The Early American Historians.
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Bancroft was educated in Germany when this new view was introduced and emphasized. His first work was a translation of Heeren's "History of the Political System of Europe" (1828). By such training he was peculiarly fitted to present to the world the significance and import-ance of the great experiment of democratic government in the New World. For sixty years he continued to labor on his self-appointed task, enlightening his countrymen in regard to the work and intentions of their fathers, and erecting for himself an imperishable literary monument.
George Bancroft was born at Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1800, and died at Washington in 1891. He was the son of a Unitarian minister, was educated at Harvard, and afterward at Göttingen, Germany, where he received the degree of Ph. D. Returning to Massachusetts he founded the Round Hill School at Northampton, to put in practice the best methods of German instruction. But his ambition was to set forth clearly, adequately, and in full detail the foundations of his country's greatness. The first volume of his "History of the United States" appeared in 1834. It started from the discovery of America in 1492, and when completed, in 1888, the work was brought down only to the inauguration of Washington. Colonial History coming down to 1748, occupied about one-fourth. The overthrow of the European colonial system and the American Revolution occupied more than one-half. The remainder, which was issued as a separate work, treated of the formation of the Federal Constitution.
Bancroft's labors on this work were interrupted by his political services to his country. He was an ardent Democrat and was made Collector of the Port of Boston in 1838. When called by President Polk to his cabinet, as Secretary of the Navy, in 1845, Bancroft founded the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He also, in anticipation of the Mexican War, issued orders which helped to secure possession of California. In 1846 he was sent as Minister to Eng-land. Returning three years later, he fixed his residence in New York and devoted his time to the history, but occasionally ventured in other fields. During the Civil War he was a firm friend of the Union, and after its close he was sent by President Johnson as Minister to Ger-many, where he remained until 1874. His later residence was at Washington, though his summers were spent at Newport, where his rose-garden was celebrated.
His great history was the result of conscientious research, careful consideration of authorities, and enthusiasm for the subject. Its style is brilliant, though in the early volumes sometimes discursive and declamatory. There is a tendency to philosophize, to bring forward too prominently, the underlying principle of the facts re-corded. While desirous to give just due to every actor in public affairs of the time treated, Bancroft offended the descendants of some, and evoked controversies, which were humorously called "the war of grandfathers." Overwhelming evidence was required to convince him that he had been mistaken in his attempt to render the final verdict of truth. He was slow in composition, and revised the chapters of his work repeatedly before they were published. The later editions show still further correction. Probably the best part of his work is the last, written after the Civil War and the discussion of questions of reconstruction had shed new light on the fundamental principles of the Union and the Constitution. Though the author had not historical genius of the highest order, he was eminently well fitted for his task by a liberal education, by his capability and disposition to take pains, and by his judicial insight, which was only occasionally distorted by partisan bias. Perhaps improperly called the "History of the United States," the work in its utmost extent tells only the story of the foundation of the Nation, but it does point out the sources of its greatness, and sets forth the virtues of democratic government in a vehement oratorical way, which rather provokes than disarms criticism. Yet the whole work, showing at first the exuberant enthusiasm of youth, and finally the cautious wisdom of age, is a grand epic of democracy.