Bancroft's History of the United States
June 16, 2008
In a recent article in the New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore provides some perspective on historical writing. She begins by asking "What makes a book a history?" and notes that "in the 18th-century novelists called their books 'histories'"....
In spite of some recent, notorious examples to the contrary, it seems most people today have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes a novel versus a history book. But after reading about one of Lepore's more blatant examples of a 19th-century work reconsidered now, I went looking in the stacks for George Bancroft's History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent [RARE E 178 .B2276 1874-75]. We own several editions, but our library's copy (volume 1 spine shown at left) of the 10-volume, 12th edition is a particularly handsome set: tan 1/2 calf, backs gilt, with red and green leather labels and marbled edges. It's pleasure to pick up and leaf through. The table of contents is lengthy and detailed. The font is large and the pages uncrowded. What could possibly have caused Charles McLean Andrews of Yale to describe Bancroft's work, a generation later, as "nothing less than a crime against historical truth"?
As Lepore documents, historians and historical writing change. Worcester-born and Harvard educated George Bancroft (1800-1899) is often described as an educator, historian and statesman. Some have hailed him the 'Father of American History' yet today his classic work is largely unknown. George Athan Billias, in a Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, (Vol. 111, Part 2, 2001) article "George Bancroft: Master Historian" discusses Bancroft's neglect but reveals not everyone shared Andrews' opinion. "Daniel Boorstin wrote that to learn what the period 'adds up to,' one must turn to Bancroft." And, Edmund Morgan (writing in Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789) "claimed that Bancroft knew 'the sources better than any one has since'." Billias, a professor emeritus at Clark University, presents a balanced view of Bancroft and underscores the need for him to be judged in context.
But is there a place for Bancroft to be taught in middle, high or college history courses today? Surely there are any number of ways for creative teachers to re-introduce the History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent to students. Comparing the sections on Bancroft's hero George Washington, or his excrutiating detail on the start of the American Revolution to more recent publications could provide a start. Reading Bancroft as an example of 19th century nationalism also offers lots of intriguing possibilities. Fortunately, many volumes of his History are available online so access is easy. But if you can get hold of one of his beautifully bound earlier editions, and can provide students a chance to appreciate the workmanship of the volumes themselves, so much the better.
George Bancroft's Papers may be found at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library.