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IX: George Bancroft

George Bancroft, who died in Washington, D. C., on January 17, 1891, was born at Worcester, Massachusetts, October 3, 1800, being the son of Aaron and Lucretia (Chandler) Bancroft. His first American ancestor in the male line was John Bancroft, who came to this country from England, arriving on June 12, 1632, and settling at Lynn, Massachusetts. There is no evidence of any especial literary or scholarly tastes in his early ancestors, although one at least among them became a subject for literature, being the hero of one of Cotton Mather's wonderful tales of recovery from smallpox. Samuel Bancroft, grandfather of the great historian, was a man in public station, and is described by Savage as “possessing the gift of utterance in an eminent degree” ; and the historian's father, Rev. Aaron Bancroft, D. D., was a man of mark. He was born in 1755, fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill when almost a boy, was graduated at Harvard College in 1778, studied for the ministry, preached for a time in Nova Scotia, was settled at Worcester in 1788, and died there in 1839. He was a member of the American Academy [96] of Arts and Sciences, was an Arminian in theology, and in later life was President of the American Unitarian Association. He published various occasional sermons, a volume of doctrinal discourses, and (in 1807) a “Life of Washington,” which was reprinted in England, and rivaled in circulation the larger work of Marshall, which appeared at about the same time. He thus bequeathed literary tastes to his thirteen children; and though only one of these reached public eminence, yet three of the daughters were prominent for many years in Worcester, being in charge of a school for girls, and highly esteemed; while another sister was well known in Massachusetts and at Washington as the wife of Governor (afterwards Senator) John Davis.

George Bancroft was fitted for college at Exeter Academy, where he was especially noted for his fine declamation. He entered Harvard College in 1813, taking his degree in 1817. He was the classmate of four men destined to be actively prominent in the great anti-slavery agitation a few years later,--Samuel J. May, Samuel E. Sewall, David Lee Child, and Robert F. Wallcut,--and of one prospective opponent of it, Caleb Cushing. Other men of note in the class were the Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, D. D., the Rev. Alva Woods, D. D., and Samuel A. [97] Eliot, afterwards Treasurer of the College and father of its recent President. Mr. Bancroft was younger than any of these, and very probably the youngest in his class, being less than seventeen at graduation. He was, however, second in rank, and it happened that Edward Everett, then recently appointed Professor of Greek Literature in that institution, had proposed that some young graduate of promise should be sent to Germany for purposes of study, that he might afterwards become one of the corps of Harvard instructors. Accordingly, Bancroft was selected, and went, in the early summer of 1818, to Gottingen. At that time the University had among its professors Eichhorn, Heeren, and Blumenbach. He also studied at Berlin, where he knew Schleiermacher, Savigny, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. At Jena he saw Goethe, and at Heidelberg studied under Schlosser. This last was in the spring of 1821, when he had already received his degree of Ph. D. at Gottingen and was making the tour of Europe. At Paris he met Cousin, Constant, and Alexander von Humboldt; he knew Manzoni at Milan, and Bunsen and Niebuhr at Rome. The very mention of these names seems to throw his early career far back into the past. Such experiences were far rarer then than now, and the return from them into what was the villagelike [98] life of Harvard College was a far greater change. Yet he came back at last and discharged his obligations, in a degree, by a year's service as Greek tutor.

It was not, apparently, a satisfactory position, for although he dedicated a volume of poems to President Kirkland, “with respect and affection,” as to his “early benefactor and friend,” yet we have the testimony of George Ticknor (in Miss Ticknor's Life of J. G. Cogswell) that Bancroft was “thwarted in every movement by the President.” Mr. Ticknor was himself a professor in the college, and though his view may not have been dispassionate, he must have had the opportunity of knowledge. His statement is rendered more probable by the fact that he records a similar discontent in the case of Professor J. G. Cogswell, who was certainly a man of conciliatory temperament. By Ticknor's account, Mr. Cogswell, who had been arranging the Harvard College Library and preparing the catalogue, was quite unappreciated by the Corporation, and though Ticknor urged both him and Bancroft to stay, they were resolved to leave, even if their proposed school came to nothing. The school in question was the once famous “Round Hill” at Northampton, in which enterprise Cogswell, then thirty-six, and Bancroft, then twenty-three, embarked in 1823. The latter [99] had already preached several sermons, and seemed to be feeling about for his career; but it now appeared as if he had found it.

