George Bancroft

THIS magisterial and critical life 1 of a great historian is very welcome. By subtle touches and careful selection of letters, the biographer has created the environment of the man, the background against which he was seen by the men of his own race-stock, the movement of politics in America during the pregnant period of his life, and the triumphant efforts of American diplomacy which he put forth.

The outer Bancroft is also well modeled in the book: the slender elegance of his form; the intellectual features; the manners and mannerisms of ambitious youth; the harmless but trying pose due to a foreign-trained mind and receptive nature; the countenance that expressed disdain of parochialism; the rather unskillful attitude of an apostle proclaiming the gospel of nationality, democracy, and expansion; the irritating assurance of the experienced politician, a political nonconformist dispensing favors to the members of a political sect foreign to eastern Massachusetts; the triumphant historian of American democracy, the citizen of the world. All this is in the book, and its impartiality is such that, weighing and balancing, the reader wonders a little whether this was or was not a sincere and lovable man; whether he was a statesman or a politicaster, a great historian or an historical pleader, not to say romancer.

It was not the task of the biographer to set forth at length and in bold outline the characteristics of the nineteenth century in thought and aspirations, or the reaction of the new Europe upon the old, and the reverse. Yet we venture to think that no adequate judgment of Bancroft can be formed without great emphasis on the fact that he lived in an epoch so close to ours in time, and yet so remote in sentiment that it is hard to be comprehended. The century just past was the age of utopias: the effort to realize them was earnest, serious, incessant. The very concepts of liberty, democracy, nationality, were utopian; the words connote a state of mind; experiment, rather than concrete reality, in the means and ends, is dominant. Representation, discussion, extension of the suffrage; unity of speech, institutions, laws; natural boundaries, human perfectibility, the average man, patriotism and self-denial for the general good, all these are ideals capable only of partial realization. But to our fathers and forefathers they appeared attainable goals, for those generations were idealistic, full of faith, hope, confidence. They had seen a mighty deliverance from ignorance and ecclesiasticism, they were convinced that regenerate man would make a regenerate world; they did not see the reaction to unbelief, self-indulgence, and flippancy which gives us new standards and new sanctions. From this standpoint it is very easy to misunderstand Bancroft’s life and work, for he was a man of his own age, with its style, its aspirations, its methods of work; a leader moreover, always a little in advance of the social movement.

Sincerity of manner consorts but partially and imperfectly with the outward appearance of the idealist and optimist. He is himself convinced, but he is rather deprecatory, since there is so little cooperation of the will, either personal or collective; his convictions, based on religion and philosophy, are not convincing to the materialistic time-server and muck-raker, not even to the majority of conservative, matter-of-fact persons, who are the overwhelming majority; still less so to the pessimistic elect of students and thinkers. To be at once an idealist and a man of affairs, dealing with selfish interest on every side, is to challenge the stigma of insincerity, and Bancroft was a perfect illustration of such a double activity. In learning he aimed higher than he could hit, in education he saw a vision of the unattainable, in his science the facts he so laboriously accumulated were interpreted in the light of imagination, in politics he was not of New England, but of America, — not of America, but of the civilized world. It is given to very few to be alike patriotic and cosmopolitan; to write history not only for those who have lived it, but also in the perspective of philosophical generalization.

This was the only sense in which Bancroft can be misinterpreted. His ambitions were insatiate but honorable; his social aspirations were chivalrous and aristocratic; but, though given to gallantry, he never forgot the democracy and prudery of his Puritan blood; the means by which he attained to a certain opulence were exactly those which were practiced and approved by the great of his age, — thrift, office-holding, judicious investment, and honorable marriage. Born under conditions severe and simple, he affected and cultivated, first, the manners of the university hierarchy, here and abroad; then, those of the opulent and governing classes among whom he lived in both Europe and America. He was not born to this manner, and his style was the garb, not of his spirit, but of his person. Many felt it and remarked it;envy made it a source of unkind criticism. What he did, and professed, and wrote, was scrutinized with a search for artificiality and pose. Yet he was neither artificial nor poseur: his life was a continuous evolution of all that is highest in man; his mistakes were rectified, his mannerisms were shed, his learning was fortified and enlarged, his hold on verities was strengthened, and his social capacities were refreshed and broadened throughout. It was not his fault that others disliked the process, and disapproved of an inconsistency which is really loyalty to new truths as they emerge; adaptability, however, is not necessarily insincerity.

