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Bancroft: The Historian As Celebrity
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
His three years’ tenure in London as American Minister to Britain (Folk’s appointment after Bancroft’s part in preparing the Mexican War message) had turned out to be profitable as well as enjoyable for him. Bancroft exploited his position by gaining access to many British and French state papers relating to the eighteenth century. Thus he could collect a mass of valuable material for the forthcoming volumes of his History , doing his “research” under conditions that past, present, and future historians might well envy.
Bancroft was perhaps the first American historian who did “collective research,” since he had secretaries to make copies and to look things up for him; notwithstanding these advantages and the many revisions, factual errors abound in his History . He played tricks with his sources, misquoting them on occasion, stringing parts of texts together into fictitious speeches. Bancroft, who believed that history was an objective science, showing “the presence of law in the action of human beings,” still treated his history as romantic literature. He looked at things not the way they were but the way they ought to have been; he was unwilling to admit the discrepancies between spirit and flesh, image and reality. “The warts on Franklin’s face I wish omitted,” wrote Bancroft in a curious note for the engraver who was to set Franklin’s portrait on the frontispiece of Volume II of the History . (The engraver must have stood his ground: the warts on Franklin’s face remain.)
At times Bancroft’s narration is stately as well as lively —for example, when he writes about the silent bays of the continent as the colonists’ little flotillas enter into their untouched waters: “The sea was enlivened by the shallops of fishermen.” Many of his characterizations—especially of foreigners, curiously enough, rather than of Americans—are of enduring excellence, like his revised summation of Lord North:
Yet Lord North was false only as he was weak and uncertain. He really wished to concede and conciliate, but he had not force enough to come to a clear understanding with himself. When he encountered the opposition in the House of Commons, he sustained his administration by speaking confidently for vigorous measures; when alone, his heart sank within him from dread of civil war.
His description of England in 1763, his characterization of Calvert, his contrast of Roger Williams with the Puritans, are better than good. It is a pity that they are not read nowadays. For, at best, a liverish New England nervousness and a thin stateliness harmonize in his prose, most of all in the more austere last editions.
The historian and his work are inseparable. Bancroft’s person, like his History , was full of paradox. He was not very lovable, not altogether archaic, and far from simple. His prejudices are reflected throughout his History; they often form its worst, disproportionate faults. They are not merely nationalistic and democratic prejudices: they are Teutonic, Protestant, Populist, and Progressive. To Bancroft, the modern progress of Science and Virtue began with Luther, and the Chosen People were mainly those of the Germanic Race. To Bancroft the English civil war was a struggle between the simple, democratic, virtuous “Low Folk” Saxons and the “High Folk of Normandie”; the epic campaigns of Britain and France for the domination of the Atlantic world were but a war “between the Catholic and the Protestant Powers.”
Bancroft, who at first rejected Darwin, was nonetheless an unconscious historical Darwinian. For him the Protestant democracy of America marked the inexorable march of progress. The victory of the Revolution “was the first decisive victory of the industrious middling class over the most powerful representative of the mediaeval aristocracy”—a peculiar description of British society in the 1770’s. “The world is in a constant state of advancement”; things are getting better and better all the time. But this, then, is not really archaic at all. Indeed, it is the credo of American progressive historiography, stretching up to our present day. For even though the profession of history soon left Bancroft behind—abandoning social Darwinism and sentimental admiration for the Teuton racethe German-scientific tradition, of which Bancroft was the first central representative, still dominates American professional historical writing.
Bancroft was a successful man—so successful, indeed, that some of his friends reproached him for the very obvious eagerness with which he pursued wealth and prestige. His political ambitions were great, yet he was vexed and spurred by a sense of social inferiority throughout his life. He was a social climber rather than a self-confident aristocrat, and at least as much of an opportunist as a rebel. Though he was always extolling the Wisdom of the People and condemning the sins of aristocracies, he was evidently pleased by being invited to all sorts of high places in England and by the titles with which the Prussians flattered him.