In embarking, however, he warbled a sort of swan-song at the close of his academical life, and published in September, 1823, a small volume of eighty pages, printed at the University Press, Cambridge, and entitled “Poems by George Bancroft. Cambridge: Hilliard & Metcalf.” Some of these were written in Switzerland, some in Italy, some, after his return home, at Worcester; but almost all were European in theme, and neither better nor worse than the average of such poems by young men of twenty or thereabouts. The first, called “Expectation,” is the most noticeable, for it contains an autobiographical glimpse of this young academical Childe Harold setting forth on his pilgrimage:--

'T was in the season when the sun
More darkly tinges spring's fair brow,
And laughing fields had just begun
The summer's golden hues to show.
Earth still with flowers was richly dight,
And the last rose in gardens glowed;
In heaven's blue tent the sun was bright,
And western winds with fragrance flowed;
'T was then a youth bade home adieu;
And hope was young and life was new,
When first he seized the pilgrim's wand
To roam the far, the foreign land. [100]

There lives the marble, wrought by art.
That clime the youth would gain; he braves
The ocean's fury, and his heart
Leaps in him, like the sunny waves
That bear him onward; and the light
Of hope within his bosom beams,
Like the phosphoric ray at night
That round the prow so cheerly gleams.
But still his eye would backward turn,
And still his bosom warmly burn,
As towards new worlds he 'gan to roam,
With love for Freedom's Western home.

This is the opening poem; the closing words of the book, at the end of the final “Pictures of Rome,” are in a distinctly patriotic strain:--

Farewell to Rome; how lovely in distress;
How sweet her gloom; how proud her wilderness!
Farewell to all that won my youthful heart,
And waked fond longings after fame. We part.
The weary pilgrim to his home returns;
For Freedom's air, for Western climes he burns;
Where dwell the brave, the generous, and the free,
O! there is Rome; no other Rome for me.

It was in order to train these young children of the Republic--“the brave, the generous, and the free” --that Bancroft entered upon the “Round Hill” enterprise.

This celebrated school belonged to that class of undertakings which are so successful as [101] to ruin their projectors. It began in a modest way; nothing could be more sensible than the “Prospectus,” --a pamphlet of twenty pages, issued at Cambridge, June 20, 1823. In this there is a clear delineation of the defects then existing in American schools; and a modest promise is given that, aided by the European experience of the two founders, something like a French college or a German gymnasium might be created. There were to be not more than twenty pupils, who were to be from nine to twelve on entering. A fine estate was secured at Northampton, and pupils soon came in.

Then followed for several years what was at least a very happy family. The school was to be in many respects on the German plan: farm life, friendly companionship, ten-mile rambles through the woods with the teachers, and an annual walking tour in the same company. All instruction was to be thorough; there was to be no direct emulation, and no flogging. There remain good delineations of the school in the memoirs of Dr. Cogswell, and in a paper by the late T. G. Appleton, one of the pupils. It is also described by Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar in his “Travels.” The material of the school was certainly fortunate. Many men afterwards noted in various ways had their early training there: J. L. Motley, H. W. Bellows, [102] R. T. S. Lowell, F. Schroeder, Ellery Channing, G. E. Ellis, Theodore Sedgwick, George C. Shattuck, S. G. Ward, R. G. Shaw, N. B. Shurtleff, George Gibbs, Philip Kearney, R. G. Harper. At a dinner given to Dr. Cogswell in 1864, the most profuse expressions of grateful reminiscence were showered upon Mr. Bancroft, though he was then in Europe. The prime object of the school, as stated by Mr. Ticknor, was “to teach more thoroughly than has ever been taught among us.” How far this was accomplished can only be surmised; what is certain is that the boys enjoyed themselves. They were admirably healthy, not having a case of illness for sixteen months, and they were happy. When we say that, among other delights, the boys had a large piece of land where they had a boy-village of their own, a village known as Cronyville, a village where each boy erected his own shanty and built his own chimney, where he could roast apples and potatoes on a winter evening and call the neighbors in,--when each boy had such absolute felicity as this, with none to molest him or make him afraid, there is no wonder that the “old boys” were ready to feast their kindly pedagogues forty years later.

