History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent

By GEORGE BANCROFT. VOL IX. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.
THIS volume of Mr. Bancroft’s History, the ninth of the entire work and the third of the narrative of the American Revolution, comprises the period between July, 1776, and April, 1778, including the battles of Long Island and White Plains, the surrender of Fort Washington, the retreat of Washington through the Jerseys, the brilliant military successes of Trenton and Princeton, the capture of Philadelphia by Sir William Howe, and the memorable event which insured the success of the Revolution, — the surrender of Burgoyne. This enumeration is enough to show that, in the ground he has traversed, Mr. Bancroft has found ample scope for the display of those peculiar literary characteristics with which the readers of his former volumes are so familiar, — his rapid and condensed narration, his sweeping and sometimes rather vague generalizations, his brilliant pictures, his pointed reflections, and the sharp, cutting strokes with which he carve.; rather than paints characters. His usual diligence in the search of materials has not deserted him here; and he has been even more than usually successful in the amount and character of what he has found. In addition to very full collections relating to the war from the archives of England and France, he has obtained large masses of papers from Germany, among which last are many of great importance, especially for the study of military operations in 1777. Very valuable documents from the Spanish have been secured, through the courtesy of the Spanish government and the kind offices of that distinguished scholar and most amiable man, Don Pascual de Gayangos.
Investigators of the past are naturally inclined to overestimate the value of any new sources of information opened by their own diligence or sagacity of research, and a little of this feeling is perceptible in Mr. Bancroft’s Preface ; but, after all, we apprehend that the new evidence he has so diligently collected will not shake the deliberate verdict already passed alike upon men and events. Here and there a gleam is thrown upon some single incident, or the motives and conduct of a particular actor ; but the general lights and shadows of the historical landscape remain undisturbed. The statements and the views of Marshall and Sparks are substantially sustained. The patriotic American will not regret to see that Mr. Bancroft’s investigations and conclusions lead him to exalt Washington in comparison with the soldiers and civilians who stood around him; and the reader of his pages will have fresh cause to admire,not merely the firmness and self-command of that illustrious man, but his abilities as a commander and a statesman. We have especially to thank Mr. Bancroft for the distinctness with which he shows how much the success of the Northern army was due to Washington’s disinterested advice. His high praise of the commanderin-chief sometimes glances aslope, and lights in the form of censure of some of his subordinate officers ; and we should not be surprised if some of his strictures provoked replies and led to controversies. Some of those whom he criticises have left descendants, and those who have left no descendants have partisans who are jealous of the fame of their favorites, and will not lightly allow a leaf of their laurels to be blighted.
During the period embraced by this volume the constitutions of several of the States were formed, and the Articles of Confederation were adopted which gave to the several States a semblance of unity, and smoothed the path to the more perfect union which was established ten years later. These events present themes peculiarly congenial to Mr. Bancroft’s powers of brilliant generalization and rapid condensation, and tempt him into that field of discursive reflection where he is fond of lingering, and where we follow him always with interest, and generally with assent. We quote with peculiar pleasure the following observations from the fifteenth chapter, on the constitutions of the several States of America, as being sound in substance and happy in expression : —
“ The spirit of the age moved the young nation to own justice as antecedent and superior to the state, and to found the rights of the citizen on the rights of man. And yet, in regenerating its institutions, it was not guided by any speculative theory or laborious application of metaphysical distinctions. Its form of government grew naturally out of its traditions, by the simple rejection of all personal hereditary authority, which in America had never had much more than a representative existence. Its people were industrious and frugal. Accustomed to the cry of liberty and property, they harbored no dream of a community of goods ; and their love of equality never degenerated into envy of the rich. No successors of the fifth-monarchy men proposed to substitute an unwritten higher law, interpreted by individual conscience, for the law of the land and the decrees of human tribunals. The people proceeded with self-possession and moderation, after the manner of their ancestors. Their large inheritance of English liberties saved them from the necessity and from the wish to uproot their old political institutions; and as happily the scaffold was not wet with the blood of their statesmen, there was no root ot a desperate hatred of England, such as the Netherlands kept up for centuries against Spain. The wrongs inflicted or attempted by the British king were felt to have been avenged by independence. Respect and affection remained behind for the parent land, from which the United States had derived trial by jury, the writ for personal liberty, the practice of representative government, arid the separation of the three great co-ordinate powers in the state. From an essentially aristocratic model, America took just what suited her condition, and rejected the rest. Thus the transition of the Colonies into self-existent commonwealths was free from vindictive bitterness, and attended by no violent or wide departure from the past.
