Bancroft: The Historian As Celebrity

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The United States of America constitute an essential portion of a great political system, embracing all the civilized nations of the earth. At a period when the force of moral opinion is rapidly increasing, they have the precedence in the practice and the defence of the equal rights of men. The sovereignty of the people is here a conceded axiom, and the laws, established upon that basis, are cherished with faithful patriotism. While the nations of Europe aspire after change, our constitution engages the fond admiration of the people, by which it has been established. Prosperity follows the execution of even justice; invention is quickened by the freedom of competition; and labor rewarded with sure and unexampled returns.

These are the sentences with which Bancroft introduces his History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent . There follow another three pages describing an ideal, prosperous, and free national condition such as the world has never seen. “A favoring Providence, calling our institutions into being, has conducted the country to its present happiness and glory.” Thus ends the introduction to the first volume, written and published in 1834, at the height of the Jacksonian era. The tone is unmistakable: it is indeed Jacksonian, optimistic, oratorical, somewhat loud, somewhat engaging. An eagle is proclaimed to soar, high above all, in what seems a cloudless blue sky, visible to the Children of Liberty, their vision yet untarnished by the battle smoke of the Civil War and by the factory smoke of the industrial expansion which followed it.

Bancroft left his introduction unchanged, though in 1882 he added:

The foregoing words, written nearly a half-century ago, are suffered to remain, because the intervening years have justified their expression of confidence in the progress of our republic. The seed of disunion has perished; and universal freedom, reciprocal benefits, and cherished traditions bind its many states in the closest union

—surely a somewhat incomplete description of the condition of the Republic under Chester A. Arthur.

The consistency and the complacency of Bancroft’s historical optimism, of which his unchanged introduction is a fair example, suggest immediately why he was such a popular historian during his lifetime. They also suggest why he fell into neglect soon after his death, so that nowadays he is regarded as a lovable, simple, archaic nineteenth-century figure, a sort of bearded Founding Father of the historical profession whom, however, historians no longer read. But this is a superficial judgment; there are things in his History that deserve more than their present neglect.

Bancroft was essentially a one-book man. The book is a very long one, not only a magnum opus but an opus vitae . He began the History of the United States when he was thirty-two; he devoted much of his eighty-sixth year to a revision of the last edition. He wrote the first three volumes in his thirties, the next five volumes in his fifties; when he was seventy-five, he cut the ten volumes to six and brought out a so-called Centenary Edition; the old man and his wife then further corrected and cut out much, “slaughtering the adjectives” as she said, until ten years later “The Author’s Last Revision” was issued. Altogether, from 1834 to 1890, almost thirty editions were published. Bancroft made a minor fortune out of them.

These thousands of pages, bound in somber pressed brown or dark blue, are heavy lumber, yet not quite as heavy as they seem at first sight. They are a curious mixture of splinter and gingerbread, of rough New England pine and brown mahogany varnish. They are the history of a Unique People, of a Unique Revolution, of the Providentially Chosen People of God. But there is more to them than the romantic naïveté of early nationalistic historiography. Though Bancroft still belonged to an age that looked upon history as a form of art, he also wished to consider himself a scientist. He refused to reconcile these two contradictory tendencies within himself, with the result that, at his worst, he sounds like a revivalist preacher on one page and a bored county clerk on the next.

Bancroft was a convinced believer in the social progress of democracy; yet there is astonishingly little social history in his long book. He wished to depict the large, dramatic panorama of American evolution; yet his last volume, describing the making of the Constitution, degenerates into dreary passages of long quotes; in the hundreds of pages dealing with 1786 there is but one paragraph about Shays’ Rebellion. He exalts the American tradition of lawfulness and justice, yet he is eminently unfair about the Boston Massacre; he glowers about the acquittal of Captain Preston before a Boston court, a shining page of American justice that is unequaled in the history of the French or, indeed, of almost any other democratic revolution. He believed in the advancement of morals; yet at times he could be priggish to the point of ludicrousness. He who first extolled the value of primary documents, the lesson he learned from Germany, did not make good enough use of his extraordinary access to European diplomatic archives.