Bancroft: The Historian As Celebrity

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As the American envoy to Germany, Bancroft spent the seven happiest years of his life, back in his beloved Berlin, surrounded by German professors, intelligently cultivated and inconspicuously patronized by his idol Bismarck, whose cause Bancroft ambitiously assisted with newspaper articles and undiplomatic speeches. (The French protested in vain against Bancroft’s unneutral behavior.) The celebration of the great Prussian victory at Sedan in 1870 coincided almost to the day with the celebration of Bancroft’s Doctor-Jubilaeum , the fiftieth anniverary of his doctorate at Göttingen. A stream of German academicians and high officials proceeded through Bancroft’s Berlin house on that unforgettable day; the old Ranke hobbled up to him and planted a professorial kiss on Bancroft’s beard.

Bancroft’s judgment of nations and of persons was often lamentable. “It is still ‘the scarlet woman of Babylon,’” he wrote about the Papacy in 1870; “we have a president without brains,” he said of Lincoln as late as 1860 (always privately, of course). He wrongly saw in 1848 the coming of the Universal Democratic Revolution in Europe; in 1870 he claimed to hear the sound of Freedom in the victorious bellowing of the Prussian guns at Sedan. It is not surprising that Ranke and Treitschke said that he was “one of us.” Bancroft, in turn, called Bismarck “a lover of liberty,” “a great republican,” “a renovator of Europe”; he said that Moltke was a German Washington; on one occasion he even pledged, foolishly, the help of the United States Navy against France.

“Literary men indulge in humbug only at a price, and Bancroft abounded in humbug,” wrote Van Wyck Brooks. “Did he believe what he was saying?” Anthony Trollope once asked. Emerson called him an opportunist, mercenary, a man with a tricky heart.

Much of what Bancroft had written was soon outdated and cast aside by the thousands of young American historians who followed him. In this respect even death came to him at a fortunate moment; near the time when Bancroft passed away, his idol Bismarck was sent into retirement and died soon afterward; within a few years American and German warships were glowering at each other in Manila Bay; soon Turner and Beard were at large, demolishing the edifice of American historical illusions that Bancroft had helped to build. The air was more electric; the mustiness was evaporating; the nation’s vision of its own past was becoming clearer.

Bancroft was a lesser man, and a lesser historian, than he wished his contemporaries (and, of course, posterity) to believe; but in our times, when no one reads him, the balance ought to be redressed somewhat. His politics deserve a stricter scrutiny than they have received; his History deserves more consideration than the present neglect. It is another strange paradox that Bancroft stands condemned today for the wrong reason. He is neglected because of his romantic, effulgent qualities rather than because of his occasional insincerity and frequent cant. This is a pity, for his writing gains in contrast with the gray, cautious, dry, sociological, technical prose of monographic historical writing that is so frequent nowadays. On the other hand, historians have slurred over the evidences of his astonishing political opportunism. Ironically, they have fallen into Bancroft’s own trap; they have treated him in the mode of professional and scientific historiography, as if the historian and the politician had been two different persons. This is never really possible— certainly not with Bancroft—though we may reasonably say that Bancroft the historian was better and at least more consistent than Bancroft the politician.

“Westward the star of empire takes its way”—this was the motto pressed on the cover boards of the first volume of Bancroft’s History . It was pointed out to him that Bishop Berkeley’s famous words spoke of the course, not star, of empire. Still he did not order his publishers to change it. He liked it better this way. On the covers of that early edition the Bancroftian version of the phrase remains.