Bancroft, George

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Bancroft, George

George Bancroft, 1800–1891, American historian and public official, b. Worcester, Mass. He taught briefly at Harvard and then at the Round Hill School in Northampton, Mass., of which he was a founder and proprietor. He then turned definitively to writing. His article (Jan., 1831) in the North American Review attacking the Bank of the United States delighted Jacksonian Democrats, and in 1834 Bancroft became an avowed apostate from New England Federalism. In that year also appeared the first volume of his monumental work, A History of the United States (10 vol., 1834–74; revised into 6 vol. by the author in 1876 and 1883–85). As a reward for his speeches and writings for the Democratic cause he was appointed (1837) collector of the port of Boston by President Martin Van Buren, and as the dispenser of the patronage of that office Bancroft was the Democratic boss in Massachusetts. He was defeated for the governorship in 1844, but President Polk, whom he had helped nominate, made him Secretary of the Navy. In that post (Mar., 1845–Sept., 1846) he established the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and issued the standing orders under which Capt. John D. Sloat, commanding the Pacific squadron, seized California ports on the outbreak of the Mexican War. That conflict formally began in May, 1846, when Bancroft, then serving also as acting Secretary of War, gave the order that sent Gen. Zachary Taylor into Mexico. While minister to Great Britain (1846–49), he diligently collected materials for his History in British and French archives. Bancroft, an antislavery Democrat, came to support Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War and on Feb. 12, 1866, delivered the official memorial address on Lincoln before the Congress (he had also been the official eulogist of Andrew Jackson in 1845). He is assumed to have written President Andrew Johnson's first message to Congress, and in 1867 Johnson appointed him minister to Prussia. He held the post until 1874. Although his famous History is little read today, it was an important landmark in American historiography, and it remains valuable for its extensive use of source materials. The History is violently anti-British and intensely patriotic and leaves no doubt that the author was passionately sincere in his devotion to democracy. Acknowledged partisan that he was, Bancroft, the first American trained in the so-called scientific school of German historical scholarship, nevertheless insisted that his was an objective interpretation; the high praise his work won from the great Leopold von Ranke as the best history ever written from the democratic point of view annoyed as well as gratified him. His literary style was sonorous and rather ponderous, although some passages still have an emotional appeal.

See biographies by M. A. De Wolfe Howe (1908) and R. B. Nye (1944, repr. 1964); study by R. H. Canary (1974).

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