Henry Steele Commager: Patriarch of Historians

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In 1988, Henry Steele Commager was in his 63rd year of teaching. In this episode of World of Ideas, Bill Moyers talks with his friend and “patriarch of historians” about the state of democracy in the United States. Commager offers historical context for understanding American society.



BILL MOYERS: [on camera] I’m Bill Moyers. I once tried to imagine what might be the thought of our founding fathers if they could watch our political process today from the vantage point of a network anchor booth at the Republican or Democratic convention. George Washington would probably turn over in his grave, so to speak, but I can imagine Ben Franklin enjoying the show, and even playing David Brinkley. We’ll never know, of course. It’s impossible to interview a founding father. However, talking to Henry Steele Commager is the next best thing.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Just as democracy advances like gravity, so centralization, but liberty does not.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Henry Steele Commager once told me there is nothing more exciting than opening a young mind to the light of history. He’s been at it a long time. This fall, when he greeted his seminar at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Dr. Commager began his 63rd year as a teacher, 30 of them at Amherst.

While teaching here and at Columbia, New York University, Cambridge and Oxford, and while lecturing far and wide, Henry Steele Commager has written scores of books, among them The Growth of the American Republic, The American Mind, The Empire of Reason, and The Search For a Usable Past. It’s easier to count up his 86 years than his awards and honors, which include a rare gold medal in history from the American Academy.

I’ve called on him often; he is not only the patriarch of historians, but an old friend as well.

[interviewing] I remember you once wrote, “I cheerfully confess an abiding faith in democracy as the best kind of government, and in majority rule. I believe in freedom as a method of arriving at truth and avoiding error, in working out solutions in politics by the pragmatic method of experimentation.” Now, that was a long time ago you wrote that.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Well, yes, it was.

BILL MOYERS: Do you still believe that?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Oh, yes. It’s better than any other that’s been tried, any other method of government that’s been tried, as far as I know. And there are draw-backs to all forms of government; the miracle is that the democratic system worked. We’re the first people really to make it work, and it took us a long time. And it has taken us a long time to achieve full democracy; we’re not quite there yet, I trust we will be in your lifetime, we won’t be in my lifetime. But it works, it works in an extraordinary fashion in a country as large as ours. You wouldn’t expect it to work in a country made up of 50 different states that regard themselves as sovereign in one way or another. It works because the framers were the wisest men politically, I suppose, in recorded history, and solved some of the great problems that had never before been solved; above all, the problem of federalism.

BILL MOYERS: The ability of power to be dispersed among many sources, but still have a cohesive central character to it.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: It’s an enormously complicated thing, as Lord Bryce said, it’s far and away the most sophisticated of all forms of government, the one that makes the greatest demands on the intelligence and ability and wisdom of men. It’s to distribute powers on two different levels between governments and make it work.

BILL MOYERS: That was such a peculiar and particular period in the history of the world, the period of our founding as a nation. Do you think, realistically, we have anything to learn from that era?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: I think we have almost everything to learn from that. We have, for example, a very elementary thing to learn -this is going to sound almost sentimental -to learn what it was like when a generation’s leaders believed, above all things, in honor; believed in the future generations, believed in posterity, “With land enough for our descendants,” said Jefferson in his first inaugural, “to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” What more is necessary to assure us the happiness and the virtue and so forth, which is so essential to the well-being of the nation.

BILL MOYERS: That was Jefferson; there was a speech by George Washington in which he used the word posterity nine times.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Yes, they all did. They couldn’t write, give a speech, or write a letter without talking about posterity. Here is poor old John Adams, the day he signed the Declaration of Independence, writing his wife Abigail, he said, “I do not know,” he said, “what will be the outcome of this. We may pay a very high price, but posterity, it is certain that posterity will profit from our sacrifice.”

BILL MOYERS: You’ve written that “Great things were won by the generation that won independence and wrote the Constitution. Great things were accomplished by the generation that saved the Union and rid it of slavery. Great things were won by the generation that defeated the fascists in World War II and then organized the peace that followed, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, the planting of democracy in Japan.” What are some of the issues, do you think, we can’t run from now as we approach the 21st century?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Well, there’s a great crowd of them. There’s a throng of them pressing on us. The first and most urgent and universal is the environment. Everybody talks about the environment, but we don’t do much about it. We talk about acid rain and sign this treaty with Canada, but we don’t enforce the treaty. We’re polluting the seas, we’re polluting the inland waters, we’re polluting the soil, we’re destroying the forests. We don’t think of our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; we’ll be lucky if they have a country to live in in three or four generations. I think the failure to — the basic failure to think of posterity and to live for posterity the way the framers, the founding fathers, did, to always look a thousand years ahead and think what would be for the benefit of posterity, that has disappeared.

BILL MOYERS: What does it reveal about a president’s mind, when he asks us to think about posterity?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Well, the most elementary fact, of course, is to preserve the natural resources and to preserve the welfare and the health and the wisdom, take care of the health of human beings and children, and end poverty — all of these things, if we think of posterity. But I think the commonest attitude is, what has posterity ever done for us?

BILL MOYERS: The philosopher George Santayana, whom you used to write about quite often, said that “Americans never solve any of their problems, they just amiably –”

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: “Bid them goodbye,” yes.

BILL MOYERS: Can we keep on doing that with issues like the environment, with poverty, with crime?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: We seem to; we seem to think there’s always some magic formula that can be achieved by voting some money. We can’t solve our problems of crime or of education or environment that way. We have to solve them by laws and by a fundamental change in philosophy. What we constantly forget is that the people who had the tremendous crime figures, you mentioned crime, 1,800 murders a year in New York City, year after year, it stays at 1,700-1,800, which is about 100 times what it is in Sweden, which has the same population as New York City. What is there in the American economy, or in the American philosophy, or what you will, that takes crime so casually or thinks it can be solved by building more prisons?

BILL MOYERS: What’s the answer to that question? Why is there so much?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: We’ve been trying to find out an answer. Tocqueville came over here for that purpose in 1831, and to study American penitentiaries, which were the best and best-run in the world. Now people come over here for awful examples; you go to Sweden, or Britain, or something of that kind for your legal system and your prison system, penal system. I suppose the passion for gelling ahead, for being a success, which requires money, has a great deal to do with it. And people tend more and more to be willing to take great risks as we see even among stockbrokers, as we see even among those who have fiduciary responsibility. They are prepared to take risks in order to satisfy the standards of society, which are the standards of wealth.

BILL MOYERS: You said we need a new philosophy, a change in our philosophy?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: We do, a change in philosophy of the penal system, I think. From the beginning of our history, we’ve of course been rather casual about crimes, just as we’re casual about observing speed limits today. We were casual about recognizing the validity of land grants and land titles of one kind or another. We’ve been casual about a great many things that Europe cannot afford to be casual about, since it’s too closely knit. Why do Europeans, who arc law-abiding in Europe, or Africans or Asians who are, why do they become criminals in the United States? This did concern Tocqueville,but there wasn’t the widespread crime in Tocqueville’s day that there is today.

BILL MOYERS: How much of this is attributed to the fact that we seem to expect less of our leadership today than we did, say, in the founding era? We have, you said —


BILL MOYERS: The founding fathers, you said, had this idea of honor.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Our leadership today is business leadership, it’s financial leadership, it’s not political leadership. Our best people don’t go into politics, it’s too expensive for one thing, and we tolerate that. There’s no reason why we should tolerate these vast expenses for elections, no one tolerates it in European countries, but Americans think nothing of spending $50-100 million on an election.

BILL MOYERS: And most — much of it goes to television, to buying air time, to paying for the people who create commercials.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: That’s right, and we should get rid of commercials, which would be a very good idea. On the whole, I think they’ve probably done more harm than good. They’ve inspired greed and jealousy and ambition on the part of a great many people, and all children know what they want, they’re told to want everything, so they grow up wanting things. Everyone is told all day long on commercials to want something, whether it’s a cosmetic, or a tennis racquet, or a new automobile, or a vacation in Florida, or whatever it is. Those who don’t have money, and can’t afford all this are in effect excluded from our society; they don’t count.

BILL MOYERS: Are we creating a class society, as you see it?



HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: For the first time in our history. Against this the blacks are emerging from a class society, but a new class society is emerging which is a very dangerous one, one based almost exclusively on poverty for the first time in our history, and it is, I think, illuminated by the curious distinction we make in our statistics, our statistics of unemployment. Government now boasts that unemployment is now down to 5%, the lowest for many years. That figure is achieved by ignoring all those who have so desperately given up looking for any employment. Our unemployment is probably 10%, if it were honest. But that kind of dishonesty is accepted by the government, because it let its government off the hook, as it were, and gives us a pretty picture.

