Thursday, September 9, 2021

George Bancroft: Invisible Giant

By Dr. Ira R. Hanna
HRNM Volunteer

History is about people. Everyone has heard of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. Yet there are many who helped to shape American culture but remain relatively unknown. Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books provides fascinating biographies of some of these consequential figures. The chapter on George Bancroft provides some interesting connections to U.S. naval history. Bancroft was the first consequential American historian as well as a political boss, cabinet officer, diplomat, presidential ghostwriter, parlor radical, and bon vivant.
Invisible Giants
The first of Bancroft’s ten-volume History of the United States of America was published in 1864, the last in 1884. In 1885, he was elected president of the fledgling American Historical Association. Bancroft strongly believed that the nation had survived several trials and had a bright future. His writings implied that the voice of the people (their vote) was the voice of God.

Bancroft was the eighth of the thirteen children of Aaron Bancroft. He was very precocious and entered Harvard University at the age of 13. He graduated with honors and was offered a scholarship to study at Georgia Augusta University in Gottingen, Germany. In 1820, he was awarded a Doctorate of History, then returned to America and taught history at Harvard. Soon afterwards, he married Sarah Dwight, daughter of a prominent merchant/banker. Unfortunately, she died after the birth of their third child. In 1838 he married Elizabeth Bliss, a widow. During that time, as Collector of Customs of the Port of Boston, he helped form a Democratic Party “machine” in Boston that still exists today. In 1845, Bancroft was a leading figure in the Baltimore Democratic National Convention that nominated James K. Polk. When elected president, Polk rewarded Bancroft by nominating him to be Secretary of the Navy. During his short tenure as SecNav, Bancroft did two things for which Americans should be eternally grateful.
George Bancroft (National Portrait Gallery)
First, Bancroft supported the Mexican War and sent American ships to secure California ports from Mexican disruptions. This was partially responsible for California and Texas becoming states. Secondly, Bancroft realized that the Navy needed competent officers who were technically trained and understood how best to use the new steam-powered ships. He determined that the best way to do that was to combine the several naval schools into one that could keep up with the new technology as well as strategies to best use it. In 1845, he authorized the construction of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which has proven to do that exceedingly well.

After only 18 months as SecNav, Polk offered Bancroft the Ambassadorship to Great Britain. There, he laid the groundwork for England’s support during the Civil War. He also served as Ambassador to Prussia during the term of Republican president Ulysses S. Grant. Bancroft wrote speeches for Stephen Douglas in 1860 and Andrew Johnson in 1866. His own writings formed the core of the Democratic Party’s platform that lasted for over forty years.

Although Bancroft criticized Lincoln when he was first elected, he changed his mind as the Civil War progressed. He agreed with emancipation in 1862 and voted for Lincoln in 1864 although he was still a Democrat. In February 1866, Bancroft gave a eulogy for Lincoln before the House of Representatives.

George Bancroft died in 1891 at the age of 90. John Adams was president when he was born and Theodore Roosevelt attended his memorial service. Of the many unrecognized persons in American history, Bancroft certainly deserves not only to be mentioned in our history books, but given a prominent place.

Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur. "George Bancroft." Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books, edited by Mark Carnes. Oxford University Press, 2002, pp.23-31.

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