George Bancroft Biography
BANCROFT, George (1800-91). An American historian. He was born at Worcester, Mass., Oct. 3, 1800, and as the son of the Rev. Aaron Bancroft, a Unitarian clergyman, the author of a Life of Washington, he inherited the blended qualities of the historian and the ecclesiastic. He was trained at Exeter, N. H.; entered Harvard College at 13, and on his graduation in 1817 went to Göttingen, where he took the degree of Ph.D. in history, being among the first of Americans to study there. His studies were in German, French, and Italian literature, in the classics, Arabic, Hebrew, history, and natural sciences. Leaving Göttingen in 1820, Bancroft went to Berlin, enjoying the society of Schleiermacher, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Varnhagen von Ense, and other distinguished scholars. He studied also at Heidelberg, and on a visit to Jena met the venerable Goethe at Weimar. Returning in 1822 to America, he became tutor in Greek at Harvard and essaying his father's profession, preached occasionally with moderate approval. But literature soon claimed him. In 1823 he published a volume of verse, and with Dr. Joseph G. Cogswell opened a school at Northampton. In the next year he published a translation of his former teacher, Heeren's Politics of Ancient Greece, and in 1826 an Oration, advocating universal suffrage as the foundation of true democracy. In 1830 he was elected without his knowledge to the Legislature, but he declined to serve and in the next year refused a nomination. Already he was absorbed in his great historical work, The History of the United States, of which the first volume appeared in 1834, and the tenth 40 years later. In this form the book was published in 6 volumes (1870-76), 2 concluding volumes (xi and xii) were published (1882) as a History of the Foundation of the Constitution of the United States, and the whole appeared in a final revision in 6 volumes (1884-85) , as the History of the United States, from the Discovery of America to the inauguration of Washington.
But though this bulky history occupied thus the central position in the labors of a lifetime, it did not engross Bancroft's scholarly activities. In 1830-35 he wrote a Political Address to the people of his State, at the request of the Young Men's Democratic Convention, and, giving up his school, moved to Springfield, where he gave himself wholly to historical studies, till, in 1838, he was made Collector of the Port of Boston by President Van Buren. The Democratic party nominated him for governor in 1844. He failed of election by a small margin, and was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Polk. His management was marked by the establishment of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, which was devised and organized on his sole initiative by an ingenious straining of executive authority. He also fostered the work of the Washington Observatory and raised the standard of professorial instruction. He showed diplomatic foresight and decision in constantly renewed orders to the American Pacific Squadron to seize California in case hostilities should break out with Mexico--orders executed with far-reaching results. Acting temporarily as Secretary of War, it fell to him to give the command to march troops into Texas. His services at Washington led to his appointment as Minister to Great Britain (1846-49), where he procured modification in the laws of navigation and allegiance. On his return in 1849 Bancroft lived in New York, devoting himself to historical studies, interrupted by diplomatic services as Minister to Prussia in 1867, to the North German Confederation (1868) , and to the new German Empire in 1871. From this post he was recalled at his own request in 1874. While Minister at Berlin he assisted in the settlement of the Northwest Boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain. Oxford made him a D.C.L. in 1849, and Bonn a J.U.D. in 1868. His miscellaneous publications are very numerous. Among the more important may be named an oration at Springfield (July 4, 1836); History of the Colonization of the United States (1841); and an oration in commemoration of Andrew Jackson (1844); The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race (1850-54); Memorial Address on Abraham Lincoln (1866); A Plea for the Constitution of the United States (1886) ; and Martin Van Buren (1889). His last address was at the opening of the third meeting of the American Historical Association, April, 1886. His old age was spent in Washington and at his summer home at Newport in charming domesticity. Bancroft was twice married. He died at Washington, D.C., Jan. 17, 1891.
As an historian Bancroft was a democratic idealist. His zeal for justice was deep, but occasionally misdirected; his patience in gathering materials indefatigable; his literary composition labored and frequently over-elaborated. There is a tendency to ponderous expression and to philosophic discursiveness; but though somewhat out of tune with the historic spirit and the literary taste of our own day, his work exercised a very great influence on the generation of the Civil War in stirring and maintaining in the American people the inspiring conception of a continent dedicated to liberty.
The New International Encyclopaedia Vol II. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 610-611.