Henry Steele Commager

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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 (25 October 19022 March 1998) was an American historian and teacher.

Quotes[edit]

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.
  • The greatest danger that threatens us is neither heterodox thought nor orthodox thought, but the absence of thought.
    • Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
  • 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.
    • "The Problem of Dissent" in Saturday Review, Volume 48 (December 1965), p. 81; also read into the US Congressional Record (26 June 1969)

Who is Loyal to America? (1947)[edit]

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.
Who among American heroes could meet their tests, who would be cleared by their committees? Not Washington, who was a rebel.
"Who is Loyal to America?", in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 195, No. 1168 (September 1947)
  • 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]

New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 1967

  • Freedom in 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.
    • pp. vii - viii
  • This approach emphasizes what was once familiar enough to all Americans—and what we are now in danger of forgetting—that government derives its power from men; that rights of life and liberty are inalienable; that these rights are not something that government graciously confers upon men, but things no government can take away from men.
    • p. 5
  • If the preservation of our freedom depends upon the courts then we are, indeed, lost, for in the long run neither courts nor Constitution can save us from our own errors, follies, or wickedness.
    • p. 6
  • Uncertain of principles, we fall back on emotion; unfamiliar with the past, we are afraid of the future. Increasingly we look to men, ideas, and institutions not from the point of view of how they work, but from the point of view of how they ought to work…
    • p. 11
  • If you are going to penalize disloyalty, you must first determine what loyalty is; if you are going to silence nonconformity, you must determine what conformity is—and to what it conforms.
    • p. 15
  • The most effective censorship is not, in fact, legal; in a democracy—as Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America—it is public opinion.
    • p. 15
  • We do not protect freedom in order to indulge error. We protect freedom in order to discover truth.
    • p. 18
  • By insisting upon conformity in the intellectual arena and by threatening with disapproval all those who dissent or who give us unpopular advice, we are in danger of following the totalitarian philosophy—and the totalitarian mistakes.
    • p. 34
  • We must therefore look with grave misgivings upon the psychology of the ‘crusade’ or on the notion that we can make the world over in our own image either by persuasion or by coercion.
    • pp. 70-71
  • There are limits on liberty, as there are limits on authority. The broad principle of those limits is generally recognized and accepted; no liberties may be exercised so as to injure others or injure the community.
    • p. 77
  • 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.
    • p. 80
  • The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion,… In the long run it will create a generation incapable of appreciating the difference between independence of thought and subservience.
    • p. 82, p. 88
  • The search for subversives results in the intimidation of the independent, the original, the imaginative, and the experimental-minded… It discourages the discussion of controversial matters in the classroom, for such discussion may be reported, or misreported, and cause trouble.
    • p. 88
  • 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.
    • p. 147
  • 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.
    • p. 153
  • Loyalty… is a realization that America was born of revolt, flourished in dissent, became great through experimentation.
    • p. 154

External links[edit]

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