Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present

By Neil Jumonville | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
The Call to Political Morality,
1964–1974

Commager became more insistently radical in his liberalism in the early 1960s with respect to those others in his political generation. While some in his age group began a political journey that took them from socialism in the 1930s to a neoconservatism in the 1970s, Commager, interestingly, moved the opposite way. 1 Although he was a liberal throughout his life, he defended his liberalism with such principle and boldness that his outlook seemed more pronounced by the 1960s. Some of his closest friends, such as Milton Cantor, labor historian at the University of Massachusetts and former student, noticed his increasing radicalism. 2

Politics, even for the most principled, can be a confusing journey. For even if one holds tight to principle, inflexibly and rigidly, the background and surrounding context in which that principle must be applied is constantly changing. It is not only that the terms themselves change, that individualists are called classical liberals at one point and then libertarian conservatives at another. Even more uncomfortable is the spectacle of having to change principle to pursue a consistent goal over time. For example, in the pursuit of a humane, democratic domestic and foreign policy, many liberals fought for great power for Franklin Roosevelt against a conservative Congress and supported extra terms for him. Yet many of those same liberals denounced that similar power assumed by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon when it was utilized against a liberal Congress and in execution of an

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