Bancroft's History of the Constitution

WITH these two volumes Mr. Bancroft brings the history of the United States down to the period of the foundation of the government. Forty-eight years, nearly half a century, have elapsed since the publication of the first volume. Very rarely does it happen that any literary production covers such a period of time, and can be so justly called a life-work. This history, so long in progress, and still incomplete according to the terms of the first preface, is monumental in character, and is a service for which the public, and all students especially, owe to Mr. Bancroft a great debt of gratitude. His untiring industry has brought to light and made accessible masses of material which, but for him, would probably have remained hidden forever. The amount of matter which he has used, and which, by the foot-notes, we find is still in manuscript, is almost incredible. He has ransacked national archives all over the world ; nothing, apparently, has escaped his notice, and his relentless search has uncovered private correspondence in places where it would hardly have been supposed to exist. Extracts from these letters and papers, woven into the narrative, form a large part of the history, and the faithful foot-notes reveal to the student the sources from which they have been drawn. The labor and care involved in the collection, arrangement, and use of this material are shown by the fact that the composition of his twelve volumes has occupied Mr. Bancroft for fifty years. In two volumes. New York: D. Appleton & Co1882.

The lapse of time between the publication of the first volume and that of those now before us is not a little interesting in itself. We cannot help thinking of the history that has been made since this history was begun, and of the stirring and momentous questions which were following one another to decision as these pages were penned in the quiet of the library. There is, too, something very striking as well as very unusual in reading the history of events a century old, told by one who knew personally several of the chief actors in that period. Thus Mr. Bancroft connects us not only with the days of his own youth, but with the youth, with the birth even, of the nation and of the government, and we seem to listen to a contemporary of the men of 1789 while the living historian speaks to us.

The exuberance of spirit and of patriotism which marked the first volume has been toned down and mellowed, but is no whit abated in these last two. We find the same confidence in democracy, the same strong faith in the United States and in government by the people, unaltered by the trials and experiences of fifty years. This in itself, coming as it does from one who has given his best thought and the best of his life to a study of history, past and present, is no slight homage to the character of our institutions and principles of government.

In these volumes Mr. Bancroft has told the story of the years which followed the peace of Paris, and led to the formation of the constitution of the United States. It is a period commonly, although not very exactly, known as that of the confederation, and it may be fairly said that no history of this time has ever before been written properly, or in such a way that a clear idea of its character and events could be obtained.

It is a barren period, and may be said to be as uninteresting as it is important. Mr. Bancroft has given us a history of opinion in the United States,and in Europe with regard to the United States, from 1782 to 1789. On English opinion Mr. Bancroft has thrown much light, and has brought out very strongly the mingled contempt and hatred and the underhand hostility of the British government toward their revolted and successful colonies. As to opinion in Europe, Mr. Bancroft’s optimism leads him. except in the case of Spain, to pass lightly over the fact that the Continental powers paid little or no heed to us, and looked upon us with slight favor. This is especially noticeable in the case of France, who treated us about, as badly as England did, and stood ready to pounce upon our territory and take full advantage of our misfortunes. We certainly should not appreciate the conduct of France in reading these volumes, and perhaps the omission is due to an unconscious but lingering tenderness toward the “ great nation,”which was one of the tenets of the school of Jeffersonian republicanism, of which Mr. Bancroft is a steadfast adherent.

Much the larger portion of these volumes, however, is devoted to tracing the growth of opinion in the States of the confederation, which resulted in the formation and adoption of the constitution. On this development of political thought Mr. Bancroft has given a great deal of new and important information, and nearly half of each volume is made up of an appendix comprising copious and invaluable extracts from the rich stores of the au unequaled unequaled collection of manuscript authorities. In this picture of political opinion the writer’s optimism and patriotism lighten the shadows and raise the lights in a very marked degree. Mr. Bancroft honestly gives all the facts : the impotency and small jealousies of Congress, the general aversion to stronger government, the sturdy opposition to financial honesty and to efficiency of administration. He tells us of the selfishness and petty views of the States, and of the actual collapse of the general government in 1784. Yet he dwells constantly on the desire for union and on the movements in favor of a better federal organization, and attempts assiduously to convey the impression that that was the prevailing and pervading sentiment of the people, which sought only for appropriate expression. The truth is that public sentiment at that time was demoralized by eight years of civil war, by uncertainty as to the future, and by social and political confusion, and it was debauched by a long indulgence in worthless paper money. It was therefore narrow, unreasonable, and averse to the difficult work of reconstruction. This adds lustre to the glory of the great leaders who succeeded in overcoming such an obstacle, but it should not be overlooked in discussing the period of which it is the most prominent feature. “ From the ocean to the American outposts nearest the Mississippi,” says Mr. Bancroft, in writing of 1787, “ one desire prevailed for a closer connection, one belief that the only opportunity for its creation had come.” The second proposition is perhaps correct ; the first certainly is not. A majority of the people were averse to a stronger central government, and were opposed to the constitution. The truth is that Mr. Bancroft shrinks from the fact so relentlessly and compactly stated by John Quincy Adams, “ that the constitution was extorted from the grinding necessity of a reluctant people.” Mr. Bancroft, with scrupulous honesty, gives all the facts, but he declines to draw the inevitable conclusion, and keeps his eyes fixed on the lofty and far-seeing views of the comparatively small minority, led by the illustrious handful of men who thought “ continentally.”

