Obituary: Henry Steele Commager

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The Independent Online
HENRY Steele Commager was a titan of American historiography of the 20th century. His productive career spanned fully two-thirds of it; his writings left few topics in the first 200 years of the Republic uncovered. He was a historian who could both examine and explain, with a clarity and grace possessed by few of his peers, and which turned several of his books into the standard reading of two generations of American students.

Not the most important perhaps, but certainly the most famous was The Growth of the American Republic, which he wrote with the late Samuel Eliot Morison. It first appeared in 1931, and in 1987 Commager, then aged 84, helped Allan Nevins carry out the revision for the book's 10th edition, proof of its enduring appeal as an accessible work of history. In terms of sheer brilliance however, the prize should probably go to The American Mind, the 1951 study of the culture and intellectual traditions that shaped the United States, or the 1974 work Jefferson, Nationalism and the Enlightenment, or perhaps The Empire of Reason which appeared three years later.

As these titles alone suggest, Commager was a believer in American exceptionalism - that the country fashioned by the Founding Fathers was a uniquely perfect polity, living realisation of what the leaders of the European Age of Enlightenment dreamt of, but could not achieve on their own scarred continent.

His lodestar was the US Constitution of 1789, by any measure one of the human species' more successful attempts to organise itself, and which Commager argued was the "greatest monument to political science in literature". The Constitution was the yardstick against which he would judge all statesmen and events, and its violation was the offence he most abhorred.

That conviction lay behind his forays into the contemporary political arena. He would describe himself as an "Independent Democrat". More accurately, he was a Constitutional fundamentalist. The belief generated at least one act of much courage, his early and trenchant opposition to McCarthyism (on the grounds that the oaths of loyalty demanded by the Wisconsin senator were an abuse of the Constitution) - and another of considerable prescience, when he spoke out strongly in 1966 against the US's entanglement in Vietnam.

Again, his point of departure was the Constitution, and the authority it gave Congress over the waging of war. Hence, too, his outrage at Richard Nixon's abuse of his oath of office. Never, he wrote of Watergate, had an administration "practised deception, duplicity, chicanery and mendacity". Never, in other words, had a President inflicted such injury on the Constitution.

Towards the end of his life, Commager inevitably fell victim to some revisionism. His belief in the Republic's perfect birth was exaggerated, it was said. He was accused of taking too little account of the part of blacks, Hispanics and the American Indian in the story of his country, and of allowing his trust in logic and reason to blind him to the role of religion in shaping America. But these are mere quibbles, when set alongside an output of at least 50 books, and countless essays, treatises and press articles.

During his long career, he held chairs and lectureships at a score of universities in the US and around the world, including both Oxford and Cambridge, where he taught in 1941 and returned as Pitt Professor in American History in 1947-48. He had been since 1972 Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College, Massachusetts, the post previously held by the poets Robert Frost and Archibald McLeish.

His most enduring gift was to make history come alive - to interest people it might otherwise leave stone cold. "History is a story," he would say, "and if it neglects to tell a story it will inevitably forfeit much of its appeal and much of its authority as well." That was a trap into which Commager never fell.

Henry Steele Commager, historian: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 25 October 1902; Professor of History, New York University 1929-38; Professor of History, Columbia University 1938-56; Lecturer on American History, Cambridge University 1942-43, Pitt Professor of American History 1947-48; Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford Universty 1952; Professor of American History, Amherst College 1956-72, Simpson Lecturer 1972-92; married 1928 Evan Carroll (deceased; one son, two daughters), 1979 Mary Powlesland; died Amherst, Massachusetts 2 March 1998.