George Bancroft

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George Bancroft (October 3, 1800 in Worcester, Mass. – January 17, 1891 in Washington, D.C.) was an American historian, politician, and diplomat. As Secretary of the Navy, he established the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. in 1845. His life-work, which made him one of the best-known historians in the western world, is the multi-volume, monumental History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent, covering the entire period down to 1787, which he revised two times in its entirety.

Early life and education

He was the eighth of thirteen children born to Lucretia (1765-1839) and Aaron Bancroft (1755-1839). His mother Lucretia, nee Chandler, came from a rich, loyalist family; his father had fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill who became a leading Unitarian clergyman; from 1825 to 1836 he served as president of the American Unitarian Association; he was also the author of a popular Life of George Washington, first published in 1807, and still in print in 1885. George Bancroft left his parents' home at the age of 11 to begin his education at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., where he was also taught by Hosea Hildreth, the father of the historian and reformer Richard Hildreth. Since 1813, Bancroft visited Harvard College, where he graduated in 1817. Edward Everett and the president of Harvard College, John T. Kirkland, helped him to receive a scholarship to study abroad. In the summer of 1818, he sailed to Germany where he studied at the University of Göttingen, especially with Arnold Herrmann Ludwig Heeren, who was a famous historian, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, one of the founders of biblical criticism and a critical-historical variant of theology. After his Ph.D. examination in September 1820 and some travels, Bancroft began studying at the University of Berlin for five months. In February 1821 he left Berlin and made a grand tour through Europe, especially France, Switzerland, and Italy, including some weeks of study at Heidelberg with the historian Friedrich Christoph Schlosser. He met almost every distinguished man in the world of letters, science and arts; among others Goethe, Humboldt, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lord Byron, Barthold Georg Niebuhr, and others. In August 1822 he returned to the United States. He started teaching Grekk at Harvard College until 1823. From September 1822 to July 1823 he delivered many sermons. Together with the librarian Joseph Green Cogswell he establised in 1823 the Round Hill School for boys in Northampton, Mass. His first great oration was delivered on July 4, 1826 on the fiftieth anniversary of independence. At March 1, 1827 he married Sarah Dwight, who came from a wealthy family of bankers. In 1830 Bancroft was elected to the Massachusetts General Court, i. e. the state legislature for the Workingmen's party, but declined. In September 1831 he resigned from Round Hill School with a substantial financial loss. In 1834 he was nominated by the Workingmen Northamptons for the Massachusetts legislature; though he lost the election in November 1834, he got more votes than the Democrats' candidate. 1835 he and his family moved to Springfield, Mass. In 1836 he became a member of the Democratic party. His candidacy for the U.S. Congress hads no success. His wife Sarah died on June 26, 1837. One of Bancroft's sisters took care of his three children.

As teacher, preacher, critic, and orator

His first position was that of tutor at Harvard. Instinctively a humanist, Bancroft had little patience with the narrow curriculum of Harvard in his day and the rather pedantic spirit with which classical studies were pursued there. Moreover, he had brought from Europe a new manner, imbued with ardent Romanticism and this he wore without ease in the formal, self-satisfied and prim provincial society of New England; the young man's European air was subjected to ridicule, but his politics were sympathetic to Jacksonian democracy.

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, which would appear over the next four decades (1834-74) and established his reputation. The work covers the period from the discovery of the continent to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1782. His other great work is the followup The History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States (1882). His writing is clear and vigorous, and his facts based on careful use of primary sources from archives in Europe. His history was the story of unfolding nationalist, democratic liberalism. Historians around 1900-1930 concluded that he exaggerated the centrality of democracy in the colonies; historians in the 1950s changed again and concluded that Bancroft was mostly right about early democracy.[1]

Bancroft was the central intellectual in the "Young America" movement of the 1840's. Bancroft read into events his view of American history as the progressive realization of democratic nationalism. Thus in dealing with 17th century Puritans he was troubled by political oppression, corruption, and restrictions of freedom, as typified by the witchcraft trials in Salem. After 1890 the history profession turned to narrow scientific monographs, and either neglected Bancroft sweeping coverage or ridiculed his occasional references to God's benevolence.[2]

Bancroft found the Whiggish atmosphere of Cambridge uncongenial too conservative, and with a friend he established the Round Hill School at Northampton, Massachusetts. This was the first serious effort made in the United States to elevate secondary education to the plane on which it belonged.