But to spread barracks for boys and crony villages over the delightful hills of Northampton demanded something more than kindliness; [103] it needed much administrative skill and some money. Neither Cogswell nor Bancroft was a man of fortune. Instead of twenty boys, they had at one time one hundred and twenty-seven, nearly fifty of whom had to be kept through the summer vacation. They had many Southern pupils and, as an apparent consequence, many bad debts, Mr. Cogswell estimating a loss of two thousand dollars from this cause in a single year; and sometimes they had to travel southward to dun delinquent parents. The result of it all was that Bancroft abandoned the enterprise after seven years, in the summer of 1830; while Cogswell, who held on two years longer, retired with health greatly impaired and a financial loss of twenty thousand dollars. Thus ended the Round Hill School.

While at Round Hill, Mr. Bancroft prepared some text-books for his pupils, translating Heeren's “Politics of ancient Greece” (1824) and Jacobs's Latin Reader (1825),--the latter going through several editions. His first article in the “North American Review,” then the leading literary journal in the United States, appeared in October, 1823, and was a notice of Schiller's “Minor poems,” with many translations. From this time forward he wrote in almost every volume, but always on classical or German themes, until in January, 1831, he took up “The Bank [104] of the United States,” and a few years later (October, 1835), “The documentary history of the Revolution.” These indicated the progress of his historical studies, which had also begun at Round Hill, and took form at last in his great history. The design of this monumental work was as deliberate as Gibbon's, and almost as vast; and the author lived, like Gibbon, to see it accomplished. The first volume appeared in 1834, the second in 1837, the third in 1840, the fourth in 1852, and so onward. Between these volumes was interspersed a variety of minor essays, some of which were collected in a volume of “Literary and historical Miscellanies,” published in 1855. Bancroft also published, as a separate work, a “History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States” (1882).

While at Northampton, he was an ardent Democrat of the most theoretic and philosophic type, and he very wisely sought to acquaint himself with the practical side of public affairs. In 1826 he gave an address at Northampton, defining his position and sympathies; in 1830 he was elected to the Legislature, but declined to take his seat, and the next year refused a nomination to the Senate. In 1835 he drew up an address to the people of Massachusetts, made many speeches and prepared various sets of resolutions, was flattered, traduced, caricatured. [105] From 1838 to 1841 he was Collector of the Port of Boston; in 1844 he was Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, but was defeated,--George N. Briggs being his successful antagonist,--although he received more votes than any Democratic candidate before him. In 1845 he was Secretary of the Navy under President Polk. In all these executive positions he may be said to have achieved success. It was, for instance, during his term of office that the Naval Academy was established at Annapolis; it was he who gave the first order to take possession of California; and he who, while acting for a month as Secretary of War, gave the order to General Taylor to march into Texas, thus ultimately leading to the annexation of that state. This, however, identified him with a transaction justly censurable, and indeed his whole political career occurred during the most questionable period of Democratic subserviency to the slave power, and that weakness was never openly — perhaps never sincerely — resisted by him. This left a reproach upon his earlier political career which has, however, been effaced by his literary life and his honorable career as a diplomatist. In 1846 he was transferred from the Cabinet to the post of Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, where he contrived to combine historical [106] researches with public functions. In 1849 he returned to this country — a Whig administration having been elected — and took up his residence in New York. In February, 1866, he was selected by Congress to pronounce a eulogy on President Lincoln, and in the following year he was appointed Minister to Prussia, being afterwards successively accredited to the North German Confederation and the German Empire. In these positions he succeeded in effecting some important treaty provisions in respect to the rights of naturalized German citizens residing in Germany. He was recalled at his own request in 1874, and thenceforward resided in Washington in the winter, and at Newport, Rhode Island, in summer.

