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George Bancroft (October 3, 1800 – January 17, 1891) was an Americanmarker 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 Academymarker at Annapolismarker 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 Baymarker 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 was born in Worcester, and began his education at Phillips Exeter Academymarker and entered Harvard Collegemarker at thirteen years of age. At age 17, he graduated from Harvard and went to study in Germanymarker. Abroad, he studied at Heidelbergmarker, Göttingenmarker and Berlinmarker. At Göttingen he studied Plato with Arnold Heeren, New Testament Greek with Albert Eichhorn and natural science with Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. In 1820, he received his doctorate from the University of Göttingenmarker.

Bancroft capped off his education with European tour, in the course of which he sought out almost every distinguished man in the world of letters, science and art; among others, Goethe, 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 Harvardmarker. 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, Massachusettsmarker. 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, Massachusettsmarker; 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.
His entry into politics came in 1837 with his appointment by Martin Van Buren as Collector of Customs of the Port of Boston. In this position, two of Bancroft's appointees were Orestes Brownson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. 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 Academymarker at Annapolismarker, gave the orders which led to the occupation of Californiamarker, and sent Zachary Taylor into the contested land between Texasmarker and Mexicomarker. He also continued his pleadings for the annexation of Texas as extending "the area of freedom," and, though a Democrat, opposed 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 Londonmarker, 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 Yorkmarker and writing history.

In April 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 Berlinmarker, where he remained until his resignation in 1874. Then he lived in Washington, D.C.marker, summering at Rose Cliffmarker, Newport, Rhode Islandmarker.

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.

Namesakes and Monuments

The United States Navy has named several ships USS Bancroft, as well as the fleet ballistic missile submarine USS George Bancroft marker, after Bancroft, and the mid-19th century United States Coast Survey schooner USCS Bancroft also was named for him. The dormitory at the United States Naval Academymarker, Bancroft Hall, is named after him as well.

In and around Worcester, Massachusettsmarker, Bancroft's birthplace, many streets, businesses and monuments bear his name:

* Bancroft School, Worcester MA.
* Bancroft School of Massage Therapy, Worcester, MA.
* Bancroft Hall at Phillips Exeter Academymarker, Exetermarker, NHmarker.
* Bancroft Tower, which was erected in honor of him on Bancroft Tower Road Worcester, MA.
* Bancroft Commons, an apartment building in downtown Worcester, MA.
* Bancroft Motors, now owned by HARR Motor Company.
* Bancroft Street, Gardnermarker, MA.
* Bancroft Street, Worcester, MA.

Published Works

  • 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


  1. He served as president of the American Unitarian Association from 1825 to 1836.


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