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George Bancroft



IT was long a tradition in literature that historical composition of a high order was only possible in a nation which had cultivated literature and political science for centuries, and that the historian must devote himself to his work alone, abandoning all other pursuits. Experience has in the present century abundantly demonstrated the folly of this tradition. Among the highest names in English literature are the American historians, Irving, Sparks, Prescott, Bancroft, Hildreth, Palfrey, Motley, and Kirk; men of elegant and profound scholarship it is true, but with the purely American habits and modes of thought, and above all, men of affairs; who have in many cases pursued their favorite studies, and composed their volumes in the not abundant intervals of engrossing public duties. In this last characteristic they have not been singular, for Gibbon, Macaulay, and Grote were all members of Parliament, and active in other departments of public and private life, while Niebuhr and Bunsen found a diplomatic career no serious hindrance to historical study; but none of these eminent historians of the Old World were so long in public life, or occupied such varied public positions as Mr. Bancroft has done.

GEORGE BANCROFT, Ph. D., LL. D., D. C. L., is the son of the late Rev. Aaron Bancroft, D. D., a learned and accomplished clergyman and author, of Worcester, Massachusetts; whose biography of Washington, published in 1807, was translated into most of the languages of Europe, and is still a standard authority in our own country.

Mr. Bancroft was born at Worcester, Massachusetts, October 3d, 1800. His early education was acquired under his father's tuition, but his preparatory studies for college were pursued at Phillips' Academy, Exeter, N. H., and he entered Harvard College in 1813, before he had completed his thirteenth year. He graduated with the second honors of his class in 1817, and a few months later sailed for Germany to perfect his education. He spent two years at Gottingen, years of close and severe study in German, French and Italian literature, the Oriental languages, the interpretation of the Scriptures, Ecclesiastical and Ancient History, the Antiquities, Literature and Philosophy of Greece and Rome.   At that time Gottingen was the most famous university in Europe for the profound learning of its professors, and their skill in imparting knowledge. 

In 1820, Mr. Bancroft, not yet quite twenty years of age, received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy from this old and renowned university, and proceeded to Berlin, where he became a pupil of Wolf, Schleiermacher and Hegel. Here, too, he formed an intimate acquaintance with Wilhelm von Humboldt, Savigny, Lappenberg, Varnhagen von Ense, and other eminent German scholars. In 1821 he made a tour of Europe, spending some time at Dresden, Jena (where he had already become acquainted with Goethe), Heidelberg, where be made the acquaintance of Schlosser, Paris, where he became intimate with Cousin, Alexander von Humboldt, and Benjamin Constant; visited England for a month, and then passed by way of Switzerland to Italy, forming an acquaintance with Manzoni, at Milan, and a lifelong intimacy with Bunsen and Niebuhr at Rome.

He returned to America in the autumn of 1822, and was for a year Greek tutor in Harvard College. Up to this time he had looked forward to the clerical profession, and while tutor preached several sermons. But the claims of a literary life seemed to him so strong, that he abandoned all idea of the ministry, In 1823, he associated himself with Dr. Joseph G. Cogswell, a scholar of rare attainments, and the two established the Round Hill School, at Northampton, in which some of the most learned young men in Germany were employed as teachers. Its standard of instruction was too high for a preparatory school for any college then in existence in the United States, and after several years' trial it was finally given up, not, however, until it had exerted a powerful influence for good in elevating the standard of higher instruction throughout the country. Mr. Bancroft was then, as always since, a diligent student, and aside from his duties as a teacher he translated the "Politics of Ancient Greece" of his old preceptor, at Gottingen, Heeren, and published a volume of poems, whose rare beauty and finish served to show how brilliant a poet was lost to the world in the historian. At this time, too, he commenced collecting the materials for his great work, "The History of the United States," which nearly fifty years of toil still find not quite completed. The first volume of this history appeared in 1834, after ten years of study and research. Meantime he had entered to some extent on political life, making addresses and drawing up political resolutions and appeals; but though often tendered office, and once without his knowledge elected to the Massachusetts Legislature, he uniformly refused to accept or occupy any public position. He was at this time, and for many years after, a Democrat of the Jeffersonian school, and was very much in earnest in the advocacy of the doctrines of the party. In 1835, he removed to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he completed about 1838, the second volume of his history. In 1838, President Van Buren appointed him Collector of the Port of Boston, and in this position, at that time one of very considerable difficulty, as the customs were paid in bonds, and the country had just passed through the terrible financial panic of 1837, the scholarly recluse manifested such skill, intelligence, and vigor in the administration of his office as to win the applause even of his political opponents. When he entered upon his duties there were many thousands of dollars of unpaid bonds, some of them lying over for years. When he resigned, in 1841, every bond was paid in full, and his collections amounted to several millions. During this time he found leisure to complete the third volume of his history.

