Henry Steele Commager’s Crusaders for Freedom is a ringing defense of basic human rights told through the stories of more than forty heroic persons and groups who, at crucial points in history, fought to define and defend those liberties. Commager manages to weave a multitude of “mini-biographies” into a coherent narrative, taking full advantage of the many instances in which the heroes’ stories overlap.
The life accounts are told in chapters that are organized by the type of liberty being discussed. Eight chapters cover the rights of speech, religion, and freedom from slavery; the rights of children; the right to learn; women’s rights; the right of asylum; and the right to a fair trial, and there is a final chapter on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each discussion includes the stories of three to nine persons or groups whose efforts helped to secure or broaden that right. For example, Commager begins with the “first” right, the freedom of speech—noting that “without it you can never get any of the others”—by linking the story of pamphleteer Thomas Paine with those of English lawyer Thomas Erskine, abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Elijah Lovejoy, and longtime activist Wendell Phillips.
By including a broad array of crusaders and causes, Commager leads the reader all over the globe, from the signing of the Magna Carta in England in 1215 to the settlement of Jews in Israel...
(The entire section is 437 words.)