By embroidering historical narrative with biography, as Commager does in Crusaders for Freedom, the longtime college professor brings to life such abstract notions as the right of asylum by relating them directly to the experiences of the young reader. In the chapter on free speech, for example, Commager reveals that Paine had big ears and failed at most things that he tried as a young man. Yet Commager’s message is never lost in the storytelling: “No judge will ever lock you up because you read the comics or the sports page of the newspaper. No, it is only dangerous ideas that need freedom. Or ideas that some people think are dangerous. ”
The biographies are brief but adequate. Commager describes the subjects’ family backgrounds, education, and wealth, as well as enough about their motivations to paint distinct portraits, not caricatures. Most are shown as inventive people who act on their visions for a better world and then are confronted with intolerance or outright persecution. The structure is the same in each story: The crusader prevails, even in death.
Commager’s approach to his subjects is more than respectful; he is adoring, and his crusaders are heroic. This type of hero biography is accessible to young readers, if a bit simplistic. For some, such as Tubman, the heroism stems from having turned powerlessness to strength and action. Commager’s point is that anyone can be a hero by standing up for a conviction. Many of his crusaders, however, were already people of means or power. Presidents John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson are joined in this category by wealthy private persons such as...
(The entire section is 680 words.)