Furthermore, in order that justice may be done to such a man, attention must be given to the evolution of method in writing history. Call history literature, or science, or discipline, evolution as a mode of thought was discovered and cultivated by historians long before natural science proclaimed it from the house-top as a novelty. The ancients had definite conceptions of the change from simplicity to complexity in every department of human life. They did not, for manifest reasons, carry that doctrine into the field of comparative politics. Indeed, the inception of natural science was due to the observation and classification of human phenomena. There was not only man, but there was his home; how did this habitat come into existence, and what was the evolution of its form P So a science of nature emerged through use of the comparative method; out of many haphazard questionings sprang Vico’s attempt at another advance, that to historical evolution. He failed likewise in securing any fruitful system, because, like his predecessors, he did not lay hold of the comparative method. Aristotle had marked the organic nature of human society; Voltaire, by satire, criticism, and doubt, discovered the unity of history. But it was not until the opening of the last century that to the conception of organic unity in separate societies was added the revolutionary thought of organic unity in the totality of human association.

This was the phase of historical philosophy which the young Bancroft encountered at Goettingen. The doctrine had both limit and proportion, as tentatively set forth by Heeren, but in the writings of Herder and Hegel the tiny craft was launched on a boundless ocean of speculation. Both were optimistic fatalists, or, rather, teleologists. They falsely conceived of progress as both a material and a moral product: it was Kant who proved it to be only the latter. Whoever may be the adventurer of the twentieth century bold enough to explore the ponderous tomes of philosophy in history, and of history in philosophy containing the speculation of those days, he will give vast credit to the young Bancroft for emerging from all that disorderly tropical luxuriance with a clear head and definite notions. The mystery in the soul of human society he frankly accepted, but his thesis was sane and sound: that in spite of this, there is an evolution to be accomplished by human effort; that the race persists, however men may disappear; that advance is possible, however strong the shackles of habit, prejudice, and nature; that in conflict with the past, mankind renews its vital energies. This was for him the focal concept in the study of the past by the comparative method.

The equipment for work along such lines demands a vast erudition; not the unorganized mass of uncouth, unrelated knowledge under which the universal scholar of the eighteenth and preceding centuries staggered along, scattering its wisps and bundles as he marched, but the classified orderly knowledge produced by all the ancillary sciences which had come and still were coming into being: archaeology, geography, sociology, philology, mythology, and ethnology, all working by the comparison of group with group, age with age. To the acquisition of these results Bancroft girded himself, and throughout his long life he was untiring in his acquisitions. But he did more: he sought not merely knowledge, he sought wisdom; in French phrase, he desired to be not alone an “ érudit ” but a “ savant.” Accordingly he was a successful student, both theoretically and historically. He labored to learn and he labored to think. In both respects he commanded the admiration and respect of his greatest contemporaries in England, Germany, and the larger America. “ Er kennt Kant durchaus,” said Trendelenburg to an American scholar. There is abundant evidence of his high standing within the covers of these handsome volumes, patent to every reader.

These brief hints are given with profound respect for the most fundamental maxim of historical ethics: Represent every man from his own standpoint; judge him, if you like, from your own. It must be clear that in no respect was Bancroft’s standpoint that of his critics. Most of them never even had a glimpse of the heights which he stormed. He certainly did represent the actors of history from their own standpoint, but with equal certainty he also judged them from his own, which was not theirs nor that of their descendants. And in the wordy letters which ensued, his pamphlets, rejoinders, rebuttals, and sur-rebuttals were weapons at least as keen as were those of his opponents. Such warfare leaves many wounds, many irritating bruises and scratches on the self-esteem of the antagonists. But it does not argue anything dubious or artificial in the defender of a citadel.

“ Greift nur hinein ins voile Mensehenleben.” These words were often on Bancroft’s lips, and they were the explanation of his conduct. He had an insatiable curiosity about the great facts of life. The chart on which he spread the base lines and correlated what he learned was capacious, and he had no series of set formulas by which he examined his material. The painstaking and almost painful composition, the equally meticulous revision of his book, the varying positions in which at every period of life he placed himself, from which to view both the details of his book and its unity; the changes, suppressions, rearrangements. additions, down to the very last edition, all exhibit the habit and grasp of his mind; they constituted the labors of advancing years, and are creditable to his candor and to his versatility. He had no timidity at any time in the face of then accepted axioms, so many of which have since proved to be subtle assumptions. “ I defy a man to penetrate the secrets and laws of events without something of faith. He may look on and see, as it were, the twinkling of stars and planets, and measure their distances and motions; but the life of history will escape him. He may pile a heap of stones, he will not get at the soul.”

