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Henry Steele Commager

July 2024
5min read

Henry Steele Commager, professor of history at Amherst, is an important scholar, a well-known public lecturer, a man of wide-ranging interests, and a prolific writer. His The American Mind is a major analysis of intellectual trends m the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and his Growth of the American Republic , written with Samuel Eliot AIorison, has long been a leading textbook. 7he subject of this interview, the development of American nationalism and the shaping of the American character, has been of continuing concern to him throughout his career.

PROFESSOR GARRATY: Professor Commager, to what extent was nationalism forced upon Americans by the need for common defense during the Revolution?

PROFESSOR COMMAGER: That is precisely what created a national state. They had to do it. Yet it wasn’t always clear to everyone. Virginia fought a private war; the socalled conquest of the Northwest by George Rogers Clark was a Virginia enterprise, not a United States conquest. And there was much confusion and difficulty involving state and national diplomatic and financial negotiations abroad. But what is fascinating is that Americans developed the resourcefulness and wisdom to solve the problem of organizing a nation in the midst of war and crisis, one of the greatest achievements of modern political history. The Americans of the Revolutionary generation proved themselves the most creative statesmen in modern history, perhaps in all history. They established institutions that have had a more lasting influence than any established anywhere else.

We’ve been living on that capital ever since. All our political and constitutional institutions were created in the eighteenth century. Of these, perhaps most important was federalism, a new form of nationalism and the only form that could possibly have worked. …

If the British had had enough sense to realize they had a federal system that was working very well, the government in Westminster managing general matters like war and commerce, the colonies managing local affairs, the Empire might well have stuck together.

Are you saying that the British created federalism, then rejected it, whereupon the Americans reconstructed it?

No. British federalism lacked the quintessential element. The essential element of federalism is a separation of powers between local and general governments, which the British had pretty well effected. The quintessential element the Americans worked out: the sanctions behind federalism. What happens when the constituent parts of a federal system don’t abide by the agreement? What had always been done from the beginning of time was to march an army into the offending region, seize a weapon, and kill somebody. This was the original plan of the Federal [Constitutional] convention; Edmund Randolph’s plan gave the national government the power to coerce the states. But gradually it became clear that to resort to force was to decree perpetual civil war. So the founders, as one of them put it, “substituted the benign magistracy of the law for the awful sanctions of the sword.”

They worked out sanctions that were enormously ingenious. The first was dual citizenship. Every American was a citizen of the state and of the nation. Secondly, the federal government was made to operate through law, on each individual citizen, not through force, on the states. If the citizens in Pennsylvania do not obey a federal law, you don’t declare war on Pennsylvania, you arrest the people who are breaking the law and try them. …

Now this is the system Americans discovered: dual citizenship and a government that could operate directly on the citizens through the courts. For the first time in history, a system was created that depended for its effective operation on the integrity, wisdom, and effectiveness of the courts. So that more than any other government in history, ours is a government of law. … Almost every issue of state versus nation has been fought out in the courts. Of course, if the courts fail, as they failed, for example, in the Dred Scott case, all hell breaks loose. And if the government is so weak that it cannot, or so pusillanimous that it will not, enforce a court decision, as with Brown versus Topeka, the schooldesegregation case, then the system breaks down. …

Given the Founding Fathers’ underlying suspicion of human nature and fear of tyrannical authority, why has there been a steady increase in the powers of government?

There was less ground to distrust human nature in the 1780’s, when the leaders of the country were men like Washington and Jefferson and Adams, than there is in our day, when perhaps public men are not so commonly virtuous. But, as you say, the power of government has grown. The explanation is elementary. Circumstances of modern life in a technological society require governmental action, the growth of a welfare state. Nothing has worked more effectively for a strong government than wars, and we’ve engaged in a great number of them.

The American mind is still schizophrenic about this matter, however. The same elements in America that denounce big government day and night, chiefly the southern states'-rights elements, are also those who want a bigger and stronger military system. What they’re supporting, of course, is an expanding central government. We should not be surprised that the Founding Fathers didn’t foresee everything, when we see that the current Fathers hardly ever foresee anything.

Looking at the whole sweep of American history, do you think that the unified nationalism that developed was, on balance, a good thing or a bad thing?

… I’m not sure there ever was any alternative. If you ask, “Does civilization do better in small organizations or in larger ones?” I would be forced to say, “Small ones.” One of the sobering considerations of history is that by whatever tests of civilization we apply, all great civilizations have developed in small countries or states—Judaea, Athens, the Roman Republic, Florence, Venice, the Low Countries, Elizabethan England, Weimar, Denmark. Even in our own history it would be difficult to reject the statement that the greatest era of statesmanship was the eighteenth century, that eighteenth-century Virginia with a white population of less than three hundred thousand produced more and greater statesmen than the whole country has ever since. It’s a nice question of whether bigness is not in itself inimical to a high degree of civilization. Even if we interpret civilization, not in high cultural terms, but in terms of whether babies die or not, whether the water is pure, and things of that kind, I think most objective students would say that Sweden and Denmark and Holland and Switzerland are the most civilized countries in the world today. …

We might argue that one of the tests of a civilization is the gastronomical and wine test, that France, with four hundred wines and three hundred cheeses, is much more civilized than the United States, with about ten wines and three cheeses. But in all probability France will succumb to Coca Cola and the supermarket. Maybe localism is a thing of the past. And it remains to be seen whether a large country can have a great civilization. The question is wide open so far as the United States is concerned.

If modern technology and all the tendencies of modern society make nationalism illogical, why does it persist?

You might as well ask why racism flourishes in the face of scientific evidence that there are no real differences between the races, or why Protestantism and Catholicism remain separate when the differences between them can be detected only by theologians. Such things are deeply rooted in the psychology of man. When you’re raised to believe in the superiority of your own country, it’s very difficult to rid yourself of the belief. There are, of course, practical advantages to national organization, and out of these loyalties develop. There’s no reason in and of itself why other institutions should not attract comparable loyalties, but so far they have not. I’m not at all sure they’d be any better.

How about loyalty to humanity?

I suppose it’s too vague, and without a sufficient body of day-by-day mechanisms bringing it home to people. It requires an enormous degree of sophistication to think in terms of mankind. We’re prepared to let a million people starve in Asia or Africa, but our hearts would be wrung if we knew of one child in our own locality that was starving. We’re prepared to drop napalm on Vietnamese children, but we would swoon in agony if we saw a child burn in our own country. We are so contrived that we can take in only what is close to us. If we ever learn to feel comparable anguish of spirit for all people, we will have reached the point where it will make very little difference what form our institutions take.

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