Eighteenth-Century Controversy
New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
. Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John
F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).
. Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
(New York Random House, 1999).
. Henry Steele Commager, The Search for a Usable
Past: And Other Essays in Historiography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
. See, e.g., Commager, Empire of Reason, passim;
Henry Steele Commager,
Jefferson, Nationalism, and
(New York: George Braziller, 1976).
. The classic study remains Merrill D. Peterson, The
Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1960; reprint, with new foreword, Charlottesville: University Press
of Virginia, 1998). See also the superb symposium volume, Peter Onuf, ed.,
Jeffersonian Legacies (Charlottesville: University Press of
. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of
(Boston: Little Brown, 1945).
. Bernard Bailyn has quoted his Harvard colleague,
Donald Fleming, to this effect: "Perhaps we cannot achieve perfect
objectivity, just as we cannot achieve perfect antisepsis. But that does
not mean that we perform brain surgery in the sewer." See generally, Peter
Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity" Question and the American
Historical Profession (Cambridge, Eng., and New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1989).
. Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American
Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990).
Library of Congress
Call Number: E175.5.C73J86 1999
* Commager, Henry Steele, 1902-
* Historians -- United States -- Biography
* Political activists -- United States -- Biography
* Historians -- United States -- History -- 20th century
* Liberalism -- United States -- History -- 20th century
* United States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century
Citation: R. B. Bernstein . "Review of Neil Jumonville,
Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the
Present," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, October, 1999. URL:
“In making the life of
historian Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) emblematic of the fate of
midcentury liberalism, Neil Jumonville has written not so much a biography
as a series of ruminations on, among other things, the forgotten virtues
of consensus historians, the need for historians to participate in public
debate, and the limitations of the present-day multicultural Left. These
are defensible positions, but Jumonville is at pains to demonstrate that
his preoccupations illuminate Commager’s life and work.”
Daniel H. Borus, review
of Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the
Present, by Neil Jumonville, The American Historical Review 106
(February 2001): 210-211.