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Bancroft: The Historian As Celebrity

July 2024
11min read

George Bancroft was the most successful of all American historians. Three generations ago, at a time when history was still considered literature, the volumes of his History of the United States stood on the shelves of thousands of American homes. During most of the nineteenth century it was a solid best seller. Now his once-so-popular volumes are left untouched not only in the proverbial dusty attic but in teeming university libraries, too. His life, full of success, lasted long; his reputation did not.

In the history of American history George Bancroft was the central nineteenth-century figure. He lived at a time when historians still wrote for people rather than for other historians; and he got the best of the two now, alas, so separated worlds. Recognized as the dean of American historians during his lifetime, he also made some political history himself, and while he still receives textbook mention as an early founder of American historiography, his curious and manifold political career has scarcely been scrutinized at all. Yet he was not only historian but founder of the United States Naval Academy, American Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to London and Berlin, writer of presidential speeches, maker of presidential candidates, war maker against Mexico. His political career runs through the rugged tapestry of nineteenth-century American democracy; his writing helped to establish its decorative historical pattern.

Bancroft was a central figure in several respects. His long life spanned not only most of the nineteenth century; it also reached from the life of the first to that of the next-to-last President of the Republic. The eighth child of a Massachusetts minister, he was born in 1800, within a year of Washington’s death; he died in 1891, at a time when Eisenhower was already alive. He knew not many decisive setbacks during his life. He was among those fortunate beings who receive nearly all the fame they want during their lifetimes.

Steadily, throughout his days, George Bancroft burned with ambition; throughout most of the century he made himself known. As a youth he was serious and self-conscious, with a tendency toward priggishness (at fourteen he earnestly noted in his diary that he would rather closet himself with a “good moral book” than be amused, like his Harvard classmates, with athletics and fiction). The turning point of his life was the purse, quite a considerable forerunner of a Guggenheim or Fulbright, that sent him to Europe for four years; there he chose to be deeply influenced by Germany, the influence that is reflected throughout his History and also in his political career.

He sailed home to America, having acquired a few velveteen European clothes and some cosmopolitan mannerisms. He did not expect the disappointment he then saw reflected in the faces of his Puritan Harvard masters. Thereafter, instead of becoming a clergyman, as they anticipated, he started on a worldly career.

George Bancroft was a master of the art of timing. He founded a prep school when he sensed the excellent prospects for private schools in New England; twice he married well, socially and financially; and at the right time he perceived the advantages of entering Democratic party politics. He reckoned wisely. His years as American envoy abroad and his prominent political posts at home brought him the respectability he sought, if not in Boston, to which he never returned, then in New York and in Washington. There he settled after his last post in Berlin, to enjoy the fruits of his reputation. He had become a Washington eminence in more than one way. He kept a good table. He summered in Newport in his house, Roseclyffe. The Senate gave him the privilege of the floor. When he was eighty-seven, Browning sent a congratulatory verse:

Bancroft, the message-bearing wire Which flashes my “All Hail” today Moves slowlier than the heart’s desire That, what hand pens, tongue’s self might say.

He died at what was virtually the height of his historical, political, and social reputation. President Harrison ordered the flags of official Washington to be flown at half-mast. No other American historian was ever so honored, either in life or in death.

But who reads him today? Among the now-myriad paper-bound reprints of early American historians you will not find his name. Adams, Prescott, Parkman, even Richard Hildreth, are reprinted, read, discussed, but not Bancroft. His figure is like those large iron statues of neglected governors that stand in the center squares of American state capitals, where now the traffic rushes around them but no one looks up. Our notion of his reputation is vague, romantic, incomplete, fragmentary. Nor is this a recent development. His reputation survived him by only a few years.

The reason is relatively simple. Bancroft died at the very time when a more objective, scientific, pragmatic, professionalized school of American historiography began to replace the earlier, more sentimental, rhetorical, nationalistic way of writing which he typified:

The United States of America constitute an essential portion of a great political system, embracing all the civilized nations of the earth. At a period when the force of moral opinion is rapidly increasing, they have the precedence in the practice and the defence of the equal rights of men. The sovereignty of the people is here a conceded axiom, and the laws, established upon that basis, are cherished with faithful patriotism. While the nations of Europe aspire after change, our constitution engages the fond admiration of the people, by which it has been established. Prosperity follows the execution of even justice; invention is quickened by the freedom of competition; and labor rewarded with sure and unexampled returns.

These are the sentences with which Bancroft introduces his History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent . There follow another three pages describing an ideal, prosperous, and free national condition such as the world has never seen. “A favoring Providence, calling our institutions into being, has conducted the country to its present happiness and glory.” Thus ends the introduction to the first volume, written and published in 1834, at the height of the Jacksonian era. The tone is unmistakable: it is indeed Jacksonian, optimistic, oratorical, somewhat loud, somewhat engaging. An eagle is proclaimed to soar, high above all, in what seems a cloudless blue sky, visible to the Children of Liberty, their vision yet untarnished by the battle smoke of the Civil War and by the factory smoke of the industrial expansion which followed it.