BILL MOYERS: The fundamental insult of a class society in America is that it defiles the dream. The dream has always been —


BILL MOYERS: If I can’t have a better life, my children will have a better life.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Yes, that’s true. This was the great thesis, of course, of the early fathers. Equality was a great word, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America really was “Equality in America, ìthatís what he wrote about, this extraordinary phenomenon, the only country in the world that had equality. And he thought France would have it in time, England would have it in time, but he also saw the danger. What was the great danger that Tocqueville saw? It was what he called “the manufacturing aristocracy,” which was his phrase for a wealthy upper class that made a great deal of money. He said if that ever gets control, democracy may be the most tyrannical form of government ever known by man, and he feared that it might be true. What he called a manufacturing aristocracy, by which he embraced banking and so forth, he’d seen this in England and was afraid of it, and he thought it might destroy American democracy.

BILL MOYERS: But in this country, it’s driven the economy that has enabled the boats to rise.



HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: So far it’s worked. It worked when we had enough land for the thousandth and thousandth generation, it worked when everybody had an opportunity.

BILL MOYERS: And today?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: It doesn’t seem to be working now.

BILL MOYERS: Some of these problems seem intransigent, for the first time American society may have bumped up against intransigent problems.


BILL MOYERS: It took a long time to get rid of slavery, but finally we did. It took a long time to bring the majority of people into the class of haves, as opposed to have-nots.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Yes, and it’s taking a long time to give complete equality to women and to blacks, we haven’t got there yet.

BILL MOYERS: America is not as generous a society as we like to tell ourselves; the generosity comes only under tremendous demand on the part of the disaffected group. You have to fight for liberty and equality in this country.


BILL MOYERS: Why the paradox, then, in a society whose founding document says “All men, all women–”

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: “Are created equal.”

BILL MOYERS: “Are created equal.”


BILL MOYERS: Why the paradox?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Why have we abandoned the zeal for equality? That was our special invention, and our special contribution that attracted the attention of every philosopher in the Western world.

BILL MOYERS: One argument is that, deep down, Americans are too individualistic to want to consider themselves equal to someone else.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Yes. Tocqueville, it was interesting, Tocqueville thought individualism was the great danger to the United States, that what he called individualism was, it was a pejorative term, it was originally a pejorative term in French when we took it over, to Tocqueville it was pejorative. It meant that you put your selfish interest ahead of the interest of your society, and there was very little of that in the 18th and much of the 19th century, because everybody depended on everybody else. If you were going out to Iowa, you had to work with your neighbor, or you wouldn’t get your fences built and you wouldn’t get your land ploughed, and you wouldn’t get —

BILL MOYERS: You wouldn’t get your barn raised, the old barn raising was a social event.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: That’s right. You wouldn’t get the local school built somehow or other. And we’re still keeping the ideal of individualism, but we’re not giving it the meaning it had, I think, when Americans experimented with it.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think. America is a better country today than it was when you were born, in 1902, 86 years ago?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: You can’t generalize; it’s better for blacks, it’s better for Orientals. After all, think what we did to the Chinese working on the railroads out in the West. It’s probably better for children; child labor is at last disallowed. It took till 1938, Darby vs. US, to get rid of child labor — imagine, that late — but at least we got rid of it. So in many fundamental respects it’s much better. But shall I say, philosophically, or, that’s such a big word, maybe just socially, and in ordinary life, I don’t think it is better. I think there’s more crime, more dishonesty, more inequality, greater inequality in the thing that matters most, namely the economy, than there was in the past, more readiness to go to war, more acceptance of the military as having the proper priority over civilian interests. We can always find money for anything the military wants, even if there’s no money for schools, or no money for nursing.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that the corruption of freedom begins with the corruption of language. That to stay free —

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: That’s what Thucydides said.

BILL MOYERS: Thucydides, the Greek historian?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Yes, the Greek historian said that in his History of the Peloponnesian War, he has a long passage on the corruption of language, and a very moving passage.

BILL MOYERS: That if you’re going to stay free, it seems to me, you have to think clearly and state precisely what the options are from which you have to choose, and that when we prefer our leaders to comfort us with the rhetoric of reassurance, we are falling victim to the most dangerous of all flattery, and that when language goes, other things follow quickly. Do you think that’s true historically?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: I think there’s not the respect for language that there was in the 18th or 19th century.