Dividing his life between these two abodes, he passed his later years in a sort of existence more common in Europe than here,--the well-earned dignity of the scholar who has also been, in his day, a man of affairs, and who is yet too energetic to repose upon his laurels or waste much time upon merely enjoying the meed of fame he has won. In both his winter and summer abodes he had something of the flattering position of First Citizen; he was free of all sets, an honored member of all circles. His manners were often mentioned as “courtly,” but they never quite rose to the level of either [107] of the two classes of manner described by Tennyson:--

Kind nature is the best, those manners next
That fit us like a nature second-hand;
Which are indeed the manners of the great.

Neither of these descriptions exactly fitted Mr. Bancroft; his manners were really of the composite sort, and curiously suggestive of the different phases of his life. They were like that wonderful Japanese lacquer-work, made up of twenty or thirty different coats or films, usually laid on by several different workmen. There was at the foundation the somewhat formal and literal manner of the scholar, almost of the pedagogue: then one caught a glimpse of an executive, official style, that seemed to date from the period when he ordered California to be occupied; and over all there was a varnish of worldly courtesy, enhanced by an evident pleasure in being admired, and broken by an occasional outburst of rather blunt sincerity.

But he matured and mellowed well; his social life at Washington was more satisfactory to himself and others than that he led in New York; he had voluntarily transplanted himself to a community which, with all its faults and crudities, sets intellect above wealth, and readily conceded the highest place to a man like Bancroft. [108] Foreign ministers came accredited to him as well as to the government; he was the friend of every successive administration, and had as many guests as he cared to see at his modest Sunday evening receptions. There he greeted every one cordially, aided by a wife amply gifted in the amenities. He was kind to everybody, and remembered the father or grandfather of anybody who had any such ancestors whom it was desirable to mention. In summer, at Newport, it was the same; his residence was like that described by his imagination in one of his own early poems--

Where heaven lends her loveliest scene,
A softened air, a sky serene,
Along the shore where smiles the sea.

Unlike most Newport “cottages,” his house was within sight of the ocean; between it and the sea lay the garden, and the “rose in Kenmure's cap” in the Scottish ballad was not a characteristic more invariable than the same flower in Mr. Bancroft's hand or buttonhole. His form was familiar, too, on Bellevue Avenue, taking as regularly as any old-fashioned Englishman his daily horseback exercise. At the same time he was one of the few men who were capable, even in Newport, of doing daily the day's work; he rose fabulously early in the [109] morning, and kept a secretary or two always employed. Since John Quincy Adams, there has not been among us such an example of laborious, self-exacting, seemingly inexhaustible old age; and, unlike Adams, Mr. Bancroft kept his social side always fresh and active, and did not have, like the venerable ex-President, to force himself out in the evening in order “to learn the art of conversation.” This combination, with his monumental literary work, will keep his memory secure. It will possibly outlive that of many men of greater inspiration, loftier aims, and sublimer qualities.

Mr. Bancroft, as an historian, combined some of the greatest merits and some of the profoundest defects ever united in a single author. His merits are obvious enough. He had great enthusiasm for his subject. He was profoundly imbued with that democratic spirit without which the history of the United States cannot be justly written. He has the graphic quality so wanting in Hildreth, and the piquancy whose absence makes Prescott too smooth. He has a style essentially picturesque, whatever may be its faults. The reader is compelled to admit that his resources in the way of preparation are inexhaustible, and that his command of them is astounding. One must follow him minutely, for instance, through the history of the War for [110] Independence, to appreciate in full the consummate grasp of a mind which can deploy military events in a narrative as a general deploys brigades in a field. Add to this the capacity for occasional maxims to the highest degree profound and lucid, in the way of political philosophy, and you certainly combine in one man some of the greatest qualities of the historian.