The most striking and important contribution made by Mr. Bancroft is in the knowledge, which he now gives us for the first time, of Washington’s influence and position during these trying years. Washington’s greatness was never more conspicuous than at this time, and it has not hitherto been brought home to us by any historian. His letters in 1781, his circular letter to the States, the profound sagacity of his views given to Congress in 1783, and his exertions in behalf of the constitution exhibit him as the greatest statesman of the country at a period when, according to the popular idea, he was reposing in retirement at Mount Vernon, in the interval between his career as general and as president. Mr. Bancroft truly says, “ But for him, the country could not have achieved its independence ; but for him, it could not have formed its union ; and now, but for him, it could not have set the federal government in successful motion.”

Washington gave character and weight to the movement for union, his influence was essential and decisive, and Mr. Bancroft does him full justice. But o the man who gave force and momentum to the movement, and whose brilliant intellect and fiery energy drove it forward from one point to another, Mr. Bancroft does no justice at all. If we except Washington, the constitution owes its existence and its adoption to Alexander Hamilton more than to any other man. Yet Mr. Bancroft persistently puts Madison over Hamilton. He writes of the Federalist as if it was the work of Madison, when it is rightly and indissolubly connected with the name of Hamilton. He passes these remarkable essays over rather hurriedly, doing what he can to diminish Hamilton’s share, in the very teeth of the facts which he honestly states himself. He deals very briefly with the New York convention, where Hamilton won one of the most extraordinary victories in the history of oratory and debate. A person who read only what Mr. Bancroft has to say on this subject would suppose that Hamilton did little more than half a dozen others, and would wonder greatly why the citizens of New York called the federal ship in their procession the Hamilton. We are far from underrating Madison’s services, which were very great, or his knowledge, his exertions, and his speeches. He was next to Hamilton at this time, but was inferior to him because he was an inferior man, both in mind and force of will and character. In the case of Jefferson Mr. Bancroft runs into an opposite fault. Jefferson’s services to the cause of the constitution were so trifling that they are hardly worth mentioning. Yet the vague generalities that he uttered before he went to France are given at great length, as well as extracts from his letters from Paris, which were chiefly devoted to finding fault with the constitution, which for the next twelve years he did his best to cripple. In the same manner, a space altogether disproportionate to her importance, although she was undoubtedly the leading State, is given to Virginia. All these faults of proportion—and they are quite marked — are due to the fact that Mr. Bancroft is, after all, in a certain sense, the contemporary of these men, and has not and cannot be expected to free himself wholly from the prejudices of Jeffersonian republicanism.

The volumes, tracing as they do a history of opinion, are full of sketches of men who have been, but should not be, forgotten, and present much new matter in regard to them. This is especially true of George Mason, who exhibited a foresight — shown here by extracts from letters never before printed — which is absolutely startling in keenness and depth.

We have noted only two errors worth referring to here. By trusting too completely to Madison’s account of the debate in the Congress of the Confederation, Mr. Bancroft has been led into the mistake of saying, vol. i. p. 104, that Hamilton " alone, although for very different reasons,” voted with the Rhode Island delegates against the impost. This is Madison’s statement, but the journals show that Stephen Higginson, of Massachusetts, also voted with the Rhode Islanders, influenced probably by the same motives as Hamilton. The Langdon mentioned on page 277, vol. ii., was not Woodbury, as Mr. Bancroft gives it, but Samuel Langdon. Samuel Langdon, who was a native of Massachusetts, was the president of Harvard College, minister at Hampton Falls, and the man who took a leading part in the New Hampshire convention as described by Mr. Bancroft.

The debt of American history and of the American people to Mr. Bancroft is already large, and these two important volumes add very greatly to it. They are fully worthy of their predecessors, and, written as they are with undiminished powers by a man who began life with the century, we may reasonably hope that others are still to come, and that the same untiring and wide research and complete devotion to the subject may be exercised on the history of the United States under the constitution.

  1. History if the Formation of the Constitution of the United States. By GEORGE BANCROFT.