A considerable portion of this volume is occupied by a consideration of the relations between Europe and America. Advancing years do not seem to chill Mr. Bancroft’s faith in progress, his confidence in democracy, his love of popular institutions, or to check his tendency to throw his speculations into an aphoristic form, and to present his conclusions positively, and with less of qualification and limitation than men of a more cautious temperament would do. So far as literary merit is concerned, the European chapters will be found the most attractive in the volume. They are sparkling, rapid, condensed, and pointed ; they gratify our national pride ; their animated and picturesque style never suffers the attention to flag for a moment; — and yet it is in these very chapters that judicial criticism will find the most frequent occasion to pause and doubt, whether we consider the direction in which the stream of thought flows, or their merely rhetorical features. Mr. Bancroft’s glittering generalizations do not always seem to us to wear the sober livery of truth. For instance, on page 500 we read : “ The most stupendous thought that ever was conceived by man, such as never had been dared by Socrates or the Academy, byAristotle or the Stoics, took possession of Descartes on a November night in his meditations on the banks of the Danube.” It may be coldness of temperament, it maybe the chilling influence of advancing years, but we cannot admire statements like these, and we arc constrained to think them exaggerated and extravagant.
And on the next page Mr. Bancroft says : “ Edwards, Reid, Kant, and Rousseau were all imbued with religiosity, and all except the last, who spoiled his doctrine by dreamy indolence, were expositors of the active powers of man.” It is certainly an ingenious mind that finds a resemblance between Edwards and Rousseau. What exactly is the meaning of “religiosity,” we cannot say ; but if it be used as a synonyme of religion, we demur to the assertion that Rousseau was imbued with religion, — Rousseau, who in his youth allowed an innocent girl to be ruined by accusing her of a theft which he himself had committed, and in his ripened manhood sent to a foundling hospital the children he had had by his mistress — whose life was despicable and whose moral creed seemed to be summed up in the doctrine that every natural impulse is to be indulged. Rousseau was an enthusiast and a sentimentalist ; he was a man of the exquisite organization of genius, and there are many passages in his writings which are colored with a half-voluptuous, half-devotional glow ; but it seems to us a plain confusion of very obvious moral distinctions to represent such a man as imbued with the spirit of religion.
One of the most animated of Mr. Bancroft’s chapters is the eighth, on the course of opinion in England, in which we have glimpses of Wilkes, of Barre, of Wedderburn, of Lord North, of Burke, and an elaborate character of Fox. This last is a happy specimen of Mr. Bancroft’s peculiar style of portrait-drawing. The merits and defects of the subject are presented in a series of pointed and aphoristic sentences ; and the likeness is gained, as in a portrait of Rembrandt, by the powerful contrast and proximity of lights and shadows. Virtues and vices stand side by side, like the black and white squares of a chess-board. Brilliant as the execution is, the man Charles James Fox seems to us reproduced with more distinctness and individuality in the easier, simpler, more flowing sentences of Lord Brougham. Mr. Bancroft’s sketch has something of the coldness as well as the sharp outline of bas-relief. And strange to say, considering Fox’s love of liberty, his love of America, and his hatred of slavery, the historian of liberty and democracy seems hardly to have done him justice. In the summary of the contents of the chapters prefixed to the volume, he unreservedly writes down “Fox not a great man,” and such is the impression which the text leaves on the mind ; but if Fox was not a great man, to whom in the sphere of government and politics can that praise be accorded ?
In his Preface to this volume, Mr. Bancroft informs us that one more volume will complete the American Revolution, including the negotiations for peace in 1782 ; and that for this the materials are collected and arranged, and that it will be completed and published without any unnecessary delay. This volume will bring into the field Spain, France, and Great Britain, as well as the United States, and, from the nature of the subject it presents, will undoubtedly be so treated by Mr. Bancroft as to be not inferior in interest or value to any of its predecessors.