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...
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Written in 1962, Crusaders for Freedom fits the tradition of “great man/great woman” history, where the individual actions of extraordinary people are emphasized as engines of history over those of grass-roots movements carried out by faceless masses. Many of the characters in this book had already taken their places as historical giants. Commager’s study alters their placement in history, however, by emphasizing the notion that their greatness derived in part from having stood up to authority, not from simply having it. By portraying the battle for civil rights as a long-standing one that deserves constant attention, Commager’s treatment is uniquely challenging for a children’s book: Authority is not to be trusted on faith, and unpopular ideas are not necessarily bad ones.
Commager’s passionate message comes out of his long career as a scholar of American history and his witness of the seesaw struggle over constitutional rights. A distinguished history professor at Columbia University and Amherst College, his work includes many important studies, including The Growth of the American Republic (1930) with Samuel Eliot Morison, Majority Rule and Minority Rights (1943), and Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment (1975).