Bancroft: The Historian As Celebrity

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George Bancroft was the most successful of all American historians. Three generations ago, at a time when history was still considered literature, the volumes of his History of the United States stood on the shelves of thousands of American homes. During most of the nineteenth century it was a solid best seller. Now his once-so-popular volumes are left untouched not only in the proverbial dusty attic but in teeming university libraries, too. His life, full of success, lasted long; his reputation did not.

In the history of American history George Bancroft was the central nineteenth-century figure. He lived at a time when historians still wrote for people rather than for other historians; and he got the best of the two now, alas, so separated worlds. Recognized as the dean of American historians during his lifetime, he also made some political history himself, and while he still receives textbook mention as an early founder of American historiography, his curious and manifold political career has scarcely been scrutinized at all. Yet he was not only historian but founder of the United States Naval Academy, American Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to London and Berlin, writer of presidential speeches, maker of presidential candidates, war maker against Mexico. His political career runs through the rugged tapestry of nineteenth-century American democracy; his writing helped to establish its decorative historical pattern.

Bancroft was a central figure in several respects. His long life spanned not only most of the nineteenth century; it also reached from the life of the first to that of the next-to-last President of the Republic. The eighth child of a Massachusetts minister, he was born in 1800, within a year of Washington’s death; he died in 1891, at a time when Eisenhower was already alive. He knew not many decisive setbacks during his life. He was among those fortunate beings who receive nearly all the fame they want during their lifetimes.

Steadily, throughout his days, George Bancroft burned with ambition; throughout most of the century he made himself known. As a youth he was serious and self-conscious, with a tendency toward priggishness (at fourteen he earnestly noted in his diary that he would rather closet himself with a “good moral book” than be amused, like his Harvard classmates, with athletics and fiction). The turning point of his life was the purse, quite a considerable forerunner of a Guggenheim or Fulbright, that sent him to Europe for four years; there he chose to be deeply influenced by Germany, the influence that is reflected throughout his History and also in his political career.

He sailed home to America, having acquired a few velveteen European clothes and some cosmopolitan mannerisms. He did not expect the disappointment he then saw reflected in the faces of his Puritan Harvard masters. Thereafter, instead of becoming a clergyman, as they anticipated, he started on a worldly career.

George Bancroft was a master of the art of timing. He founded a prep school when he sensed the excellent prospects for private schools in New England; twice he married well, socially and financially; and at the right time he perceived the advantages of entering Democratic party politics. He reckoned wisely. His years as American envoy abroad and his prominent political posts at home brought him the respectability he sought, if not in Boston, to which he never returned, then in New York and in Washington. There he settled after his last post in Berlin, to enjoy the fruits of his reputation. He had become a Washington eminence in more than one way. He kept a good table. He summered in Newport in his house, Roseclyffe. The Senate gave him the privilege of the floor. When he was eighty-seven, Browning sent a congratulatory verse:

Bancroft, the message-bearing wire Which flashes my “All Hail” today Moves slowlier than the heart’s desire That, what hand pens, tongue’s self might say.

He died at what was virtually the height of his historical, political, and social reputation. President Harrison ordered the flags of official Washington to be flown at half-mast. No other American historian was ever so honored, either in life or in death.

But who reads him today? Among the now-myriad paper-bound reprints of early American historians you will not find his name. Adams, Prescott, Parkman, even Richard Hildreth, are reprinted, read, discussed, but not Bancroft. His figure is like those large iron statues of neglected governors that stand in the center squares of American state capitals, where now the traffic rushes around them but no one looks up. Our notion of his reputation is vague, romantic, incomplete, fragmentary. Nor is this a recent development. His reputation survived him by only a few years.

The reason is relatively simple. Bancroft died at the very time when a more objective, scientific, pragmatic, professionalized school of American historiography began to replace the earlier, more sentimental, rhetorical, nationalistic way of writing which he typified: