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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
George Bancroft (1800–1891)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Austin Scott (1848–1922)
 
THE LIFE of George Bancroft was nearly conterminous with the nineteenth century. He was born at Worcester, Massachusetts, October 3d, 1800, and died at Washington, DC, January 17th, 1891. But it was not merely the stretch of his years that identified him with this century. In some respects he represented his time as no other of its men. He came into touch with many widely differing elements which made up its life and character. He spent most of his life in cities, but never lost the sense for country sights and sounds which central Massachusetts gave him in Worcester, his birthplace, and in Northampton, where he taught school. The home into which he was born offered him from his infancy a rich possession. His father was a Unitarian clergyman who wrote a ‘Life of Washington’ that was received with favor; thus things concerning God and country were his patrimony. Not without significance was a word of his mother which he recalled in his latest years, “My son, I do not wish you to become a rich man, but I would have you be an affluent man: ad fluo, always a little more coming in than going out.”  1
  To the advantages of his boyhood home and of Harvard College, to which he went as a lad of thirteen, the eager young student added the opportunity, then uncommon, of a systematic course of study in German, and won the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Göttingen in 1820. He had in a marked degree the characteristics of his countrymen, versatility and adaptability. Giving up an early purpose of fitting himself for the pulpit, he taught in Harvard, and helped to found a school of an advanced type at Northampton. Meantime he published a volume of verse, and found out that the passionate love of poetry which lasted through his life was not creative. At Northampton he published in 1828 a translation in two volumes of Heeren’s ‘History of the Political System of Europe,’ and also edited two editions of a Latin Reader; but the duties of a schoolmaster’s life were early thrown aside, and he could not be persuaded to resume them later when the headship of an important educational institution was offered to him. Together with the one great pursuit of his life, to which he remained true for sixty years, he delighted in the activities of a politician, the duties of a statesman, and the occupations of a man of affairs and of the world.  2
  Bancroft received a large but insufficient vote as the Democratic candidate for the Governorship of Massachusetts, and for a time he held the office of Collector of the port of Boston. As Secretary of the Navy in the Cabinet of Polk, he rendered to his country two distinct services of great value: he founded the Naval School at Annapolis, and by his prompt orders to the American commander in the Pacific waters he secured the acquisition of California for the United States. The special abilities he displayed in the Cabinet were such, so Polk thought, as to lead to his appointment as Minister to England in 1846. He was a diplomat of no mean order. President Johnson appointed him Minister to Germany in 1867, and Grant retained him at that post until 1874, as long as Bancroft desired it. During his stay there he concluded just naturalization treaties with Germany, and in a masterly way won from the Emperor, William I., as arbitrator, judgment in favor of the United States’s claim over that of Great Britain in the Northwestern boundary dispute.  3
  Always holding fast his one cherished object,—that of worthily writing the history of the United States,—Bancroft did not deny himself the pleasure of roaming in other fields. He wrote frequently on current topics, on literary, historical, and political subjects. His eulogies of Jackson and of Lincoln, pronounced before Congress, entitle him to the rank of an orator. He was very fond of studies in metaphysics, and Trendelenburg, the eminent German philosopher, said of him, “Bancroft knows Kant through and through.”  4
  His home—whether in Boston, or in New York where he spent the middle portion of his life, or in Washington his abode for the last sixteen years, or during his residence abroad—was the scene of the occupations and delights which the highest culture craves. He was gladly welcomed to the inner circle of the finest minds of Germany, and the tribute of the German men of learning was unfeigned and universal when he quitted the country in 1874. Many of the best men of England and of France were among his warm friends. At his table were gathered from time to time some of the world’s greatest thinkers,—men of science, soldiers, statesmen and men of affairs. Fond as he was of social joys, it was his daily pleasure to mount his horse and alone, or with a single companion, to ride where nature in her shy or in her exuberant mood inspired. One day, after he was eighty years old, he rode on his young, blooded Kentucky horse along the Virginia bank of the Potomac for more than thirty-six miles. He could be seen every day among the perfect roses of his garden at “Roseclyffe,” his Newport summer-home, often full of thought, at other times in wellnigh boisterous glee, always giving unstinted care and expense to the queen of flowers. The books in which he kept the record of the rose garden were almost as elaborate as those in which were entered the facts and fancies out of which his History grew. His home life was charming. By a careful use of opportunities and of his means he became an “affluent” man. He was twice married: both times a new source of refined domestic happiness long blessed his home, and new means for enlarged comfort and hospitality were added to his own. Two sons, children of his first wife, survived him.  5
