Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Bancroft, George

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BANCROFT, George, historian, b. in Worcester, Mass., 3 Oct., 1800; d. in Washington, D. C., 17 Jan., 1891. He was prepared for college at Exeter, N. H., was graduated at Harvard in 1817, and went to Germany. At Göttingen, where he resided for two years, he studied German literature under Benecke; French and Italian literature under Artaud and Bunsen; Arabic, Hebrew, and Scripture interpretation under Eichhorn; history under Planck and Heeren; natural history under Blumenbach; and the antiquities and literature of Greece and Rome under Dissen, with whom he took a course of Greek philosophy. In writing from Leipsic, 28 Aug., 1819, to Mrs. Prescott, of Boston, Dr. Joseph G. Cogswell remarks: “It was sad parting, too, from little Bancroft. He is a most interesting youth, and is to make one of our great men.”


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In 1820 Bancroft was given the degree of Ph. D. by the university of Göttingen. At this time he selected history as his special branch, having as one of his reasons the desire to see if the observation of masses of men in action would not lead by the inductive method to the establishment of the laws of morality as a science. Removing to Berlin, he became intimate with Schleiermacher, William von Humboldt, Savigny, Lappenberg, and Varnhagen von Ense, and at Jena he made the acquaintance of Goethe. He studied at Heidelberg with the historian Schlosser. In 1822 he returned to the United States and accepted for one year the office of tutor of Greek in Harvard. He delivered several sermons, which produced a favorable impression; but the love of literature proved the stronger attachment. His first publication was a volume of poems (Cambridge, 1823). In the same year, in conjunction with Dr. Joseph G. Cogswell, he opened the Round Hill school at Northampton, Mass.; in 1824 published a translation of Heeren's “Politics of Ancient Greece” (Boston), and in 1826 an oration, in which he advocated universal suffrage and the foundation of the state on the power of the whole people. In 1830, without his knowledge, he was elected to the legislature, but refused to take his seat, and the next year he declined a nomination, though certain to have been elected, for the state senate. In 1834 he published the first volume of his “History of the United States” (Boston). In 1835 he drafted an address to the people of Massachusetts at the request of the young men's democratic convention, and in the same year he removed to Springfield, Mass., where he resided for three years, and completed the second volume of his history. In 1838 he was appointed by President Van Buren collector of the port of Boston. In 1844 he was nominated by the democratic party for governor of Massachusetts, and received a very large vote, though not sufficient for election. After the accession of President Polk, Mr. Bancroft became secretary of the navy, and signalized his administration by the establishment of the naval academy at Annapolis, and other reforms and improvements. This institution was devised and completely set at work by Mr. Bancroft alone, who received for the purpose all the appropriations for which he asked. Congress had never been willing to establish a naval academy. He studied the law to ascertain the powers of the secretary, and found that he could order the place where midshipmen should wait for orders; he could also direct the instructors to give lessons to them at sea, and by law had power to follow them to the place of their common residence on shore. With a close economy, the appropriation of the year for the naval service would meet the expense, and the secretary of war could cede an abandoned military post to the navy. So when congress came together they found the midshipmen that were not at sea comfortably housed at Annapolis, protected from the dangers of idleness and city life, and busy at a regular course of study. Seeing what had been done, they accepted the school, which was in full operation, and granted money for the repairs of the buildings. Mr. Bancroft was also influential in obtaining additional appropriations for the Washington observatory and in introducing some new professors of great merit into the corps of instructors, and he suggested a method by which promotion should depend, not on age alone, but also on experience and capacity; but this scheme was never fully developed or applied. While secretary of the navy Mr. Bancroft gave the order, in the event of war with Mexico, to take immediate possession of California, and constantly renewed the order, sending it by every possible channel to the commander of the American squadron in the Pacific; and it was fully carried into effect before he left the navy department. No order, so far as is known, was issued from any other department to take possession of California. See “Life of James Buchanan,” by G. T. Curtis, vol. i. During his term of office he also acted as secretary of war pro tem, for a month, and gave the order to march into Texas, which caused the first occupation of Texas by the United States. From 1846 to 1849 Mr. Bancroft was minister to Great Britain, where he successfully urged upon the British ministry the adoption of more liberal laws of navigation and allegiance. In May, 1867, he was appointed minister to Prussia; in 1868 he was accredited to the North German confederation, and in 1871 to the German empire, from which he was recalled at his own request in 1874. While still minister at Berlin he rendered important services in the settlement with Great Britain of the northwestern boundary of the United States. In the reference to the king of Prussia, which was proposed by Mr. Bancroft, the argument of the United States, and the reply to the argument of Great Britain, were written, every word of them, by Mr. Bancroft. Great Britain had long refused to concede that her emigrants to the United States, whether from Great Britain or Ireland, might throw off allegiance to their mother country and become citizens of the United States. The principle involved in this question Mr. Bancroft discussed with the government of Prussia, and in a treaty obtained the formal recognition of the right of expatriation at the will of the individual emigrant, and negotiated with the several German states a corresponding treaty. England watched the course of negotiation, resolving to conform herself to the principles that Bismarck might adopt for Prussia, and followed him in abandoning the claims to perpetual allegiance. After the expiration of the English mission in 1849, Mr. Bancroft took up his residence in the city of New York and continued work on his history. The third volume had appeared in 1840, and volumes 4 to 10 at intervals from 1852 to 1874. In 1876 the work was revised and issued in a centenary edition (6 vols., 12mo, Boston). Volumes 11 and 12 were published first under the title “History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States” (New York, 1882). The last revised edition of the whole work appeared in six volumes (New York, 1884-'85).

