Quotations by:
    Commager, Henry Steele


We should not be surprised that the Founding Fathers didn’t foresee everything, when we see that the current Fathers hardly ever foresee anything.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Conversations with Historians,” interview by John A. Garraty, American Heritage (Feb 1970)
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Excerpted from Interpreting American History: Conversations with Historians, Part 1, ch. 4 (1970).
 
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If modern technology and all the tendencies of modern society make nationalism illogical, why does it persist?

You might as well ask why racism flourishes in the face of scientific evidence that there are no real differences between the races, or why Protestantism and Catholicism remain separate when the differences between them can be detected only by theologians. Such things are deeply rooted in the psychology of man. When you’re raised to believe in the superiority of your own country, it’s very difficult to rid yourself of the belief. There are, of course, practical advantages to national organization, and out of these loyalties develop. There’s no reason in and of itself why other institutions should not attract comparable loyalties , but so far they have not. I’m not at all sure they’d be any better.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Conversations with Historians,” interview by John A. Garraty, American Heritage (Feb 1970)
    (Source)

Excerpted from Interpreting American History: Conversations with Historians, Part 1, ch. 4 (1970).
 
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Censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion, incapable, that is, of doing an honest or intelligent job, and thus guarantees a steady intellectual decline.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Free Enterprise in Ideas,” Freedom, Loyalty and Dissent (1954)
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Originally published in the Saturday Review (1952), based on a speech to the Advertising Council's American Round Table, New York City (1951).
 
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A nation that silences or intimidates original minds is left only with unoriginal minds and cannot hope to hold its own in the competition of peace or of war.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Free Enterprise in Ideas,” Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
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Originally published in the Saturday Review (1952), based on a speech to the Advertising Council's American Round Table, New York City (1951).
 
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What happens when a state tries to purge its state universities or a community tries to purge its public schools of alleged subversives? […] What happens is the demoralization and eventual corruption of the school system. This is not a momentary or even temporary affair; it is something the consequences of which may be felt for years. The search for subversives results in the intimidation of the independent, the original, the imaginative, and the experimental-minded. It discourages independence of thought in teachers and students alike. It discourages the reading of books that may excite the suspicion of some investigator or some Legionnaire. It discourages the discussion of controversial matters in the classroom, for such discussion may be reported, or misreported, and cause trouble. It creates a situation where first-rate minds will not go into teaching or into administration and where students therefore get poor teaching. In the long run it will create a generation incapable of appreciating the difference between independence of thought and subservience. In the long run it will create a generation not only deprived of liberty but incapable of enjoying liberty.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Free Enterprise in Ideas,” Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
    (Source)

Originally published in the Saturday Review (1952), based on a speech to the Advertising Council's American Round Table, New York City (1951).
 
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We do not protect freedom in order to indulge error. We protect freedom in order to discover truth. We do not maintain freedom in order to permit eccentricity to flourish; we maintain freedom in order that society may profit from criticism, even eccentric criticism. We do not encourage dissent for sentimental reasons; we encourage dissent because we cannot live without it.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“The Necessity of Freedom,” Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
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An earlier version of the essay was given as "The Pragmatic Necessity for Freedom," Cooper Lecture, Swarthmore College (1951).
 
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If government, or those in positions of power and authority, can silence criticism by the argument that such criticism might be misunderstood somewhere, there is an end to all criticism, and perhaps an end to our kind of political system. For men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“The Problem of Dissent” Saturday Review (Dec 1965)
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Reprinted in Freedom and Order (1966); also read into the US Congressional Record (26 Jun 1969).
 
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When a people are confronted with problems that are both incomprehensible and unbearable, they lash out not at those who contrived the problems but at those who expose them. When they are confronted by moral problems that they find insoluble, or perhaps intolerable, they blame the moralists. The anxieties, tensions, revulsions of our day create an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible to think clearly and dispassionately about just those problems which most imperatively require reason and objectivity — problems of adjustment to fundamental change.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“The University and the Community of Learning,” speech, Kent State University, Ohio (10 Apr 1971)
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What threatens our security is not change but the inability to change; what threatens progress is not revolution but stagnation; what threatens our survival is not novel or dangerous ideas but the absence of ideas.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“The University and the Community of Learning,” speech, Kent State University, Ohio (10 Apr 1971)
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It is the function of the university to preserve what is best in the heritage of the past, and pass this on to the future; what other institution can do this so magisterially? Its function is to inflame the minds of the young with passion to serve society, and to train them for that service; what other institution does this? Its function is to inspire all its acolytes with a sense of the beauty and the dignity of the search for truth, and to make sure that this great task will never be neglected. Its function is to stand aside from its own society and its own time, to exalt those values that are universal and timeless. Its function is to push outward the bounds of knowledge — knowledge of the physical universe, and of the nature and history of man, and thus enable man to confront and perhaps even to triumph over those problems which crowd about him so pitilessly. No other institution can do this.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“The University and the Community of Learning,” speech, Kent State University, Ohio (10 Apr 1971)
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Change does not necessarily assure progress, but progress implacably requires change.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“We Have Changed — and Must,” The New York Times Magazine (30 Apr 1961)
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We cannot have a society half slave and half free; nor can we have thought half slave and half free. If we create an atmosphere in which men fear to think independently, inquire fearlessly, express themselves freely, we will in the end create the kind of society in which men no longer care to think independently or to inquire fearlessly.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“What Ideas Are Safe?” Saturday Review (5 Nov 1949)
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Reprinted in Freedom and Order (1966).
 
