Brief life of a public historian: 1800-1891
In mid-nineteenth-century America, George Bancroft’s was a household name in polite, middle-class society. Generations of families purchased his multivolume History of the United States to understand the origins and trajectory of their young republic. With his flair for grand, triumphalist storytelling, Bancroft, A.B. 1817, A.M. 1818, aided his fellow citizens’ nation-building by providing a comforting, usable narrative. Yet his own estrangement from Boston and his alma mater gave him as well a lifelong outsider’s perspective on both past and contemporary politics.
The farmer’s son from Worcester, Massachusetts, joined the regional elite by graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy and entering Harvard College at 13. There he came under the influence of President John Thornton Kirkland, who encouraged him to continue his studies abroad. At Kirkland’s behest, he sailed for Germany in 1818 to obtain a doctorate in philology.
The university at Göttingen opened his eyes to a world of research scholarship then rarely seen in Anglophone institutions, especially in America, and once back in Boston, in 1822, he felt his novel degree entitled him to privileged treatment. During a two-week visit to Cambridge, he lectured both Kirkland and senior professors on German-style college reform and his right to a faculty position. His insulted mentors, virtually none of whom held doctorates themselves, offered him only a temporary lectureship.
He soon resigned—Harvard was “a sick and wearisome place” —and co-founded a progressive primary school in Northampton. In 1827, his marriage to the wealthy Sarah Dwight enabled him to pursue an independent intellectual life, and in 1834 he released the first volume of his monumental History. Financial freedom also left time for political involvement. Though courted by both Democrats and Whigs, Bancroft eventually allied himself with the former, writing in his History that “our government…is necessarily identified with the interests of the people.” Like most Democrats, he hailed “the masses of mankind themselves awakening to the knowledge and the care of their own interests.” Early campaign failures did little to dampen his enthusiasm for politics or his scholarly belief in popular sovereignty as the fount of American uniqueness in the world. Neither did the opprobrium of his native Whig-dominated New England, which considered his Democratic political loyalties a wounding betrayal.
Bancroft entered national politics in 1844, canvassing vigorously for Democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk. In aligning himself with the “young Democracy” theme of that campaign, he also entered the “Young America” circle, a cluster of expansionist Democrats who wished to “liberate” North America and republicanize Old Europe. Later, as Polk’s new secretary of the navy, he ordered American forces ashore to capture California during the Mexican War, thus “taking possession of the wilderness.” Although “we have got into a little war,” he euphemized, western soil naturally belonged to the United States. (He also established what became the U.S. naval academy, to make sailors “as distinguished for culture as they have been for gallant conduct.”)
Meanwhile, liberal unrest in Europe vied for his attention along with domestic affairs. As he wrote several years later, “Has the echo of American Democracy which you now hear from France, & Austria & Prussia & all Old Germany, no power to stir up the hearts of the American people to new achievements?” He gladly accepted Polk’s offer of the ambassadorship to England and, during his three years in London, secured mutual free-trade agreements, collected documents for future volumes of his History, and cheered attempts to dethrone Continental monarchies in favor of republican forms of government. In 1847 he visited Paris and met “citizen king” Louis Philippe, who shrugged off signs of an impending revolution; after the 1848 uprising, Bancroft reported, “If France succeeds, there will not be a crown left in Europe in twenty years, except in Russia.” People were not meant to be “the slaves of a dynasty,” and the United States held the moral obligation to democratize the world by both deed and example. “Let the young aspirant after glory scatter the seeds of truth,” he urged.
When the Whig administration of Zachary Taylor turned him out of office in 1849, Bancroft settled in New York and Washington and focused primarily on historical research and writing. Out of power, he watched with horror as his subject, the United States, disintegrated. His argument that God had uniquely guided America away from turmoil and toward increasing glory suffered a major setback with the onset of the Civil War, and he hoped that “our little domestic strife is no more than a momentary disturbance.” Though he supported Lincoln’s energetic prosecution of a war for the Union (and later against slavery), he grew disillusioned with northern factionalism and southern intransigence alike.
Stubbornly, his optimism survived both the crisis of the Union and the corruptions of the Gilded Age. Since affliction stood as the “instrument of Divine providence,” strengthening the nation by testing it, America’s growing pains served merely as preludes to the success he still believed forthcoming. One need only “follow the steps by which a favoring Providence…has conducted the country to its present happiness and glory.”
Yonatan Eyal, Ph.D. ’05, is the author of The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828-1861 (Cambridge University Press, 2007), in which Bancroft figures.
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