Mr. Bancroft had been correspondent of the royal academy of Berlin, and also of the French institute; was made D. C. L. at Oxford in 1849, and Doctor Juris by the university of Bonn in 1868, and in September, 1870, celebrated at Berlin the fiftieth anniversary of receiving his first degree at Göttingen. His minor publications include “An Oration delivered on the 4th of July, 1826, at Northampton, Mass.” (Northampton, 1826); “History of the Political System of Europe,” translated from Heeren (1829); “An Oration delivered before the Democracy of Springfield and Neighboring Towns, July 4, 1836” (2d ed., with prefatory remarks, Springfield, 1836); “History of the Colonization of the United States” (Boston, 1841, 12mo, abridged); “An Oration delivered at the Commemoration, in Washington, of the Death of Andrew Jackson, June 27, 1845”; “The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race”; “An Oration delivered before the New York Historical Society, November 20, 1854” (New York, 1854); “Proceedings of the First Assembly of Virginia, 1619; Communicated, with an Introductory Note, by George Bancroft”; “Collections of the New York Historical Society,” second series, vol. iii., part i. (New York, 1857); “Literary and Historical Miscellanies” (New York, 1855); “Memorial Address on the Life and Character of Abraham Lincoln, delivered at the request of both Houses of the Congress of America, before them, in the House of Representatives at Washington, on the 12th of February, 1866” (Washington, 1866); and “A Plea for the Constitution of the United States of America, Wounded in the House of its Guardians,” by George Bancroft. Veritati Unice Litarem (New York, 1886). Among his other speeches and addresses may be mentioned a lecture on “The Culture, the Support, and the Object of Art in a Republic,” in the course of the New York historical society in 1852; one on “The Office, Appropriate Culture, and Duty of the Mechanic”; and to the “American Cyclopædia” Mr. Bancroft contributed a biography of Jonathan Edwards. Among those the least satisfied with the historian have been some of the descendants of eminent patriots (Greene, Reed, Rush, and others), whose merits have not, in the opinions of his censors, been duly recognized by Mr. Bancroft. That there should be entire agreement as regards the accuracy and candor of the narrator of the events of so many years, and those years full of the excitement of party faction, is not to be expected. The merits of the work are considered at length in a biography of Mr. Bancroft by the present writer (see Allibone's “Dictionary of Authors”), where the following opinions of eminent critics are quoted: Edward Everett says: “A history of the United States by an American writer possesses a claim upon our attention of the strongest character. It would do so under any circumstances; but when we add that the work of Mr. Bancroft is one of the ablest of that class which has for years appeared in the English language; that it compares advantageously with the standard British historians; that as far as it goes it does such justice to its noble subject as to supersede the necessity of any future work of the same kind, and, if completed as commenced, will unquestionably forever be regarded both as an American and as an English classic, our readers would justly think us unpardonable if we failed to offer our humble tribute to its merit.” Prof. Heeren writes: “We know few modern historic works in which the author has reached so high an elevation at once as an historical inquirer and an historical writer. The great conscientiousness with which he refers to his authorities, and his careful criticism, give the most decisive proofs of his comprehensive studies. He has founded his narrative on contemporary documents, yet without neglecting works of later times and of other countries. His narrative is everywhere worthy of the subject. The reader is always instructed, often more deeply interested than by novels or romances. The love of country is the muse which inspires the author, but this inspiration is that of the severe historian, which springs from the heart.” William H. Prescott says: “We must confess our satisfaction that the favorable notice we took of Mr. Bancroft's labors on his first appearance has been fully ratified by his countrymen, and that his colonial history establishes his title to a place among the great historical writers of the age. The reader will find the pages of the present volume filled with matter not less interesting and important than the preceding. He will meet with the same brilliant and daring style, the same picturesque sketches of character and incident, the same acute reasoning and compass of erudition.” George Ripley writes: “Mr. Bancroft is eminently a philosophical historian. He brings the wealth of a most varied learning in systems of thought and in the political and moral history of mankind to illustrate the early experiences of his country. He catalogues events in a manner which shows the possession of ideas, and not only describes popular movements picturesquely, but also analyzes them and reveals their spiritual signification.” Baron Bunsen says: “I read last night Bancroft with increasing admiration. What a glorious and interesting history has he given to his nation of the centuries before the independence!” Von Raumer remarks: “Bancroft, Prescott, and Sparks have effected so much in historical composition that no living European historian can take precedence of them, but rather might be proud and grateful to be admitted as a companion.” Mr. Bancroft's last address was given at the opening of the third meeting of the American historical association, of which he was president, at Washington, 27 April, 1886. It was printed in the “Magazine of American History” for June. In a letter to the author of this article, dated Washington. D. C., 30 May, 1882, he wrote: “I was trained to look upon life here as a season for labor. Being more than fourscore years old, I know the time for my release will soon come. Conscious of being near the shore of eternity, I await without impatience and without dread the beckoning of the hand which will summon me to rest.”