Against this are to be set very grave faults. In his earlier editions there was an habitual pomposity and inflation of style which the sterner taste of his later years has so modified that we must now condone it. The same heroic revision has cut off many tame and commonplace remarks as trite as those virtuous truisms by which second-rate actors bring down the applause of the galleries at cheap theatres. Many needless philosophical digressions have shared the same fate. But many faults remain. There is, in the first place, that error so common with the graphic school of historians,--the exaggerated estimate of manuscript or fragmentary material at the expense of what is printed and permanent. In many departments of history this dependence is inevitable; but, unfortunately, Mr. Bancroft was not, except in the very earliest volumes of his history, dealing with such departments. The loose and mythical period of our history really ends with Captain John [111] Smith. From the moment when the Pilgrims landed, the main facts of American history are to be found recorded in a series of carefully prepared documents, made by men to whom the pen was familiar, and who were exceedingly methodical in all their ways. The same is true of all the struggles which led to the Revolution, and of all those which followed. They were the work of honest-minded Anglo-Saxon men who, if they issued so much as a street hand-bill, said just what they meant, and meant precisely what they said. To fill the gaps in this solid documentary chain is, no doubt, desirable,--to fill them by every passing rumor, every suggestion of a French agent's busy brain; but to substitute this inferior matter for the firmer basis is wrong. Much of the graphic quality of Mr. Bancroft's writing is obtained by this means, and this portends, in certain directions, a future shrinkage and diminution in his fame.

A fault far more serious than this is one which Mr. Bancroft shared with his historical contemporaries, but in which he far exceeded any of them,--an utter ignoring of the very meaning and significance of a quotation-mark. Others of that day sinned. The long controversy between Jared Sparks and Lord Mahon grew out of this,--from the liberties taken by Sparks in editing Washington's letters. Professor Edward [112] T. Channing did the same thing in quoting the racy diaries of his grandfather, William Ellery, and substituting, for instance, in a passage cited as original, “We refreshed ourselves with meat and drink,” for the far racier “We refreshed our Stomachs with Beefsteaks and Grogg.” Hildreth, in quoting from the “Madison papers,” did the same, for the sake not of propriety, but of convenience; even Frothingham made important omissions and variations, without indicating them, in quoting Hooke's remarkable sermon, “New England's Teares.” But Bancroft is the chief of sinners in this respect; when he quotes a contemporary document or letter, it is absolutely impossible to tell, without careful verifying, whether what he gives us between the quotation-marks is precisely what should be there, or whether it is a compilation, rearrangement, selection, or even a series of mere paraphrases of his own. It would be easy to illustrate this abundantly, especially from the Stamp Act volume; but a single instance will suffice.

When, in 1684, an English fleet sailed into Boston harbor, ostensibly on its way to attack the Dutch settlements on the Hudson, it left behind a royal commission, against whose mission of interference the colonial authorities at once protested, and they issued a paper, as one [113] historian has said, “in words so clear and dignified as to give a foretaste of the Revolutionary state papers that were to follow a century later.” If ever there was a document in our pre-Revolutionary history that ought to be quoted precisely as it was written, or not at all, it was this remonstrance. It thus begins in Bancroft's version, and the words have often been cited by others. He says of the colony of Massachusetts: “Preparing a remonstrance, not against deeds of tyranny, but the menace of tyranny, not against actual wrong, but against a principle of wrong, on the 25th of October, it thus addressed King Charles II.” The alleged address is then given, apparently in full, and then follows the remark, “The spirit of the people corresponded with this address.” It will hardly be believed that there never was any such address, and that no such document was ever in existence as that so formally cited here. Yet any one who will compare Bancroft's draft with the original in the Records of Massachusetts (volume IV, part 2, pages 168-169) will be instantly convinced of this. Bancroft has simply taken phrases and sentences here and there from a long document and rearranged, combined, and, in some cases, actually paraphrased them in his own way. Logically and rhetorically the work is his own. The colonial authorities adopted [114] their own way of composition, and he adopted his. In some sentences we have Bancroft, not Endicott; the nineteenth century, not the seventeenth. Whether the transformation is an improvement or not is not the question; the thing cited is not the original. An accurate historian would no more have issued such a restatement under the shelter of quotation-marks than an accurate theologian would have rewritten the Ten Commandments and read his improved edition from the pulpit. And it is a curious fact that while Mr. Bancroft has amended so much else in his later editions, he has left this passage untouched, and still implies an adherence to the tradition that this is the way to write history.

