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).