When Ranke told him that his history was the best book ever written from the democratic point of view, and that he must continue consistent in adhesion to his methods, he received the dictum as the speaker intended, and with polite attention, but without comment. A few days later, however, he wrote, “ I deny the charge; if there is democracy in the book it is not subjective, but objective as they say here, and so has necessarily its place in history and gives its color as it should.” These are complementary passages, and make clear the antinomy which besets every faithful, candid worker in the field of history: to secure the accurate record of facts and not to shirk the manifest judgments which emerge from the connected tale. Meaning there is in the pages of history, but there should be the very least possible of intention to make a special plea or to exhibit prejudice in weaving the fabric.

The conclusion and summary of the biographer, though short, are comprehensive and dispassionate. They probably represent the judgments of the hour with all accuracy. But these judgments are, in the nature of the case, cold and unsympathetic to those who knew the man; to readers who did not know him they give, as some have told me, a sense of hesitancy. Some years of daily intercourse with Bancroft and the circle of his famous friends in Berlin, considerable acquaintance with survivors of the circle in which he moved during his residence in New York, and visits of some frequency during his life in Washington and Newport, such are the claims of the writer to speak from the personal standpoint; no other is possible for him. It is with this reserve, and with some hesitancy, that he yet feels impelled to express a certain sense of disappointment that the total impression of the book should, for him, be what it is.

The greatest men are human, and the publication of petty details such as our forbears were wont to consign to oblivion has become the engrossing occupation of hundreds who aspire to be historians. The horizon of men is distinctly proportionate to their elevation of soul. The best society knows its own and debars the rest. It would be well for the readers of this biography to lay some emphasis on the fact that the doorstep reputation of most men is quite different from such an one as that which was lavishly, appreciatively bestowed upon Bancroft by his contemporaries everywhere, except in Eastern Massachusetts, where the elect chose for some time to regard him as a “ sport,” with “ fantastic ” ideas and manners. This bias prolonged itself. 1 heard the few cold words with which, some years ago, Richter’s portrait of Bancroft was announced as a gift to Harvard, and marked the frosty indifference of the graduate assemblage to the circumstance.

When New Jersey was erecting the battle monument at Trenton and proposed, on the authority of Bancroft’s pages, to inscribe on the base Lord George Germain’s terse words about “that unhappy affair ” which had “ blasted all our hopes,” it was a Boston historian who dryly remarked in a letter that this was one of the things Bancroft thought ought to have been said, but there was no proof that it ever was said. The phrase so eruditely dismissed as invention was promptly found by a friendly fellowstudent of the historian in the pages of the parliamentary debates.

All literature, even history, is the style not merely of the man but of his age. Who now reads the once widely-read Gibbon? Specialists and critics only. The storms which raged about Bancroft’s research, and his use of the sources, only served to show that the age of GrecoRoman classicism, in which he was born and trained, was yielding in his maturer life before an age of stricter science. What was fair and true as the currency of one generation seemed dubious and spurious to another. He was only too eager to change his whole method of representation, and did it.

It was also possible that the evolution of his Protestant faith — from a type of conservative Unitarianism based on little more than a set of metaphysical distinctions, to a Congregationalism which, in his own phrase, attested that the “ Elder Brother, as the link between man and God, between the finite and the infinite, was divine ” — that this progressive confirmation of orthodoxy and abandonment of liberalism may have subjected him to misapprehension among those who held, in an ultra-Puritan form, the doctrine of immediacy. This is a pure surmise, but it seems likely; and there is no odium so acrid as the theological, unless it be the scientific. However this may be, it is unquestionably true that those of like origin with himself were disposed to think him a deserter, especially when he declined membership in a Unitarian union and reasserted that he was a Congregationalist. Bancroft was never in sympathy with the pride of birth and intellect which saw in the history of his country a history of Puritan expansion: that the sea-board colonies were Calvinistic in politics he set forth in a vigorous essay, but he appreciated the qualities of cavalier as well as of roundhead, of Scot and Irish as well as of East Anglian, of the established churches as well as of the dissenting sects. Their respective contributions to the resultant of American conditions are all woven in due proportion on the woof of his narrative : and justice is done to Quaker, Baptist, and Methodist, whatever the ecclesiastical establishment of New England may feel, or may have felt rather, to the contrary.