Bancroft left his introduction unchanged, though in 1882 he added:

The foregoing words, written nearly a half-century ago, are suffered to remain, because the intervening years have justified their expression of confidence in the progress of our republic. The seed of disunion has perished; and universal freedom, reciprocal benefits, and cherished traditions bind its many states in the closest union

—surely a somewhat incomplete description of the condition of the Republic under Chester A. Arthur.

The consistency and the complacency of Bancroft’s historical optimism, of which his unchanged introduction is a fair example, suggest immediately why he was such a popular historian during his lifetime. They also suggest why he fell into neglect soon after his death, so that nowadays he is regarded as a lovable, simple, archaic nineteenth-century figure, a sort of bearded Founding Father of the historical profession whom, however, historians no longer read. But this is a superficial judgment; there are things in his History that deserve more than their present neglect.

Bancroft was essentially a one-book man. The book is a very long one, not only a magnum opus but an opus vitae . He began the History of the United States when he was thirty-two; he devoted much of his eighty-sixth year to a revision of the last edition. He wrote the first three volumes in his thirties, the next five volumes in his fifties; when he was seventy-five, he cut the ten volumes to six and brought out a so-called Centenary Edition; the old man and his wife then further corrected and cut out much, “slaughtering the adjectives” as she said, until ten years later “The Author’s Last Revision” was issued. Altogether, from 1834 to 1890, almost thirty editions were published. Bancroft made a minor fortune out of them.

These thousands of pages, bound in somber pressed brown or dark blue, are heavy lumber, yet not quite as heavy as they seem at first sight. They are a curious mixture of splinter and gingerbread, of rough New England pine and brown mahogany varnish. They are the history of a Unique People, of a Unique Revolution, of the Providentially Chosen People of God. But there is more to them than the romantic naïveté of early nationalistic historiography. Though Bancroft still belonged to an age that looked upon history as a form of art, he also wished to consider himself a scientist. He refused to reconcile these two contradictory tendencies within himself, with the result that, at his worst, he sounds like a revivalist preacher on one page and a bored county clerk on the next.

Bancroft was a convinced believer in the social progress of democracy; yet there is astonishingly little social history in his long book. He wished to depict the large, dramatic panorama of American evolution; yet his last volume, describing the making of the Constitution, degenerates into dreary passages of long quotes; in the hundreds of pages dealing with 1786 there is but one paragraph about Shays’ Rebellion. He exalts the American tradition of lawfulness and justice, yet he is eminently unfair about the Boston Massacre; he glowers about the acquittal of Captain Preston before a Boston court, a shining page of American justice that is unequaled in the history of the French or, indeed, of almost any other democratic revolution. He believed in the advancement of morals; yet at times he could be priggish to the point of ludicrousness. He who first extolled the value of primary documents, the lesson he learned from Germany, did not make good enough use of his extraordinary access to European diplomatic archives.

His three years’ tenure in London as American Minister to Britain (Folk’s appointment after Bancroft’s part in preparing the Mexican War message) had turned out to be profitable as well as enjoyable for him. Bancroft exploited his position by gaining access to many British and French state papers relating to the eighteenth century. Thus he could collect a mass of valuable material for the forthcoming volumes of his History , doing his “research” under conditions that past, present, and future historians might well envy.

Bancroft was perhaps the first American historian who did “collective research,” since he had secretaries to make copies and to look things up for him; notwithstanding these advantages and the many revisions, factual errors abound in his History . He played tricks with his sources, misquoting them on occasion, stringing parts of texts together into fictitious speeches. Bancroft, who believed that history was an objective science, showing “the presence of law in the action of human beings,” still treated his history as romantic literature. He looked at things not the way they were but the way they ought to have been; he was unwilling to admit the discrepancies between spirit and flesh, image and reality. “The warts on Franklin’s face I wish omitted,” wrote Bancroft in a curious note for the engraver who was to set Franklin’s portrait on the frontispiece of Volume II of the History . (The engraver must have stood his ground: the warts on Franklin’s face remain.)

At times Bancroft’s narration is stately as well as lively —for example, when he writes about the silent bays of the continent as the colonists’ little flotillas enter into their untouched waters: “The sea was enlivened by the shallops of fishermen.” Many of his characterizations—especially of foreigners, curiously enough, rather than of Americans—are of enduring excellence, like his revised summation of Lord North:

Yet Lord North was false only as he was weak and uncertain. He really wished to concede and conciliate, but he had not force enough to come to a clear understanding with himself. When he encountered the opposition in the House of Commons, he sustained his administration by speaking confidently for vigorous measures; when alone, his heart sank within him from dread of civil war.

His description of England in 1763, his characterization of Calvert, his contrast of Roger Williams with the Puritans, are better than good. It is a pity that they are not read nowadays. For, at best, a liverish New England nervousness and a thin stateliness harmonize in his prose, most of all in the more austere last editions.

