17th United States Secretary of the Navy
|In office |
March 11, 1845 – September 9, 1846
|Preceded by ||John Y. Mason |
|Succeeded by ||John Y. Mason |
|Born ||October 3, 1800 |
Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
|Died ||January 17, 1891 |
Washington, D.C., USA
|Political party ||Democratic |
|Spouse ||Sarah Dwight |
Elizabeth Davis Bliss
|Profession ||Politician, Writer |
George Bancroft (October 3, 1800 – January 17, 1891) was an American historian and statesman who was prominent in promoting secondary education both in his home state and at the national level. During his tenure as U.S. Secretary of the Navy, he established the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1845. Among his best-known writings is the magisterial series, History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent.
Early life and education
His family had been in Massachusetts Bay since 1632, and his father, Aaron Bancroft, was distinguished as a revolutionary soldier, a leading Unitarian clergyman and author of a popular life of George Washington. Bancroft began his education at Phillips Exeter Academy and entered Harvard College at thirteen years of age. Abroad, he studied at Heidelberg, Göttingen and Berlin. At Göttingen he studied Plato with Arnold Heeren, New Testament Greek with Albert Eichhorn and natural science with Johann Friedrich Blumenbach.
Bancroft concluded his years of preparation by a European tour, in the course of which he sought out almost every distinguished man in the world of letters, science and art; among othersGoethe, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Byron, Niebuhr, Bunsen, Savigny, Cousin, Constant and Manzoni.
Bancroft's father had devoted his son to the work of the ministry; but the young man's first experiments at preaching, shortly after his return from Europe in 1822, were unsatisfactory.
Career in education and literature
His first position was that of tutor at Harvard. Instinctively a humanist, Bancroft had little patience with the narrow curriculum of Harvard in his day and the rather pedantic spirit with which classical studies were pursued there. Moreover, he had brought from Europe a new manner, imbued with ardent Romanticism and this he wore without ease in the formal, self-satisfied and prim provincial society of New England; the young man's European air was subjected to ridicule, but his politics were sympathetic to Jacksonian democracy.
A little volume of poetry, translations and original pieces, published in 1823 gave its author no fame. As time passed, and custom created familiarity, his style, personal and literary, was seen to be the outward symbol of a firm resolve to preserve a philosophic calm, and of an enormous underlying energy which spent itself in labor. He found the conversational atmosphere of Cambridge uncongenial, and with a friend he established the Round Hill School at Northampton, Massachusetts. This was the first serious effort made in the United States to elevate secondary education to the plane on which it belonged.
In spite of the exacting and severe routine of the Round Hill School, Bancroft contributed frequently to the North American Review and to Walsh's American Quarterly; he also made a translation of Heeren's work on The Politics of Ancient Greece. In 1834 appeared the first volume of the History of the United States, which would appear over the next four decades (1834-74) and established his reputation. The work covers the period from the discovery of the continent to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1782. His other great work is The History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States (1882). His writing is clear and vigorous, and his facts generally accurate, but he is a good deal of a partisan.
His first wife was Sarah Dwight, of a rich family in Springfield, Massachusetts; they married in 1827 but she died in 1837 His second wife was Mrs Elizabeth Davis Bliss, a widow with two children to add to his two sons; she bore him a daughter.
Career in politics
George Bancroft in his office (c. 1889)
His entry into politics came in 1837 with his appointment by Martin Van Buren as Collector of Customs of the Port of Boston. In 1844, he was the Democratic candidate for the governorship of Massachusetts, but he was defeated. In 1845, in recognition for his support at the previous Democratic convention, he entered Polk's cabinet as Secretary of the Navy, serving until 1846, when for a month he was acting Secretary of War. During this short period in the cabinet he established the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, gave the orders which led to the occupation of California, and sent Zachary Taylor into the contested land between Texas and Mexico. He also continued his pleadings for the annexation of Texas, as extending "the area of freedom," and though a Democrat, took high moral ground as to slavery.
He likewise made himself the authority on the Oregon boundary dispute, with the result that in 1846 he was sent as Minister Plenipotentiary to London, where he lived in constant companionship with the historian Macaulay and the poet Hallam. With the election of Zachary Taylor his post was not renewed; on his return to the United states in 1849 he withdrew from public life, residing in New York and writing history.
In April of 1864, at Bancroft's request, President Lincoln wrote out what would become the fourth of five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address. Mr. Bancroft planned to include this copy in "Autograph Leaves of Our Country's Authors," which he planned to sell at a Soldiers' and Sailors' Sanitary Fair in Baltimore.
In 1866, Bancroft was chosen by Congress to deliver the special eulogy on Lincoln; and in 1867 he was appointed minister to Berlin, where he remained until his resignation in 1874. Then he lived in Washington, D.C., summering at Rose Cliff, Newport, Rhode Island.
His latest official achievements are considered the greatest. In the San Juan arbitration he displayed great versatility and skill, winning his case before the emperor with brilliant ease. The naturalization treaties, named the "Bancroft treaties" in his honor, which he negotiated successively with Prussia and the other north German states were the first international recognition of the right of expatriation, a principle since incorporated in the law of nations.
Several ships have been named USS Bancroft for him. Bancroft was the last surviving member of the Polk cabinet.
- ^ He served as president of the American Unitarian Association from 1825 to 1836.
- Bancroft, George. History of the United States of America, from the discovery of the American continent. (Boston: Little, Brown, and company, numerous editions in 8 or 10 volumes 1854-78). online edition
- Howe, M. A. Dewolfe The Life and Letters of George Bancroft - Vol. 1 (1971 reprint)
- Wish, Harvey. The American Historian: A Social-intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past (1960) ch 5 on Bancroft
- Handlin, Lillian. George Bancroft: The Intellectual as Democrat. (New York, 1984).
- Nye, Russel B. George Bancroft, Brahmin Rebel (New York, 1944).
- Cornell University, Guide to the George Bancroft papers
|Preceded by |
John Y. Mason
|United States Secretary of the Navy |
|Succeeded by |
John Y. Mason
|Preceded by |
|U.S. Minister to Britain |
1849 – 1852
|Succeeded by |
|United States Secretaries of the Navy || |
|Cabinet Level: Stoddert • Smith • Hamilton • Jones • Crowninshield • S Thompson • Southard • Branch • Woodbury • Dickerson • Paulding • Badger • Upshur • Henshaw • Gilmer • Mason • Bancroft • Mason • Preston • Graham • Kennedy • Dobbin • Toucey • Welles • Borie • Robeson • R Thompson • Goff • Hunt • Chandler • Whitney • Tracy • Herbert • Long • Moody • Morton • Bonaparte • Metcalf • Newberry • Meyer • Daniels • Denby • Wilbur • Adams • Swanson • Knox • Forrestal |
Dept. of Defense: Sullivan • Matthews • Kimball • Anderson • Thomas • Gates • Franke • Connally • Korth • Nitze • Ignatius • Chafee • Warner • Middendorf • Claytor • Hidalgo • Lehman • Webb • Ball • Garrett • O'Keefe • Dalton • Danzig • England • Winter