What a commentary it is on the force of opinion, what an admission of sensitiveness, that apology should come unbidden to the writer where the note of triumph should be dominant! Bancroft’s associates in the days of his maturity knew him as a bold man, strong in battle with himself and with others; the expression of his face when at rest mirrored his sanguine, happy disposition; possibly he had little humor (most thought so), but he was both quizzical and witty; he was alike nervous and passionate, but he was neither sullen nor vindictive; controversy he thoroughly enjoyed, yet he was sensitive to even worthless criticism; what appears labored and florid in his style was largely due to his writing English in foreign countries; he would spend many minutes in his efforts to avoid a teutonism or a gallicism, and the result was too often a loss of spontaneity. Many chapters of his tenth volume were, after apparent completion, rewritten seven times, and each time his joy in the changes showed his conviction that he had conquered infelicities of expression.

The habitual use of foreign tongues is destructive of simplicity and directness in the use of our own. Widely as Matthew Arnold traveled on the Continent, nothing but dire necessity, not even politeness, could force from him a written or spoken word in any tongue save his own. His English style was his very life. The degree of mastery in the great continental tongues which Bancroft possessed and his delight in intellectual gymnastics, as well as an innate consideration for others, led him in conversation to use German, French, and even Italian, to an extent which greatly disturbed the clarity both of his thought and of his expression. Yet he fairly reveled in the expansion of horizon which accompanied his acquisition and use of modern languages. It was a choice which he had to make, and he made it deliberately. Whatever the result, there is a definite meaning in all his sentences, though it is sometimes necessary to search for it; when found, it is generally poignant and sometimes even disconcerting in its trenchancy.

Our biographer accepts and emphasizes his author’s declaration of a desire to write an “ epic of liberty,” and twice in the book attention is called to the criticisms of Carlyle and Ranke on the performance of the task, excusing Bancroft’s procedure with his material by the plea that epic writing required epic methods. It is a kindly purpose that the biographer has in view, but the excuse is unnecessary. There was not a contemporary, including both critics, who was able to dispense with the mosaic collocation of material, to avoid the adoption and appropriation of compilations from manuscript and oratorical matter, or whose aim it was to furnish at once a living text and a series of verified references. Carlyle’s misrepresentations of the events in the French Revolution have been mercilessly exposed, and Ranke’s voluminous output can be judged only by the examination of all the manuscripts he consulted, not by the references he gives. In all his later works footnotes are conspicuously absent. The assembling of detail is antiquarian, the truth of general effect alone is historical. To produce the latter is masterly; the former is mechanical investigation, and its reproduction for the laity misleads far more frequently than it guides.

The question of footnotes has been undergoing searching examination, and the greatest writers of so-called scientific history in our own times have minimized the use of them to such a degree that, in the last analysis, they challenge the test of a historical product as lying in the personal character of the author. They indicate their sources, but they do not excerpt and print them, because scraps are not samples of the whole; expert judgments must stand or fall by the general effect of the work. It is only where authors present new facts which radically affect or change the view of focal events and heroic men that an excursus on the evidence or a series of references is essential, or even desirable. We cannot share the biographer’s regret that Bancroft at a certain point abandoned the ostentation of elaborate footnotes. The subject is too broad for treatment here, but let us remember that a passing remark which assumes as settled what is very unsettled, is not conclusive.

But this brief appreciation of the book must end where it began, with hearty commendation. The points which have been examined concern largely personal feeling and the matter of emphasis. Our author forgets no single one of them, and says everything that should be said about his subject as a statesman and a man; creating, by selection from original papers and running commentary, both atmosphere and perspective for the capable man of affairs. The art of practical politics is the art of compromise. Bancroft’s procedure in public life was essentially that, though he would have been shocked by any charge of variableness or turning.

To live serenely is to be adaptable, and this was Bancroft’s effort, though it was not without envious remark that he passed from stage to stage of the social hierarchy. But his successes did not diminish his value as a working citizen, they heightened it. Similarly, as a historian, his reputation, great in his own day and throughout the world, may be slightly obscured in the present generation, because of vacillating standards in criticism. I have only ventured to suggest that it is likely to shine forth after local and partial eclipse, with undiminished brightness, and to emphasize the reasons for the local obscuration in certain minds.

  1. The Life and Letters of George Bancroft. By M. A. DE WOLFE HOWE. Two vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1908.