Henry Steele Commager (October 25, 1902 – March 2, 1998) was an American historian who helped define Modern liberalism in the United States for two generations through his 40 books and 700 essays and reviews. His principal scholarly works were his 1936 biography of Theodore Parker; his intellectual history The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880s (1950), which focuses on the evolution of liberalism in the American political mind from the 1880s to the 1940s, and his intellectual history Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (1977). In addition, he edited one of the most widely used compilations, Documents of American History. (Click here for full Wikipedia article)
A free society cherishes nonconformity. It knows that from the non- conformist, from the eccentric, have come many of the great ideas of freedom. Free society must fertilize the soil in which non-conformity and dissent and individualism can grow.
A government and a society that silences those who dissent is one that has lost its way.
America was born of revolt, flourished on dissent, became great through experimentation.
And we wonder what can be that 'philosophy of education' which believes that young people can be trained to the duties of citizenship by wrapping their minds in cotton wool.
Change does not necessarily assure progress, but progress implacably requires change. Education is essential to change, for education creates both new wants and the ability to satisfy them.
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 is 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.
History is a jangle of accidents, blunders, surprises, and absurdities, and so is our knowledge of it, but if we are to report it at all we must impose some order on it.
History is organized memory, and the organization is all important!
If our democracy is to flourish, it must have criticism; if our government is to function, it must have dissent.
It's awfully hard to be the son of a great man and also of a half- crazy woman.
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.
Our tradition is one of protest and revolt, and it is stultifying to celebrate the rebels of the past while we silence the rebels of the present.
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 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.
The greatest danger we face is not any particular kind of thought. The greatest danger we face is absence of thought.
The justification and the purpose of freedom of speech is not to indulge those who want to speak their minds. It is to prevent error and discover truth. There may be other ways of detecting error and discovering truth than that of free discussion, but so far we have not found them.
To yearn for a single, and usually simple, explanation of the chaotic materials of the past, to search for a single thread in that most tangled of all skeins, is a sign of immaturity.
We should not be surprised that the Founding Fathers didn't foresee everything, when we see that the current Fathers hardly ever foresee anything.
What every college must do is hold up before the young the spectacle of greatness.