The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 23
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FRONTIER AND OF THE LAW OF ENTROPY

OF ALL THE SOCIAL DISCIPLINES which brought forth professional guilds in the decades following Appomattox that of history was most directly and intimately concerned with the democratic faith. Such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were part of the grist of its mill. The national heroes and triumphs, together with the Republic's villains and defeats, were material for historical lectures, professional papers, and monographs. The earlier historians of the American people devoted themselves for the most part to what might be called the biography of the American State. They traced the rise of the United States from its humble origins in the colonies, through its successful revolution, to and beyond the sectional conflict of the 1860's.

One of the first and greatest of these national historians was George Bancroft. For him history was a large canvas and the story of the rise of the Republic a noble narrative. With a conscience sensitive to the requirements of his task, Bancroft accumulated and analyzed the vast quantities of raw material out of which his story grew. He composed most of his great work in the Middle Period when the democratic faith took form. He did not discover that faith. It pervaded the intellectual climate in which he lived. It was of the essence of his thought. At times it lifted his narrative into stirring rhetoric. In 1858 he described the Declaration of Independence. "This immortal state paper," wrote Bancroft, "was 'the genuine effusion of the soul of the country at that time,' the revelation of its mind, when in its youth, its enthusiasm, its sublime confronting of danger, it rose to the highest creative powers of which man is ca-

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