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If we establish a standard of safe thinking, we will end up with no thinking at all. That is the only “safe” way, and that is, needless to say, the most precarious, dangerous, of all ways.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“What Ideas Are Safe?” Saturday Review (5 Nov 1949)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom and Order (1966).
 
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A nation which, in the name of loyalty or of patriotism or of a sincere and high-sounding idea, discourages criticism and dissent, and puts a premium on acquiescence and conformity, is headed for disaster.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“What Ideas Are Safe?” Saturday Review (5 Nov 1949)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom and Order (1966).
 
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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.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
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Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
 
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Who among American heroes could meet their tests, who would be cleared by their committees? Not Washington, who was a rebel. Not Jefferson, who wrote that all men are created equal and whose motto was “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Not Garrison, who publicly burned the Constitution; or Wendell Phillips, who spoke for the underprivileged everywhere and counted himself a philosophical anarchist; not Seward of the Higher Law or Sumner of racial equality. Not Lincoln, who admonished us to have malice toward none, charity for all; or Wilson, who warned that our flag was “a flag of liberty of opinion as well as of political liberty”; or Justice Holmes, who said that our Constitution is an experiment and that while that experiment is being made “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.”

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
 
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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.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
 
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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.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954).
 
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Loyalty … is a realization that America was born of revolt, flourished in dissent, became great through experimentation.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
 
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It is easier to say what loyalty is not than what it is. It is not conformity. It is not passive acquiescence in the status quo. It is not preference for everything American over everything foreign. It is not an ostrich-like ignorance of other countries and other institutions. It is not the indulgence in ceremony — a flag salute, an oath of allegiance, a fervid verbal declaration. It is not a particular creed, a particular version of history, a particular body of economic practices, a particular philosophy.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
 
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We should not forget that our tradition is one of protest and revolt, and it is stultifying to celebrate the rebels of the past — Jefferson and Paine, Emerson and Thoreau — while we silence the rebels of the present.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954).
 
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But if our democracy is to flourish it must have criticism, if our government is to function it must have dissent. Only totalitarian governments insist upon conformity and they — as we know — do so at their peril. Without criticism abuses will go unrebuked; without dissent our dynamic system will become static. The American people ‘have a stake in the maintenance of the most thorough-going inquisition into American institutions. They have a stake in nonconformity, for they know that the American genius is nonconformist.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” sec. 3, Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
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Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954).
 
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The greatest danger that threatens us is neither heterodox thought nor orthodox thought, but the absence of thought.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
Civil Liberties under Attack (1951)
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Freedom is not a luxury that we can indulge in when at last we have security and prosperity and enlightenment; it is, rather, antecedent to all of these, for without it we can have neither security nor prosperity nor enlightenment.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, Preface (1954)
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For a people to be without history, or to be ignorant of its history, is as for a man to be without memory — condemned forever to make the same discoveries that have been made in the past, invent the same techniques, wrestle with the same problems, commit the same errors; and condemned, too, to forfeit the rich pleasures of reflection.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and Study of History, ch. 1 (1965)
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History, we can confidently assert, is useful in the sense that art and music, poetry and flowers, religion and philosophy are useful. Without it — as with these — life would be poorer and meaner; without it we should be denied some of those intellectual and moral experiences which give meaning and richness to life. Surely it is no accident that the study of history has been the solace of many of the noblest minds of every generation.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and Study of History, ch. 5 (1965)
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Memory, as we all know, is fitful and phantasmagoric. History is organized memory, and the organization is all-important.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and the Study of History, ch. 1 (1965)
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History is a jangle of accidents, blunders, surprises and absurdities, and so is our knowledge of it, but if we are to report it at all we must impose some order upon it.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and the Study of History, ch. 5 (1965)
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Perhaps the most useful lesson the student of history can learn is to avoid oversimplification, and to accept the notion of multiple causation or to resign himself to the fact that as yet we do not know enough to explain the causes of things. To yearn for a single, and usually simple, explanation of the chaotic materials of the past, to search for a single thread in the most tangled of all skeins, is a sign of immaturity.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and the Study of History, ch. 5 (1965)
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The Bill of Rights was not written into the Constitution in order to protect governments from “trouble,” but so that the people might have a legitimate method of causing trouble to governments they no longer trusted.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
Letter to the Editor, New York Times (17 Jun 1971)
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