George Bancroft (October 3, 1800 -- January 17, 1891), was a Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of War and a foreign diplomat for the United States. But he is best known as the historian who wrote the ten-volume History of the United States, a documentary of the American people and its government and history.

Bancroft was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father, Aaron Bancroft, was a Unitarian minister, and had served as a soldier on the American side in the Revolutionary War. Bancroft was educated initially at the Exeter Academy, a prep school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and then at Harvard University. He then commenced graduate studies in Europe at Heidelberg, Gottingen, and Berlin. While in Berlin, he studied history under the German historian Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren, and he developed an appreciation for historical scholarship and the need for historical interpretation based upon primary historical documents and accounts. His work in Gottingen would lead him to his life's work, a study of the history of the United States.

He returned to the U.S. in 1822, and entered the clergy as his father wanted. However, he made for a poor preacher, particularly since he was mainly a humanist in thinking. He started working as a tutor at Harvard, but again found this unsatisfactory, mainly because of his philosophical differences with the University. As a result of this, he founded a new school, the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1823. Several other Harvard graduates participated in its founding and early history, including the librarian Joseph Green Cogswell, and the astronomer Benjamin Pierce. The Round Hill School had a very rigorous curriculum for young boys, equivalent to modern high school, and was one of the first in the United States to concentrate on students between elementary and middle school education, and more formal university and prep school education. Quite an accomplishment for someone who was only 23 at the time.

Bancroft began his literary work while managing his school. His earliest works were on classical studies, including a new edition and translation of Heeren's History of the states of antiquity, regarding the ancient Greek democracies. He also turned his interest in history towards analyzing the history of the United States, a nation less than fifty years old at that time. One of his earliest articles on American History, in 1831, was more a political tract than history -- a criticism of the Bank of the United States -- and one which ran contrary to his Federalist family heritage. After this, Bancroft switched allegiance from the Federalists to the Democrats, and remained one for the remainder of his life. His article on the constitutionality of the Bank was followed by more scholarly work, including his History of the colonization of the United States, which covered the history of what would become the United States to 1748; eventually, this became the first volume of the larger History of the United States. The book was first published in 1834, when he was only 33 years old. He continued to release new volumes at irregular intervals throughout his life, with the final, ten-volume set published in 1882. It is because of this work that Bancroft was considered one of the best historians of the United States during the nineteenth century.

He also entered politics and government service (as a Democrat) shortly after his work on the Bank of the United States appeared; he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, and nominated for the Massachusetts Secretary of State, though he refused both offices. He was then appointed to head the Port Authority of Boston by President Martin Van Buren. In 1844, he ran for Governor as a Democrat, but was defeated by George Nixon Briggs. After this loss, James K. Polk appointed Bancroft the Secretary of the Navy. Though Bancroft only remained in this position for a little over a year, he founded the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He also gave the order for the US Navy to seize Mexican ports in California at the opening of the Mexican-American War, and after being (briefly) appointed the interim Secretary of War, ordered Zachary Taylor into Mexico. Following his time as Secretary, he served as part of our diplomatic corps in London, before leaving public service (for the first time) in 1849. However, he remained well-known and well-respected among historians and government officials alike. He was asked by Congress to write and deliver the official eulogy for Abraham Lincoln, following Lincoln's assassination in 1865. Despite being a Democrat (Lincoln was a Republican), Bancroft was staunchly anti-slavery and pro-Union (as his love of American History would suggest), and he supported Lincoln and the Union cause during the Civil War. He delivered Lincoln's eulogy before Congress in February of 1866, ten months after Lincoln was killed. However, this wasn't Bancroft's first eulogy of a President -- he also eulogized Andrew Jackson in 1845.

He later re-entered public service, serving as a diplomat to the German government in Berlin from 1867 to 1874. During his tenure in Berlin, he served as the American representative in the dispute between Great Britain and the United States over the San Juan Islands on the west coast of the United States. The dispute had been simmering since 1846, and had nearly come to blows over (of all things) the killing of a pig in 1859. A temporary compromise was agreed to where both the United States and the British would settle on the island. But in 1872, their arbiter, Emperor William I of Germany, ruled in favor of the U.S., granting the San Juan Islands to the United States.

After Bancroft's (final) retirement from government service he continued his studies of American history, including the publication of his complete History of the United States in 1882. He was later elected the president of the newly-created American Historical Association, a scholarly association devoted to the history of our country. He held the post from 1885 to 1886, and remained on the board until he died. He died in Washington, D.C. in January of 1891, but was buried in his birthplace of Worcester, Massachusetts.

In honor of Bancroft's service to the Navy and to the country, the United States Navy named several ships after him. The most recent of these was the ballistic missile submarine USS George Bancroft (SSBN 643), which served as part of the United States nuclear deterrent from 1966 to 1993. It has since been decommissioned, and its sail is exhibited at the St. Mary's Submarine Museum in Georgia.
Encyclopedia Britannica

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