Liberals and the Historical Past,
Although Henry Steele Commager was a civic activist in political culture, he dedicated himself from his early years to working as a professional historian. Naturally, his liberal ideas and civic commitment to shared culture manifested themselves in his historical scholarship. While he shared many of the beliefs of others in the field of history at midcentury, he emphasized the need for intellectual dissent more than did some of his colleagues. Further, his public life forced him to decide whether scholarship and intellectual activism were compatible and, if not, which one was more important. As the discipline of history changed after midcentury, and especially after the 1960s, Commager had to determine the importance of theory versus traditional narrative in the field of intellectual history. Where was a liberal and civic historian to stand on these matters?
Through the example of Commager, who held a key vantage in his generation, we can see the nature of historical thought at midcentury, during which period it gained a reputation for celebrating consensus and conformity. American studies scholars were not the only ones who speculated about a national character and identity in the years immediately following World War II. They were joined in their investigation of the American character by many members of the history profession at midcentury. As the