George Bancroft

George Bancroft (3 October 1800-17 January 1891) was an important factor in the flowering of New England Romanticism in the early nineteenth century. Together with Francis Parkman, William Hickling Prescott, and others, he exemplified the New England intellectual response to the Romantic era. While Prescott fascinated readers with accounts of the Spanish empire in Latin America, and while Parkman described the conflict between France and England for North America, Bancroft applied the same narrative approach to the development of the United States. In some respects he exemplified the typical New England Brahmin. His ancestor, John Bancroft, had settled near Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1632, and his mother, Lucretia Chandler, had descended from a prominent family in Worcester County. Also, George Bancroft obtained the traditional Brahmin education. After preliminary schooling in his native Worcester, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and at the age of thirteen was admitted to Harvard College. After his graduation in 1817, Bancroft remained for a year at Cambridge as a graduate student, preparing for the ministry. Colleagues at Harvard saw much promise in him, and encouraged Bancroft to study abroad. In 1818 Bancroft journeyed to Europe to continue his theological training. Like other New England intellectuals, such as George Ticknor, and Edward Everett, he was attracted to the new German scholarship, and enrolled at the University of Gottingen. After he received the degrees of Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Arts in 1820, he remained in Europe for two years, concentrating most of his energies upon the new intellectual climate in Germany. The new German intellectualism was to influence greatly his future historical writing. Already Harvard College had sent many of its most gifted students to study under German thinkers such as Kant, Herder, Hegel, and Ranke. Young Bancroft was influenced especially by the German schematic philosophy of history as a guide for mankind in the future. The Christian interpretation of the past, as taught by adherents of St. Augustine, viewed history as the saga of Christ's redemption of mankind. The new German approach did not reject the divine concept, but it restructured matters to stress the evolution of the divine Idea as history's guiding force. The impact of the environment in shaping mankind had been a basic faith of eighteenth-century rationalists. The new German romanticism downplayed such an idea, and spoke of what would eventually become the "germ" theory. Hegel, Kant, and others taught their students the importance of primordial ideas, particularly of Teutonic origins, as the basis for man's development. In his studies at Gottingen, and in classes at Berlin under Hegel, Bancroft absorbed this philosophy. By the time of his return to the United States in 1822, Bancroft was committed deeply to a belief in progress, to the influence of Teutonic folkways, and to a divine influence upon history. It was soon apparent that Bancroft was not the typical Brahmin. He intended to return to the United States and become either a clergyman or high school instructor. His idealism, influenced by his German training, appeared too liberal for conservative churchmen, and his brief foray into secondary education at an experimental preparatory school, Round Hill Academy, failed to satisfy his intellectual hunger. Too, Bancroft had departed from the traditional conservative Whig demeanor of the Brahmin stereotype and had become active in the Massachusetts Democratic Party. In fact, by the early 1830s, Bancroft was considering seriously a career in politics. He was courted by Democratic officials who relished his support of the Jacksonian anti-bank philosophy and exulted at his campaign biography written for Martin Van Buren. But Bancroft was more committed to history. Already by 1823 he had begun writing reviews and essays on European history, and by the 1830s had begun work on American history. His writing on the American past was a curious mixture of the Brahmin's love for romantic, narrative history blended with German liberalism. In 1834 he published the first volume of his History of the United States of America from the Discovery of the Continent; nine more volumes would follow by 1874. During this long period of narrating the American past from the standpoint of a Jacksonian, Bancroft continued to participate actively in Democratic politics. In 1837 President Martin Van Buren appointed him Collector of the Port of Boston. Despite his unsuccessful campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 1844, his strong support of James K. Polk in the National Democratic Convention brought political reward. Bancroft was appointed secretary of the navy, and in 1846 was sent by Polk as ambassador to Great Britain. Upon his return to the United States in 1849, Bancroft plunged more deeply into the narrative history of the United States, and issued four volumes between 1852 and 1858. Still his political life had not ended. A strong advocate of President Abraham Lincoln's policies, Bancroft was an advisor and speechwriter for President Andrew Johnson, and was rewarded in 1867 by an appointment as minister to Berlin. In 1891, at the age of ninety, George Bancroft died in his beloved Washington.