Henry Steele Commager quotes

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Henry Steele Commager

Birthdate: 25. October 1902
Date of death: 2. March 1998

Henry Steele Commager was an American historian. As one of the most active and prolific liberal intellectuals of his time, with 40 books and 700 essays and reviews, he helped define modern liberalism in the United States.In the 1940s and 1950s, Commager was noted for his campaigns against McCarthyism and other abuses of government power. With his Columbia University colleague Allan Nevins, Commager helped to organize academic support for Adlai E. Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and John F. Kennedy in 1960. He opposed the Vietnam War and was an outspoken critic of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan and what he viewed as their abuses of presidential power.

His principal scholarly works were his 1936 biography of Theodore Parker; his intellectual history The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880s , which focuses on the evolution of liberalism in the American political mind from the 1880s to the 1940s, and his intellectual history Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment . In addition, he edited a widely used compilation, Documents of American History; ten editions were published between 1938 and 1988, the last coedited with Commager's former student, Milton Cantor. Wikipedia

„What is the new loyalty? It is, above all, conformity.“

—  Henry Steele Commager

Who is Loyal to America? (1947)
Context: What is the new loyalty? It is, above all, conformity. It is the uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of America as it is — the political institutions, the social relationships, the economic practices. It rejects inquiry into the race question or socialized medicine, or public housing, or into the wisdom or validity of our foreign policy. It regards as particularly heinous any challenge to what is called "the system of private enterprise," identifying that system with Americanism. It abandons evolution, repudiates the once popular concept of progress, and regards America as a finished product, perfect and complete.

„The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose“

—  Henry Steele Commager

Source: Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954), p. 82, p. 88
Context: The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion,… In the long run it will create a generation incapable of appreciating the difference between independence of thought and subservience.

„With the Sedition and Espionage Acts … the "red hysteria" of the Twenties, the Alien Registration Act of 1940, the loyalty tests and purges of the mid-Forties, the establishment of un-American Activities Committees, intolerance received, as it were, the stamp of official approval.“

—  Henry Steele Commager

The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (1950)
Context: With the Sedition and Espionage Acts … the "red hysteria" of the Twenties, the Alien Registration Act of 1940, the loyalty tests and purges of the mid-Forties, the establishment of un-American Activities Committees, intolerance received, as it were, the stamp of official approval. Loyalty was identified with conformity, and the American genius, which had been experimental and even rebellious, was required to conform to a pattern.

„Independence was an act of revolution; republicanism was something new under the sun; the federal system was a vast experimental laboratory.“

—  Henry Steele Commager

Who is Loyal to America? (1947)
Context: Independence was an act of revolution; republicanism was something new under the sun; the federal system was a vast experimental laboratory. Physically Americans were pioneers; in the realm of social and economic institutions, too, their tradition has been one of pioneering. From the beginning, intellectual and spiritual diversity have been as characteristic of America as racial and linguistic. The most distinctively American philosophies have been transcendentalism — which is the philosophy of the Higher Law and pragmatism — which is the philosophy of experimentation and pluralism. These two principles are the very core of Americanism: the principle of the Higher Law, or of obedience to the dictates of conscience rather than of statutes, and the principle of pragmatism, or the rejection of a single good and of the notion of a finished universe. From the beginning Americans have known that there were new worlds to conquer, new truths to be discovered. Every effort to confine Americanism to a single pattern, to constrain it to a single formula, is disloyalty to everything that is valid in Americanism.

„It discourages the discussion of controversial matters in the classroom, for such discussion may be reported, or misreported, and cause trouble“

—  Henry Steele Commager

Source: Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954), p. 88
Context: The search for subversives results in the intimidation of the independent, the original, the imaginative, and the experimental-minded… It discourages the discussion of controversial matters in the classroom, for such discussion may be reported, or misreported, and cause trouble.

„From the beginning, intellectual and spiritual diversity have been as characteristic of America as racial and linguistic.“

—  Henry Steele Commager

Who is Loyal to America? (1947)
Context: Independence was an act of revolution; republicanism was something new under the sun; the federal system was a vast experimental laboratory. Physically Americans were pioneers; in the realm of social and economic institutions, too, their tradition has been one of pioneering. From the beginning, intellectual and spiritual diversity have been as characteristic of America as racial and linguistic. The most distinctively American philosophies have been transcendentalism — which is the philosophy of the Higher Law and pragmatism — which is the philosophy of experimentation and pluralism. These two principles are the very core of Americanism: the principle of the Higher Law, or of obedience to the dictates of conscience rather than of statutes, and the principle of pragmatism, or the rejection of a single good and of the notion of a finished universe. From the beginning Americans have known that there were new worlds to conquer, new truths to be discovered. Every effort to confine Americanism to a single pattern, to constrain it to a single formula, is disloyalty to everything that is valid in Americanism.

„If the preservation of our freedom depends upon the courts then we are, indeed, lost,“

—  Henry Steele Commager

Source: Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954), p. 6
Context: If the preservation of our freedom depends upon the courts then we are, indeed, lost, for in the long run neither courts nor Constitution can save us from our own errors, follies, or wickedness.

„Who are those who are really disloyal? Those who inflame racial hatreds, who sow religious and class dissensions.“

—  Henry Steele Commager

Who is Loyal to America? (1947)
Context: Who are those who are really disloyal? Those who inflame racial hatreds, who sow religious and class dissensions. Those who subvert the Constitution by violating the freedom of the ballot box. Those who make a mockery of majority rule by the use of the filibuster. Those who impair democracy by denying equal educational facilities. Those who frustrate justice by lynch law or by making a farce of jury trials. Those who deny freedom of speech and of the press and of assembly. Those who press for special favors against the interest of the commonwealth. Those who regard public office as a source of private gain. Those who would exalt the military over the civil. Those who for selfish and private purposes stir up national antagonisms and expose the world to the ruin of war.

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