His married Sarah Dwight, of a wealthy family in Springfield, Massachusetts; she died in 1837 His second wife was Mrs Elizabeth Davis Bliss, a widow with two children to add to his two sons; she bore him a daughter.


His entry into politics came in 1837 with his appointment by Martin Van Buren as Collector of Customs of the Port of Boston. In 1844, he helped engineer the nomination of James K. Polk and was himself the Democratic candidate for the governor, but he was defeated. In 1845, Polk appointed him to the cabinet 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 United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, gave the orders which led to the naval occupation of California (U.S. state), and sent Zachary Taylor into the contested land between Texas and Mexico. He strongly supported the annexation of Texas, as extending "the area of freedom," and was a leader of the anti-slavery or Free Soil wing of the though a Democratic party.

Bancroft made himself the authority on the Oregon boundary dispute, with the result that in 1846 he was sent as Minister Plenipotentiary to London, where he was friends with the historian Macaulay and the poet Hallam. With the election of Whig Zachary Taylor Bancroft returned to New York, withdrew from public life, and wrote his breat histories.

In 1866, Bancroft was chosen by Congress to deliver the special eulogy on Lincoln. He was a backstage advisor to President Andrew Johnson and helped Johnson write major speeches. In 1867 Johnson appointed him minister to Prussia; he served in Berlin until 1874. In the San Juan arbitration he displayed great versatility and skill, winning his case before the emperor with brilliant ease. The naturalization treaties, named the "Bancroft treaties" in his honor, 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. Blumenthal (1964) explores his controversial role prior to and during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Having attended German universities in his youth and having become deeply convinced that there was a cultural and political kinship between Germans and Americans, he enjoyed the distinction of being the only member of the Diplomatic Corps in Berlin whom Bismarck ever invited to his Varzin retreat. Unqualifiedly supporting German unification, Bancroft believed that Bismarck could have accomplished that goal had he not been leader of the Conservative Party in Prussia. Prussia's cultivation of friendship with the United States, particularly during the 1860s, was related to its European policies - Bismarck was mainly interested in assurance of American neutrality in case of war with France. Americans (including President Ulysses Grant) detested the French for their support of the Confederacy and takeover of Mexico, but the U.S. was officially neutral. "If we need the solid, trusty good-will of any government in Europe," Bancroft wrote Secretary of State Fish, "we can have it best with Germany; because German institutions and ours most nearly resemble each other, and because so many millions of Germans have become our countrymen."[3] Bancroft's Germanophilism led him to be the controversial position that German and American interests were the same, a belief not shared by policymakers in Washington. Although Bancroft tried to lead his government rather than merely to follow instructions, decisions regarding relations with both Germany and France were made by the Grant administration only after careful analysis of national interest of the United States. In his reports on the Vatican Council and the Kulturkampf (German's attacks on Catholics). Bancroft was strongly anti-Catholic in sentiment and revealed this bias in reports to the Department of State.[4] Despite shortcomings, Bancroft was one of the most resourceful of 19th-century diplomats.

After 1874 he lived in Washington. Several ships have been named USS Bancroft for him. Bancroft was the last surviving member of the Polk cabinet.


Reactions and criticisms


  1. Roy N. Lokken, "The Concept of Democracy in Colonial Political Thought," William and Mary Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Oct. 1959):568-580. ISSN: 0043-5597. in JSTOR
  2. For example, the revolt of the colonies from England was the result of an "alliance of God and nature." And "heaven and earth" together aided the resolution of the Americans to be free. See Lewis, "Organic Metaphor", and Vitzthum, "Theme and Method".
  3. Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration, with an introduction by John Bassett Moore (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1936), 401.
  4. Sister Mary Philip Trauth, "The Bancroft Despatches on the Vatican Council and the Kulturkampf." Catholic Historical Review 40, no. 2 (July 1954):178-90. ISSN: 0008-8080.