In 1844, he was nominated by the Democratic party their candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, and though during the entire canvass he was in New York, studying, for twelve hours a day, manuscripts and documents relative to the early history of this country, yet he polled a much larger vote than any candidate on a purely Democratic ticket had done before, or than any one has since. He was defeated by a very small majority. President Polk immediately after his inauguration nominated Mr. Bancroft as Secretary of the Navy, and during about a year and a half of his service in that office he accomplished a vast amount of good for the navy. He founded the Naval Academy at Annapolis, procured a grant of the military fort and grounds there for its use, arranged its course of instruction, selected its professors and instructors, and ordered every midshipman on shore there. Previously the only instruction of naval cadets bad been that which they received aboard ship from the chaplain, and it was desultory and very imperfect. There was no opportunity for competition in scholarship, and there was no provision for moral instruction of the young men. He also made great improvements in the Naval Observatory at Washington, and some reforms in the mode of promotion in the navy.

He gave the order to take possession of California, and as Acting Secretary of War, directed the occupation of Texas by General Taylor. In 1846, he resigned his seat in the Cabinet, and was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain. In his three years of diplomatic service he was on the most cordial terms with the British Government, and with men of letters there and on the continent, but he never failed to demand and secure for American citizens all the rights and immunities to which the citizens of the most favored power were entitled. One measure which he carried through there, as he has since done in Germany, is worthy of notice. He claimed and secured for naturalized citizens of the United States of foreign birth, from their native country, the plenary rights of American citizens, always and in all places. As it was mainly on this point that war was declared with Great Britain in 1812, the importance of the concession thus gained will be seen at once. But while thus attentive to his diplomatic duties, none of which were ever neglected, he was devoting all his leisure to the collection of material for further volumes of his history. The State Paper Office, and all the Records of the Treasury, and the early colonial papers, were put at his disposal by the British Ministry, and he was aided in his researches in Paris by such eminent scholars as Guizot, Mignet, Lamartine, and De Tocqueville.

He returned to the United States in 1849, richly laden with historical documents and papers, and taking up his residence in New York city, devoted himself assiduously to the preparation of the fourth and fifth volumes of his history. These were established in 1852. Still continuing his labors (having revised the earlier volumes after his return from England), he issued the sixth volume in 1854, the seventh in 1858, the eighth in l863, and the ninth in 1866. He is understood to have three more volumes nearly ready, completing the work. He is eminently a philosophical historian, and brings the wealth of his vast and varied learning to bear upon the history of the nation. He has also published an abridgment of the earlier volumes of his history, and one or two volumes of miscellanies, comprising several of his abler orations and addresses. 

Mr. Bancroft had been a lifelong democrat, differing in this particular from most of the eminent scholars of our country, who were identified with the Whig party while it had an existence, and subsequently drifted very naturally into the Republican party. There was, there could be, no question of the intensity and depth of his convictions in regard to the principles of his party. But when the war came, Mr. Bancroft, who was, like many other eminent Democrats, more a patriot than a partisan, at once rallied to the support of the Union, gave to it his earnest efforts, his eloquence of pen and voice, and his most hearty labors. From that time he has been identified with the Republican party, though he probably recognizes no material change in his views, beyond the subsidence of the old issues, and the evolution of new ones to which he applies his early principles.

In 1865, he pronounced an eloquent and forcible oration on the death of the martyred Lincoln. He was appointed minister to Prussia in 1867, and negotiated a treaty with the North German Confederation, and subsequently with the German Empire, to which he is now accredited, by which German naturalized citizens of the United States are wholly released from allegiance to the government of their native country, and if they return to it for a visit, however protracted, are not liable for military service, or any of those burdens which have made it perilous for them to revisit their native land. In Berlin, as everywhere else, Mr. Bancroft's great attainments, as well as his courtly and genial manners, have made him very welcome, and no representative of our country who could have been sent thither would have been more highly esteemed. A special entertainment was given by the literary men of Berlin in 1870, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of his receiving the doctorate of philosophy, and titles, orders of merit, etc., were conferred on him in abundance. When he was Minister to the Court of St. James in 1846-9, the University of Oxford, usually chary of its honorary degrees to Americans, made him D. C. L. His alma mater had conferred on him the degree of LL. D. in 1843, and Union College had done so in 1841. In 1868 the University of Bonn had bestowed upon him the J. U. D. (the German equivalent of LL. D.), and Berlin did the same in 1870. 

His life has not been without its troubles and anxieties, its strifes born of petty jealousies, its sorrows and its bereavements; but it has been, as a whole, a noble, grand life; one of patriotic fidelity to his country and her honor, of strong adherence to principle, of manly and generous devotion to the best interests of humanity.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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