BILL MOYERS: But what happens to language when —

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: It’s been corrupted. I say television is what’s happened to language.

BILL MOYERS: Television.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: To a large degree. Television has very little respect for language, and it exploits in a very wicked way, it exploits the public by its gross oversimplification of everything, and by above all, by the use of adjectives for everything, and by exploiting little children to learn to jump up and down with ecstasy when they get a certain kind of breakfast cereal, or a certain kind of candy or a certain kind of toy. Children who don’t know what they’re doing are exploited, and their language exploited, insofar as they have one. No, I think television has had a very bad effect on language.

BILL MOYERS: Thirty years ago I was a senior in college, at the University of Texas, and my history professor, Dr. Kotner, asked us to read The American Mind, by Henry Steele Commager. You asked some questions in this book 30 years ago that I’d like to see if you’ve had any second thoughts about. You said, “Americans were wonderfully inventive in the physical and technological realm; would they prove equally resourceful in the realms of social institutions and of morals?”

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: I think that was inspired by the very obvious fact of our history, that in the 18th century we were incomparably the most inventive people in the world — not just the Western world — in the realm of politics and society. We invented practically every major political institution which we have, and we have invented none since. We invented the political party and democracy and representative government, we invented the independent judiciary, the first one in history. Montesquieu says, “In the fairest spirit of the laws,” speaking of Britain, that, judiciary is negligible, the judicial power is negligible in England.” Ours took a stand at once with the other two branches. We invented judicial review, we invented not only the superiority of the civil over the military power, but as John Adams wrote in the Massachusetts constitution, “The exact superiority of the civil over the military power.” We invented freedom of religion; well, we could on and on, freedom of speech, bills of rights, and all of these things.

BILL MOYERS: Have we really changed? I mean, you quote that famous statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847, “If there is one test of national genius universally accepted, it is success.”


BILL MOYERS: Have we really changed?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: I don’t think we’re the successful nation to which the rest of the world looks today. Japan is a success, Scandinavia is a success, smaller countries are the successful nations. We’re a success if you mean by success we have more weapons than other countries, or more money. Right now we’re the poorest nation in the world, technically, with the largest debt. But I would question the appropriateness of that term success. Of course it’s hard to define what we mean by it.

BILL MOYERS: If what you say is true, that the rest of the world doesn’t look to us the way it did, it’s quite a change since Longfellow wrote these lines, which you quote: “Humanity with all its fears, with all its hopes of future years, is hanging breathless–”

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: “Breathless on thy fate.” Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And you don’t think that’s true any longer

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: No. I don’t think it is. I don’t think northern Europe is. They have taken charge of their own affairs and developed their own society.

BILL MOYERS: Maybe that’s good. I mean, maybe it’s good that we don’t have to bear the burden.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Maybe it’s good, we don’t have to carry that burden.

BILL MOYERS: Or shoulder it, or be presumptuous. As long as we —

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: We have lost, I said this — we said this at the very beginning, we have lost that inventiveness, that resourcefulness, which we had beyond any other people in recorded history, at the beginning of our history. So that once again I repeat, every major institution, political institution we have, was invented before the year 1800; not one has been invented since the year 1800.

BILL MOYERS: Well, are we finished as a country? Are we finished as a pioneering experiment?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Oh, no, but these terms are irrelevant, they’re drawn from other areas. Countries don’t get finished, they’re still there. Greece isn’t finished, it’s still there; but it isn’t fifth century BC Greece. Italy isn’t Leonardo’s Italy, or Titian’s or anybody else’s. They’re not finished, they go right on, and we’re not finished. Of course, we’ll have a revival one of these years, one of these centuries. Not in my day, but maybe in your son’s day, or your grandchildren’s day.

BILL MOYERS: So you never give up, one doesn’t give up on this country.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Oh, how can you give up? The phrase is misleading. The fact that you’re critical of it, or fearful of it, doesn’t mean you stop voting or stop being engaged in what we’re engaged in right now.

BILL MOYERS: Or don’t love it.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: But, of course, you take that for granted. You may love erring children, too. You do love children, even if they are erring children; of course you love it, what else have you got? But it’s going through a bad period; maybe it’s going through its adolescence, instead of its maturity.

BILL MOYERS: Well, we are a young country.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: As countries go, we are, yes, yes.

BILL MOYERS: But a slow process.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From Amherst, Massachusetts, this has been a conversation with Henry Steele Commager. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on June 10, 2015.

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