  Some of Bancroft’s characteristics were not unlike those of Jefferson. A constant tendency to idealize called up in him at times a feeling verging on impatience with the facts or the men that stood in the way of a theory or the accomplishment of a personal desire. He had a keen perception of an underlying or a final truth and professed warm love for it, whether in the large range of history or in the nexus of current politics: any one taking a different point of view at times was led to think that his facts, as he stated them, lay crosswise, and might therefore find the perspective out of drawing, but could not rightly impugn his good faith.  6
  Although a genuine lover of his race and a believer in Democracy, he was not always ready to put implicit trust in the individual as being capable of exercising a wise judgment and the power of true self-direction. For man he avowed a perfect respect; among men his bearing showed now and then a trace of condescension. In controversies over disputed points of history—and he had many such—he meant to be fair and to anticipate the final verdict of truth, but overwhelming evidence was necessary to convince him that his judgment, formed after painstaking research, could be wrong. His ample love of justice, however, is proved by his passionate appreciation of the character of Washington, by his unswerving devotion to the conception of our national unity, both in its historical development and at the moment when it was imperiled by civil war, and by his hatred of slavery and of false financial policies. He took pleasure in giving generously, but always judiciously and without ostentation. On one occasion he, with a few of his friends, paid off the debt from the house of an eminent scholar; on another, he helped to rebuild for a great thinker the home which had been burned. At Harvard, more than fifty years after his graduation, he founded a traveling scholarship and named it in honor of the president of his college days.  7
  As to the manner of his work, Bancroft laid large plans and gave to the details of their execution unwearied zeal. The scope of the ‘History of the United States’ as he planned it was admirable. In carrying it out he was persistent in acquiring materials, sparing no pains in his research at home and abroad, and no cost in securing original papers or exact copies and transcripts from the archives of England and France, Spain and Holland and Germany, from public libraries and from individuals; he fished in all waters and drew fish of all sorts into his net. He took great pains, and the secretaries whom he employed to aid him in his work were instructed likewise to take great pains, not only to enter facts in the reference books in their chronological order, but to make all possible cross-references to related facts. The books of his library, which was large and rich in treasures, he used as tools, and many of them were filled with cross references. In the fly-leaves of the books he read he made note with a word and the cited page of what the printed pages contained of interest to him or of value in his work.  8
  His mind was one of quick perceptions within a wide range, and always alert to grasp an idea in its manifold relations. It is remarkable, therefore, that he was very laborious in his method of work. He often struggled long with a thought for intellectual mastery. In giving it expression, his habit was to dictate rapidly and with enthusiasm and at great length, but he usually selected the final form after repeated efforts. His first draft of a chapter was revised again and again and condensed. One of his early volumes in its first manuscript form was eight times as long as when finally published. He had another striking habit, that of writing by topics rather than in strict chronological order, so that a chapter which was to find its place late in the volume was often completed before one which was to precede it. Partly by nature and perhaps partly by this practice, he had the power to carry on simultaneously several trains of thought. When preparing one of his public orations, it was remarked by one of his household that after an evening spent over a trifling game of bezique, the next morning found him well advanced beyond the point where the work had been seemingly laid down. He had the faculty of buoying a thought, knowing just where to take it up after an interruption and deftly splicing it in continuous line, sometimes after a long interval. When about to begin the preparation of the argument which was to sustain triumphantly the claim of the United States in the boundary question, he wrote from Berlin for copies of documents filed in the office of the Navy Department, which he remembered were there five-and-twenty years before.  9
  The ‘History of the United States from the Discovery of America to the Inauguration of Washington’ is treated by Bancroft in three parts. The first, Colonial History from 1492 to 1748, occupies more than one fourth of his pages. The second part, the American Revolution, 1748 to 1782, claims more than one half of the entire work, and is divided into four epochs:—the first, 1748–1763, is entitled ‘The Overthrow of the European Colonial System’; the second, 1763–1774, ‘How Great Britain Estranged America’; the third, 1774–1776, ‘America Declares Itself Independent’; the fourth, 1776–1782, ‘The Independence of America is Acknowledged.’ The last part, ‘The History of the Formation of the Constitution,’ 1782–1789, though published as a separate work, is essentially a continuation of the History proper, of which it forms in bulk rather more than one tenth.  10
