George Bancroft (1800-1891) was an eminent American historian and a diplomat and politician. He also founded the U.S. Naval Academy.
George Bancroft was born in Worcester, Mass., on Oct. 3, 1800. His father was a Unitarian minister. At 17 George went from Harvard to the University of Göttingen, Germany, where he received his doctorate in 1820. Returning in 1822 to America, he briefly joined the Harvard faculty, teaching Greek.
Unable to reform Harvard's teaching methods, Bancroft left to found (with J. G. Cogswell) a progressive school at Northampton, Mass. For 11 years the Round Hill School was a model of advanced pedagogy, attracting wide attention. For much of his life Bancroft was important in acquainting Americans with German culture.
Bancroft had left the school in 1831, having been drawn to politics and history. To the dismay of fellow intellectuals he ardently supported Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. In 1837 he was named collector of the Port of Boston. Now high in the councils of the Democratic party, he was appointed secretary of the Navy by President James Polk. Bancroft instituted reforms in the service and founded the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.
From 1846 to 1849 Bancroft was minister to England, where he gathered additional materials to continue the history he had been working on for many years. The first volume of Bancroft's History of the United States from the Discovery of the Continent appeared in 1834. In the next 40 years nine more volumes were published, carrying the narrative to the close of the American Revolution.
In his first volume Bancroft stated his main theme, which, with variations, echoed throughout the history: "The spirit of the colonies demanded freedom from the beginning." Like his fellow romantic historians John Lothrop Motley and William Prescott, Bancroft believed that liberty and progress had found their highest fulfillment in the United States.
Bancroft's writing was at its best in detailing the events during the 2 years leading up to July 4, 1776. In these pages he evoked with great skill the spirit of the Revolution. From 1849 to 1867 Bancroft remained busy at his history. In 1867 President Andrew Johnson, indebted to Bancroft as ghost writer, named him minister to Berlin, where he remained until 1874, delighting in the company of Bismarck and distinguished German historians.
After Bancroft's diplomatic career ended, he published the two-volume History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America (1882). Now past 80 he continued to write in the spirit of his youth. It was his "loud and uncritical Americanism" which repelled some of his contemporaries as well as later critics. His scholarship was not impeccable, his prose too lush. Yet he performed a remarkable pioneer service in organizing the materials of American history, giving it coherence and a foundation on which later scholars built. One of them said that they could see farther because they stood on his shoulders.
Fame and wealth from his histories came to the vigorous little man who stood tall in his country's esteem. His many admirers joined in mourning his death, in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 1891.
The best biography of Bancroft is Russel B. Nye, George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel (1944). Chapters on Bancroft appear in Michael Kraus, The Writing of American History (1953), and in William T. Hutchinson, ed., The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography, selection by Watt Stewart (1958). John S. Bassett, The Middle Group of American Historians (1917), and John F. Jameson, The History of Historical Writing in America (1891), are critical of Bancroft's work. An excellent analysis of Bancroft's writing is in David Levin, History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley and Parkman (1959).
Handlin, Lilian, George Bancroft, the intellectual as Democrat, New York: Harper & Row, 1984. □
[See also Academies, Service: U.S. Naval Academy.]
Charles E. Brodine, Jr.