It is also to be noted that the evil is doubled when this practice is combined with the other habit, already mentioned, of relying largely upon manuscript authorities. If an historian garbles, paraphrases, and rearranges when he is dealing with matter accessible to all, how much greater the peril when he is dealing with what is in written documents held under his own lock and key. It is not necessary to allege intentional perversion, but we are, at the very least, absolutely at the mercy of an inaccurate habit of mind. The importance of this point is directly manifested on opening the leaves of [115] Mr. Bancroft's last and perhaps most valuable book, “The history of the Constitution.” The most important part of this book consists, by concession of all, in the vast mass of selections from the private correspondence of the period: for instance, of M. Otto, the French Ambassador. We do not hesitate to say that, if tried by the standard of Mr. Bancroft's previous literary methods, this mass of correspondence, though valuable as suggestion, is worthless as authority. Until it has been carefully collated and compared with the originals, we do not know that a paragraph or a sentence of it is left as the author wrote it; the system of paraphrase previously exhibited throws the shadow of doubt over all. No person can safely cite one of these letters in testimony; no person knows whether any particular statement contained in it comes to us in the words of its supposed author or of Mr. Bancroft. It is no answer to say that this loose method was the method of certain Greek historians; if Thucydides composed speeches for his heroes, it was at least known that he prepared them, and there was not the standing falsehood of a quotation-mark.

A drawback quite as serious is to be found in this, that Mr. Bancroft's extraordinary labors in old age were not usually devoted to revising the grounds of his own earlier judgments, but [116] to perfecting his own style of expression, and to weaving in additional facts at those points which especially interested him. Professor Agassiz used to say that the greatest labor of the student of biology came from the enormous difficulty of keeping up with current publications and the proceedings of societies; a man could carry on his own observations, but he could not venture to publish them without knowing all the latest statements made by other observers. Mr. Bancroft had to encounter the same obstacle in his historical work, and it must be owned that he sometimes ignored it. Absorbed in his own great stores of material, he often let the work of others go unobserved. It would be easy to multiply instances. Thus, the controversies about Verrazzano's explorations were conveniently settled by omitting his name altogether; there was no revision of the brief early statement that the Norse sagas were “mythological,” certainly one of the least appropriate adjectives that could have been selected; Mr. Bancroft never even read — up to within a few years of his death, at any rate — the important monographs of Varnhagen in respect to Amerigo Vespucci; he did not keep up with the publications of the historical societies. Laboriously revising his whole history in 1876, and almost rewriting it for the edition of 1884, he allowed [117] the labors of younger investigators to go on around him unobserved. The consequence is that much light has been let in upon American history in directions where he has not so much as a window; and there are points where his knowledge, vast as it is, will be found to have been already superseded. In this view, that cannot be asserted of him which the late English historian, Mr. J. R. Green, proudly and justly claimed for himself: “I know what men will say of me — he died learning.” But Mr. Bancroft at least died laboring, and in the harness.

Mr. Bancroft was twice married, first to Miss Sarah H. Dwight, who died June 26, 1837, and in the following year to Mrs. Elizabeth (Davis) Bliss. By the first marriage he had several children, of whom John Chandler (Harvard, 1854) died in Europe, and George (Harvard, 1856) has spent most of his life in foreign countries. [118]

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