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Henry Steele Commager

American historian

Henry Steele Commager (October 25, 1902March 2, 1998) was an American historian and teacher.



  • 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.
    • The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (1950)
  • The greatest danger that threatens us is neither heterodox thought nor orthodox thought, but the absence of thought.
    • Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
  • The Bill of Rights was not written to protect governments from trouble. It was written precisely to give the people the constitutional means to cause trouble for governments they no longer trusted.
    • Letter to the Editor, in The New York Times (1971)

Who is Loyal to America? (1947)Edit

Online text

  • And we wonder what can be that 'philosophy of education' which believes that young people can be trained to the duties of citizenship by wrapping their minds in cotton wool.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)Edit

  • a realization that America was born of revolt, flourished in dissent, became great through experimentation.
  • If our democracy is to flourish, it must have criticism; if our government is to function it must have dissent.
  • We should not forget that our tradition is one of protest and revolt, and it is stultifying to celebrate the rebels of the past...while we silence the rebels of the present.
  • It is a gross perversion not only of the concept of loyalty but of the concept of Americanism to identify it with a particular economic system.

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