Bancroft, George

Bancroft, George,

1800–1891, American historian and public official, b. Worcester, Mass. He taught briefly at Harvard and then at the Round Hill School in Northampton, Mass., of which he was a founder and proprietor. He then turned definitively to writing. His article (Jan., 1831) in the North American Review attacking the Bank of the United States delighted Jacksonian Democrats, and in 1834 Bancroft became an avowed apostate from New England Federalism. In that year also appeared the first volume of his monumental work, A History of the United States (10 vol., 1834–74; revised into 6 vol. by the author in 1876 and 1883–85). As a reward for his speeches and writings for the Democratic cause he was appointed (1837) collector of the port of Boston by President Martin Van Buren, and as the dispenser of the patronage of that office Bancroft was the Democratic boss in Massachusetts. He was defeated for the governorship in 1844, but President Polk, whom he had helped nominate, made him Secretary of the Navy. In that post (Mar., 1845–Sept., 1846) he established the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and issued the standing orders under which Capt. John D. Sloat, commanding the Pacific squadron, seized California ports on the outbreak of the Mexican War. That conflict formally began in May, 1846, when Bancroft, then serving also as acting Secretary of War, gave the order that sent Gen. Zachary Taylor into Mexico. While minister to Great Britain (1846–49), he diligently collected materials for his History in British and French archives. Bancroft, an antislavery Democrat, came to support Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War and on Feb. 12, 1866, delivered the official memorial address on Lincoln before the Congress (he had also been the official eulogist of Andrew Jackson in 1845). He is assumed to have written President Andrew Johnson's first message to Congress, and in 1867 Johnson appointed him minister to Prussia. He held the post until 1874. Although his famous History is little read today, it was an important landmark in American historiography, and it remains valuable for its extensive use of source materials. The History is violently anti-British and intensely patriotic and leaves no doubt that the author was passionately sincere in his devotion to democracy. Acknowledged partisan that he was, Bancroft, the first American trained in the so-called scientific school of German historical scholarship, nevertheless insisted that his was an objective interpretation; the high praise his work won from the great Leopold von Ranke as the best history ever written from the democratic point of view annoyed as well as gratified him. His literary style was sonorous and rather ponderous, although some passages still have an emotional appeal.


See biographies by M. A. De Wolfe Howe (1908) and R. B. Nye (1944, repr. 1964); study by R. H. Canary (1974).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Bancroft, George


Born Oct. 3, 1800, in Worcester, Massachusetts; died Jan. 17, 1891, in Washington, D. C. American political figure, diplomat, historian, and prominent representative of the romantic school of historiography.

In 1845–46, Bancroft was secretary of the navy. He participated in the planning of the expansionist war of the USA against Mexico (1846–48). From 1846 to 1849 he was minister to London, and in 1867–74, he was minister to Berlin. Between 1834 and 1874, Bancroft’s principal work, the ten-volume History of the United States, was published. Using archival documents, Bancroft was one of the first in American historiography to give elementary criticism of sources. However, he limited his inquiry to purely political problems. His work was permeated by ideas of nationalism and praise of the American political system, the making of which Bancroft linked to the religious concept of a “chosen people,” the Puritan settlers. Bancroft is known as one of the founders of the so-called early school, which was the leading one in American historiography in the first half of the 19th century.


The History of the United States, vols. 1–10. Boston, 1834–74.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bancroft, George

(1800–91) historian, diplomat; born in Worcester, Mass. He tried unsuccessfully to establish a preparatory school for boys before he began writing his 10-volume History of the United States (1834–74). His writing showed a marked bias in favor of democracy; he viewed the American political experiment as the highest form of civilization. He supported James K. Polk's "dark horse" candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 1844 and was rewarded with the post of secretary of the navy (1845–46). He established the Naval Academy at Annapolis (1845) and aided the work of the Naval Observatory. He served as ambassador to Great Britain (1846–49) and later to Prussia and Germany (1867–74). After returning to the U.S.A. he spent his final years writing various historical books and articles.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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