The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVII. Writers on American History, 1783–1850

§ 12. Bancroft

The last of the general historians who fall within this chapter’s limits is George Bancroft, who, during his lifetime, held a larger place in the minds of his countrymen than any other historian who has lived in the United States. This he did partly because of his literary worth, partly because of his political activity, and partly because of his social prominence. President Arthur once said that the President is “permitted to accept the invitations of members of the cabinet, supreme court judges, and—Mr. George Bancroft.”

Bancroft was born in Massachusetts in 1800 and died in Washington in 1891. Having graduated from Harvard in 1817, he went to Göttingen on funds subscribed by Harvard and its friends. Back in America in 1822 with a doctor’s degree, he settled for a year at Harvard as tutor in Greek. He brought home from Europe many affectations of manner and such marked eccentricities that his influence at Harvard was undermined; at the end of a year he left, to become, with Joseph G. Cogswell, proprietor of a boys’ school at Northampton, Massachusetts. As a schoolmaster Bancroft was a failure, and he retired from the school in 1831. Meanwhile, he had begun to write. School-books, translations, and articles for The North American Review came out in rapid succession. By 1831 he had established the literary habit and had the reputation of being a ready and effective writer.

At this time Bancroft had begun to support the Democratic party. He was accused of doing it to obtain Federal office, but the charge was not substantiated. He was ever a defender of the doctrine of equality held by Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. In America he saw organized democracy which was to make humanity happy: to write its history became his hope. In 1834 appeared the first volume of his History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent. At the time neither Hildreth nor Tucker had written, and only Pitkin, Holmes, and Trumbull had undertaken a task like his. They were all didactic. Bancroft produced a work of a different character. There was a lofty and sonorous sense of detachment in his sentences. To the present age they seem sheer affectation; but to the men who had been reading the bald statements of fact hitherto offered as history, they seemed admirable. Edward Everett read the first volume through in twenty-four hours and wrote:

  • I think you have written a Work which will last while the memory of America lasts; and which will instantly take its place among the classics of our language. It is full of learning, information, common sense, and philosophy; full of taste and eloquence; full of life and power. You give us not wretched paste-board men; not a sort of chronological table, with the dates written out at length, after the manner of most historians;—but you give us real, individual, living, men and women, with their passions, interests, and peculiarities.
  • Theodore Parker wrote: “I think you are likely to make, what I long since told you I looked for from you, the most noble and splendid piece of historical composition, not only in English, but in any tongue.” Emerson said of the History: “It is noble matter, and I am heartily glad to have it nobly treated.” Bancroft is less than a quarter of a century dead, and these beautiful laurels are already withered. A new age has accepted other standards than his.

    Bancroft, our first historian who had studied in Germany, was well known at home and abroad as a hard student and a man of great learning. The abundant foot-notes in the first volumes of his history show how freely he used the sources in foreign languages. His experience in Germany led him to admire German scholarship in all its phases. At Göttingen he studied under Heeren, who was stressing the unity of history. In the preface of his first volume, Bancroft wrote: “The United States of America constitute an essential portion of a great political system, embracing all the political nations of the earth.” He did not, however, try to work out this theory in his volume, but told, like others, the story of voyages, settlements, colonies, and the common struggle for freedom.

    His progress was leisurely. The second volume appeared three years after the first, the third in 1840. The fourth and fifth were published in 1852. The sixth came in 1854, the seventh in 1858, the eighth in 1860, the ninth in 1866, and the tenth in 1874. During these years his literary work was interrupted by political service. He was secretary of the navy from 1845 to 1846, minister to Great Britain from 1846 to 1849, and minister to Germany from 1867 to 1874. The tenth volume carried the work to the end of the Revolution; but in 1882 came two additional volumes with the title History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States. Hildreth wrote more rapidly, and his History, nearly as long as Bancroft’s, seems to have been written in six years.