  If his services as a historian are to be judged by any one portion of his work rather than by another, the history of the formation of the Constitution affords the best test. In that the preceding work comes to fruition; the time of its writing, after the Civil War and the consequent settling of the one vexing question by the abolition of sectionalism, and when he was in the fullness of the experience of his own ripe years, was most opportune. Bancroft was equal to his opportunity. He does not teach us that the Constitution is the result of superhuman wisdom, nor on the other hand does he admit, as John Adams asserted, that however excellent, the Constitution was wrung “from the grinding necessity of a reluctant people.” He does not fail to point out the critical nature of the four years prior to the meeting of the Federal Convention; but he discerns that whatever occasions, whether transitory or for the time of “steady and commanding influence,” may help or hinder the formation of the now perfect union, its true cause was “an indwelling necessity” in the people to “form above the States a common constitution for the whole.”  11
  Recognizing the fact that the primary cause for the true union was remote in origin and deep and persistent, Bancroft gives a retrospect of the steps toward union from the founding of the colonies to the close of the war for independence. Thenceforward, suggestions as to method or form of amending the Articles of Confederation, whether made by individuals, or State Legislatures, or by Congress, were in his view helps indeed to promote the movement; but they were first of all so many proofs that despite all the contrary wayward surface indications, the strong current was flowing independently toward the just and perfect union. Having acknowledged this fundamental fact of the critical years between Yorktown and the Constitution, the historian is free to give just and discriminating praise to all who shared at that time in redeeming the political hope of mankind, to give due but not exclusive honor to Washington and Thomas Paine, to Madison and Hamilton and their co-worthies.  12
  The many attempts, isolated or systematic, during the period from 1781–1786, to reform the Articles of Confederation, were happily futile; but they were essential in the training of the people in the consciousness of the nature of the work for which they are responsible. The balances must come slowly to a poise. Not merely union strong and for a time effective, was needed, but union of a certain and unprecedented sort: one in which the true pledge of permanency for a continental republic was to be found in the federative principle, by which the highest activities of nation and of State were conditioned each by the welfare of the other. The people rightly felt, too, that a Congress of one house would be inadequate and dangerous. They waited in the midst of risks for the proper hour, and then, not reluctantly but resolutely, adopted the Constitution as a promising experiment in government.  13
  Bancroft’s treatment of the evolution of the second great organic act of this time—the Northwestern ordinance—is no less just and true to the facts. For two generations men had snatched at the laurels due to the creator of that matchless piece of legislation; to award them now to Jefferson, now to Nathan Dane, now to Rufus King, now to Manasseh Cutler. Bancroft calmly and clearly shows how the great law grew with the kindly aid and watchful care of these men and of others.  14
  The deliberations of the Federal Constitution are adequately recorded; and he gives fair relative recognition to the work and words of individuals, and the actions of State delegations in making the great adjustments between nation and States, between large and small and slave and free States. From his account we infer that the New Jersey plan was intended by its authors only for temporary use in securing equality for the States in one essential part of the government, while the men from Connecticut receive credit for the compromise which reconciled nationality with true State rights. Further to be noticed are the results of the exhaustive study which Bancroft gave to the matter of paper money, and to the meaning of the clause prohibiting the States from impairing the obligation of contracts. He devotes nearly one hundred pages to ‘The People of the States in Judgment on the Constitution,’ and rightly; for it is the final act of the separate States, and by it their individual wills are merged in the will of the people, which is one, though still politically distributed and active within State lines. His summary of the main principles of the Constitution is excellent; and he concludes with a worthy sketch of the organization of the first Congress under the Constitution, and of the inauguration of Washington as President.  15
  In this last portion of the ‘History,’ while all of his merits as a historian are not conspicuous, neither are some of his chief defects. Here the tendency to philosophize, to marshal stately sentences, and to be discursive, is not so marked.  16
  The first volume of Bancroft’s ‘History of the United States’ was published in 1834, when the democratic spirit was finding its first full expression under Jackson, and when John Marshall was finishing his mighty task of revealing to the people of the United States the strength that lay in their organic law. As he put forth volume after volume at irregular intervals for fifty years, he in a measure continued this work of bringing to the exultant consciousness of the people the value of their possession of a continent of liberty and the realization of their responsibility. In the course of another generation, portions of this ‘History of the United States’ may begin to grow antiquated, though the most brilliant of contemporary journalists quite recently placed it among the ten books indispensable to every American; but time cannot take away Bancroft’s good part in producing influences, which, however they may vary in form and force, will last throughout the nation’s life.  17
 
 
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