George Bancroft, an American historian and statesman, son of the Rev. Aaron Bancroft, born in Worcester, Mass., Oct. 3, 1800. He pursued his preparatory studies at Exeter, N. H., and in 1813 entered Harvard college, where he gave special attention to metaphysics and morals, and acquired a strong predilection for the writings of Plato. He graduated in 1817, and almost immediately started for the universities of Germany. In Gottingen, where he remained for two years, he studied under the most learned professors of the time, including Eichhorn, Heeren, and Blumenbach, with nearly all of whom he had close personal acquaintance. He applied himself to German, French, and Italian literature, the oriental languages and the interpretation of the Scriptures, ecclesiastical and other ancient history, natural history, the antiquities and literature of Greece and Rome, besides pursuing a thorough course of Greek philosophy. He selected history as his special branch of study. Having received at Gottingen in 1820 the degree of doctor of philosophy, he repaired to Berlin, where he continued his studies, and became intimate with Schleierrnacher, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Savi-gny, Lappenberg, Varnhagen von Ense, and other distinguished literary persons.
He also carefully observed the administration of the Prussian government in many of its departments. In the spring of 1821 he began a journey through Germany and other parts of Europe. He had already in a Gottingen vacation seen Dresden, and had made the acquaintance of Goethe at Jena. At Heidelberg he spent some time in study with the historian Schlosser. In Paris he became acquainted with Cousin, Alexander von Humboldt, and Benjamin Constant. Ho passed a month in England, travelled on foot through Switzerland, and spent eight months in Italy, forming an acquaintance with Manzoni at Milan, and a friendship with Chevalier Bun-sen at Rome, where he also knew Niebuhr. In 1822 he returned to America, and accepted for one year the office of tutor of Greek in Harvard university. During this year he preached several sermons, yet he seems not long to have entertained the thought of entering the clerical profession. In 1823, in conjunction with Dr. Joseph G. Cogswell, he established the Round Hill school at Northampton. He published at this time his translation of Heeren's "Politics of Ancient Greece," and a small volume of poems, and he was also busily meditating and collecting materials for a history of the United States. In 1826 he delivered at Northampton an oration, in which he avowed his principles to bo for universal suffrage and uncompromising democracy.
He was elected in 1880, without his knowledge, to the legislature of Massachusetts, but refused to take his seat, and the year after he declined a nomination, though certain to have been elected, for the senate of his state. In 1834 appeared the first volume of his "History of the United Stat-s." In 1835 he drafted an address to the people of Massachusetts, at the request of the young men's democratic convention, and was for a time actively engaged in political speaking, and in drawing up resolutions and addresses. He removed in this year to Spring-held, where he resided three years, and completed the second volume of his history. In 1838 he was appointed by President Van Buren collector of Boston. Duties were at that time paid by bonds, and unpaid bonds had accumulated to a large amount as debts to the government; hut not a single bond taken during the term of Mr. Bancroft was unpaid at the time when he resigned the office, and his collections amounted to several millions. He was at this period a frequent orator in political assemblies, was pursuing his studies zealously, and was particularly interested in the philosophical movement subsequently known as transcendentalism. In 1840 the third volume of his history was published.
In 1844 he was nominated by the democratic party for governor of Massachusetts, and, though not elected, received more votes than any candidate has received either before or since on the purely democratic ticket. During the canvass he was in the city of New York, studying manuscripts and documents illustrative of our early history. After the accession of Mr. Polk to the presidency in 1845, Mr. Bancroft entered the cabinet as secretary of the navy. He signalized his administration of this office by the establishment of the naval academy at Annapolis. The improvement of education in the navy had been desired by some of his predecessors, but little had been done to promote it, and Mr. Bancroft was the first to design a school for the naval service, corresponding to the military school at West Point. At his request the secretary of war, with the approval of the president, made over to the navy department the military fort and grounds at Annapolis, and the school was at once set at work by Mr. Bancroft, who received tor the purpose all the appropriations for which he asked, He was also influential in obtaining additional appropriations for the Washington observatory, and in introducing some new professors of great merit into the corps of instructors.
A reform in the system of promotion in the naval service being required by many, he planned a method by which promotion should depend not on age alone, but also on experience and capacity; but bis scheme was never fully developed or applied. While secretary of the navy Mr. Bancroft gave the order to take possession of California, and it was carried into effect before he left the naval department. During his term of office he also acted as secretary of war pro tem, for a month, and gave the order to Gen. Taylor to march into Texas, which caused the first occupation of Texas by the United States. In 1846 Mr. Bancroft exchanged his position in the cabinet for the office of minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain. He successfully urged upon the British ministry the adoption of more liberal laws of navigation. The arrest of some Irish Americans gave him an opportunity also to vindicate the rights of naturalized American citizens; and at his demand they were set free. During his residence in England he made many friends among the men of letters of that country. In 1849 the university of Oxford made him a doctor of civil law, and he had before been chosen correspondent of the royal academy of Berlin, and also of the French institute.
He used the opportunity of his residence in Europe to perfect his collections on American history. He made several visits to Paris, to study the archives and libraries of that city, being aided in his researches by Gui-zot, Mignet, Lamartine, and De Tocqueville. In England the ministry opened to him the records of the state paper office, embracing a vast array of military and civil correspondence, and also the records of the treasury. In the British museum, also, and in private collections, he found valuable manuscripts. He returned to the United States in 1849, took up his residence in New York, and began to prepare for the press the fourth and fifth volumes of his history, which were published in 1852. The sixth volume was issued in 1854, the seventh in 1858, and the eighth soon after. Up to 1866 he declined any public office, though several were tendered him, and resided in New York, engaged in literary labor. In February of that year, at the request of Congress, he delivered an address in memory of Abraham Lincoln. The ninth volume of his history also appeared during that year. On May 14, 1867, he was appointed minister to Prussia, and accepted the office; in 1868 he was accredited to the North German confederation, and in 1871 to the German empire.
Under his auspices, important treaties concerning the naturalization of Germans in America were concluded with the various states of the confederation in February, 1868.' In August of the same year Mr. Bancroft received from the university of Bonn the honorary degree of Doctor Juris, and in September, 1870, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of receiving his first degree at Gottingen. On this occasion he was congratulated by many German societies and faculties, as well as by prominent men of several nations. He stiil gives much of his time to labor on his unfinished "History of the United States," and has the tenth and last volume nearly ready for the press (1873). Mr. Bancroft is a member of many American and foreign learned societies. Besides the works mentioned above, he has published numerous essays in the " North American Review" and other periodicals, a collection of which has been made under the title of "Miscellanies" (New York, 1855). Mr. Bancroft's "History of the United States" occupies a very prominent place not only in the historical literature of his own country, hut in that of the world, since it is everywhere a recognized authority concerning the period which it covers.
It is not merely a narrative, but a philosophic treatise, dealing with causes and principles as well as events, and tracing with remarkable skill the progress of enlightenment and liberal ideas. It has been translated into various languages, and is especially popular in Germany.