The historian and his work are inseparable. Bancroft’s person, like his History , was full of paradox. He was not very lovable, not altogether archaic, and far from simple. His prejudices are reflected throughout his History; they often form its worst, disproportionate faults. They are not merely nationalistic and democratic prejudices: they are Teutonic, Protestant, Populist, and Progressive. To Bancroft, the modern progress of Science and Virtue began with Luther, and the Chosen People were mainly those of the Germanic Race. To Bancroft the English civil war was a struggle between the simple, democratic, virtuous “Low Folk” Saxons and the “High Folk of Normandie”; the epic campaigns of Britain and France for the domination of the Atlantic world were but a war “between the Catholic and the Protestant Powers.”

Bancroft, who at first rejected Darwin, was nonetheless an unconscious historical Darwinian. For him the Protestant democracy of America marked the inexorable march of progress. The victory of the Revolution “was the first decisive victory of the industrious middling class over the most powerful representative of the mediaeval aristocracy”—a peculiar description of British society in the 1770’s. “The world is in a constant state of advancement”; things are getting better and better all the time. But this, then, is not really archaic at all. Indeed, it is the credo of American progressive historiography, stretching up to our present day. For even though the profession of history soon left Bancroft behind—abandoning social Darwinism and sentimental admiration for the Teuton racethe German-scientific tradition, of which Bancroft was the first central representative, still dominates American professional historical writing.

Bancroft was a successful man—so successful, indeed, that some of his friends reproached him for the very obvious eagerness with which he pursued wealth and prestige. His political ambitions were great, yet he was vexed and spurred by a sense of social inferiority throughout his life. He was a social climber rather than a self-confident aristocrat, and at least as much of an opportunist as a rebel. Though he was always extolling the Wisdom of the People and condemning the sins of aristocracies, he was evidently pleased by being invited to all sorts of high places in England and by the titles with which the Prussians flattered him.

As the American envoy to Germany, Bancroft spent the seven happiest years of his life, back in his beloved Berlin, surrounded by German professors, intelligently cultivated and inconspicuously patronized by his idol Bismarck, whose cause Bancroft ambitiously assisted with newspaper articles and undiplomatic speeches. (The French protested in vain against Bancroft’s unneutral behavior.) The celebration of the great Prussian victory at Sedan in 1870 coincided almost to the day with the celebration of Bancroft’s Doctor-Jubilaeum , the fiftieth anniverary of his doctorate at Göttingen. A stream of German academicians and high officials proceeded through Bancroft’s Berlin house on that unforgettable day; the old Ranke hobbled up to him and planted a professorial kiss on Bancroft’s beard.

Bancroft’s judgment of nations and of persons was often lamentable. “It is still ‘the scarlet woman of Babylon,’” he wrote about the Papacy in 1870; “we have a president without brains,” he said of Lincoln as late as 1860 (always privately, of course). He wrongly saw in 1848 the coming of the Universal Democratic Revolution in Europe; in 1870 he claimed to hear the sound of Freedom in the victorious bellowing of the Prussian guns at Sedan. It is not surprising that Ranke and Treitschke said that he was “one of us.” Bancroft, in turn, called Bismarck “a lover of liberty,” “a great republican,” “a renovator of Europe”; he said that Moltke was a German Washington; on one occasion he even pledged, foolishly, the help of the United States Navy against France.

“Literary men indulge in humbug only at a price, and Bancroft abounded in humbug,” wrote Van Wyck Brooks. “Did he believe what he was saying?” Anthony Trollope once asked. Emerson called him an opportunist, mercenary, a man with a tricky heart.

Much of what Bancroft had written was soon outdated and cast aside by the thousands of young American historians who followed him. In this respect even death came to him at a fortunate moment; near the time when Bancroft passed away, his idol Bismarck was sent into retirement and died soon afterward; within a few years American and German warships were glowering at each other in Manila Bay; soon Turner and Beard were at large, demolishing the edifice of American historical illusions that Bancroft had helped to build. The air was more electric; the mustiness was evaporating; the nation’s vision of its own past was becoming clearer.

Bancroft was a lesser man, and a lesser historian, than he wished his contemporaries (and, of course, posterity) to believe; but in our times, when no one reads him, the balance ought to be redressed somewhat. His politics deserve a stricter scrutiny than they have received; his History deserves more consideration than the present neglect. It is another strange paradox that Bancroft stands condemned today for the wrong reason. He is neglected because of his romantic, effulgent qualities rather than because of his occasional insincerity and frequent cant. This is a pity, for his writing gains in contrast with the gray, cautious, dry, sociological, technical prose of monographic historical writing that is so frequent nowadays. On the other hand, historians have slurred over the evidences of his astonishing political opportunism. Ironically, they have fallen into Bancroft’s own trap; they have treated him in the mode of professional and scientific historiography, as if the historian and the politician had been two different persons. This is never really possible— certainly not with Bancroft—though we may reasonably say that Bancroft the historian was better and at least more consistent than Bancroft the politician.

“Westward the star of empire takes its way”—this was the motto pressed on the cover boards of the first volume of Bancroft’s History . It was pointed out to him that Bishop Berkeley’s famous words spoke of the course, not star, of empire. Still he did not order his publishers to change it. He liked it better this way. On the covers of that early edition the Bancroftian version of the phrase remains.

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