George Bancroft (1800-1891), American historian and statesman, was born in Worcester, Mass., on the 3rd of October 1800. His family had been in America since 1632, and his father, Aaron Bancroft, was distinguished as a revolutionary soldier, clergyman and author. The son was educated at Phillips Academy, Exeter, at Harvard University, at Heidelberg, Göttingen and Berlin. At Göttingen he studied Plato with Heeren, New Testament Greek with Eichhorn and natural science with Blumenbach. His heart was in the work of Heeren, easily the greatest of historical critics then living, and the forerunner of the modern school; it was from this master that Bancroft caught his enthusiasm for minute pains-taking erudition. He concluded his years of preparation by a European tour, in the course of which he received kind attention from almost every distinguished man in the world of letters, science and art; among others, from Goethe, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Byron, Niebuhr, Bunsen, Savigny, Cousin, Constant and Manzoni. Bancroft's father was a Unitarian, and he had devoted his son to the work of the ministry; but the young man's first experiments at preaching, shortly after his return from Europe in 1822, were unsatisfactory, the theological teaching of the time having substituted criticism and literature for faith.
His first position was that of tutor in Harvard. Instinctively a humanist, he had little patience with the narrow curriculum of Harvard in his day and the rather pedantic spirit with which classical studies were there pursued. Moreover, he had brought from Europe a new manner, full of the affections of ardent youth, and this he wore without ease in a society highly satisfied with itself; the young knight-errant was therefore subjected to considerable ridicule. A little volume of poetry, translations and original pieces, published in 1823 gave its author no fame. As time passed, and custom created familiarity, his style, personal and literary, was seen to be the outward symbol of a firm resolve to preserve a philosophic calm, and of an enormous underlying energy which spent itself in labour, "ohne Hast, aber auch ohne Rast." He found the conventional atmosphere of Cambridge uncongenial, and with a friend he established the Round Hill school at Northampton, Mass. This was the first serious effort made in the United States to elevate secondary education to the plane on which it belonged.
Although born into a Whig family, yet Bancroft's studies carried him irresistibly into the Democratic party. While a teacher in his own school he was elected to the state legislature as a Democrat, but under pressure from the family of his first wife, who were ardent Whigs, he refused to serve. In 1831 he likewise declined the nomination of the Massachusetts Democrats for secretary of state. By this time he was influential in the councils of his party, and President Van Buren appointed him collector of the port of Boston, a position which he filled with success. Two of his appointees were Orestes Brownson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1844 he was the Democratic candidate for the governorship, but he was defeated. In 1845 he entered Polk's cabinet as secretary of the navy, serving until 1846, when for a month he was acting secretary of war. During this short period in the cabinet he established the naval academy at Annapolis, gave the orders which led to the occupation of California, and sent Zachary Taylor into the debatable land between Texas and Mexico. He also continued his pleadings for the annexation of Texas, as extending "the area of freedom," and though a Democrat, took high moral ground as to slavery; he likewise made himself the authority on the North-Western Boundary question.
In 1846 he was sent as minister to London, where he lived in constant companionship with Macaulay and Hallam. On his return in 1849 he withdrew from public life, residing in New York. In 1866 he was chosen by Congress to deliver the special eulogy on Lincoln; and in 1867 he was appointed minister to Berlin, where he remained until his resignation in 1874. Thenceforward he lived in Washington and Newport, dying at Washington on the 17th of January 1891. His latest official achievements were the greatest. In the San Juan arbitration he displayed great versatility and skill, winning his case before the emperor with brilliant ease. The naturalization treaties which he negotiated successively with Prussia and the other north German states were the first international recognition of the right of expatriation, a principle since incorporated in the law of nations.
In spite of the exacting and severe routine of the Round Hill school, Bancroft contributed frequently to the North American Review and to Walsh's American Quarterly; he also made a translation of Heeren's work on The Politics of Ancient Greece. In 1834 appeared the first volume of the History of the United States. The second followed in 1837, and others as the exigencies of public life permitted. Supplementary to the first volume was an article published by him in the North American Review for 1835 on "The Documentary History of the Revolution." This article not merely brought the new method to the notice of the reading public, but revealed to it the wealth of material available. The nature and extent of his studies, the solidity of his work, and the philosophic spirit which animates both, explain the enthusiasm with which the earlier volumes of Bancroft were received. Their sale at home was very large; they were reprinted in England and translated immediately into Danish, Italian, German and French. The latest volumes were considered by all competent judges quite as important as their predecessors.
When the author was preparing to return from Berlin, the Royal Academy made him their guest at a public dinner, an unprecedented honour; and the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg and Munich united in a testimonial of regard. At Washington he was the confidential advisor of statesmen to the end of his life and the unofficial dean of the best society.
Bancroft's historical creed is best set forth in the address he delivered on the semi-centennial of the New York Historical Society in 1854. In philosophy he found the basis for positing a collective human will, revealing in its activities the materials for determining ethical laws. Since there must be the same conservation of energy in morals as elsewhere, the eternal reason is the divine Logos. History, therefore, is God working in examples. It must be a unit, its forces constant and its totality an organic whole. Within this the individual moves and acts with liberty and responsibility; for each, in will, affection and intellect is consubstantial with the rest. Truth, morals and justice are subject to no evolution; but the collective man evolves better forms of knowledge and behaviour. The organization of society, therefore, produces successive states, in each of which the principle of freedom is better established than in the antecedent. Permanency in republican government is, therefore, based upon corresponding experience and culture, and its possibilities grow ever stronger. The relation of American democracy to the systems which have preceded it forms the latest proof of these contentions. As Heeren's pupil, he laid enormous stress on the importance of original authorities.
In dealing with documentary evidence he sought to apply very stringent rules: - (1) Carefully distinguish between original authority and historical memorials or aids; for example, between a fact recorded at first- or second-hand knowledge, and a decision of principle by authority. (2) Represent every man from his own standpoint; judge him from your own. His collections of original materials were vast; beginning with his residence in England, he brought together at enormous pains and expense the authenticated copies of archives, family papers, and personal journals written by historic personages, which now constitute an invaluable treasure in the New York public library. They are from every land and from every people with which American origins are connected. His use of this material was not always according to accepted standards. To avoid dryness and prolixity he condensed quotations, and occasionally employed the Thucydidean method of abridgment or representation in place of fact catalogues. During his long life enormous strides were made by others in collecting the materials of American history, and while in the main he kept pace with them by ruthless revision, yet even the latest edition of his work disregards some minor facts which others knew for the insertion of much which the author alone knew.
Bancroft's imagination and enthusiasm were alike exuberant. His pages abound in fine and acute insight. His generalizations are vivid and enlightening. He spared no pains to acquire true style, frequently rewriting his chapters, and sometimes testing passages of philosophy and description in eight different forms. Yet to a certain extent he lacked the representative power and often failed to conceal his art, many pages ringing with artificial tones. But, after making all allowances, it remains true that he had a perfect sense of proportion, sound maxims and thorough common-sense. He was of that greatest human type: a man of the present, valuing justly the past and no dreamer. In the nature and extent of his studies, in the solidity of his work, and in the philosophic spirit which animated his life he ranks as the foremost historian of the United States, and as an American historian second to none of his European contemporaries in the same line. He displayed the heroic, epic value of American history, its unity with the great central stream, and dispelled for ever the extravagant conceptions of a sentimental world just emerging from the visionary philosophy of the 18th century.
See M. A. de Wolfe Howe, The Life and Letters of George Bancroft (New York, 1908).
(W. M. S.)