Henry Steele Commager, one of the nation's most distinguished historians and teachers, a prolific author, editor and essayist and an eloquent defender of the Constitution, died Monday at his home in Amherst, Mass. He was 95.
For decades, the name Henry Steele Commager was synonymous with American history. Starting in the 1930s, he published a torrent of histories, biographies, textbooks, anthologies and inquiries into the nature of democracy and the American mind. His essays in newspapers, journals and magazines were an important part of any dialogue on the issues of his day.He also taught history and American studies for 66 years, 36 of them at Amherst College, 18 at Columbia University and 12 at New York University. He was still teaching into his 80s, and he said he could not imagine not doing so. "What every college must do," he said, "is hold up before the young the spectacle of greatness" in history, literature and life.
He accomplished all this while plagued by poor eyesight that deteriorated to near blindness.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian, called him "a great teacher and one of the century's notable historians." Schlesinger said Commager brought to his profession an "analytical keenness, grace and lucidity of expression, and a disciplined passion for the integrity and hope of the democratic experience."
He also was remembered for his early stand against McCarthyism. Alfred Kazin, the author and critic, said the historian showed "extraordinary bravery and openness amid the broiling hysteria."
David Oshensky, a Rutgers University historian, added that Commager waged "one of the great battles of his era - when it was very dangerous to do so and other intellectuals were cowed."