American Historian: George Bancroft


I’m back from Christmas break and trying to recuperate from a few too many cinnamon rolls. Reading assignments and preparation of a research proposal due Sunday are top of mind.

The class is Historiography so the research isn’t to be about the development and proof of a thesis. It’s more about research into the history of how history was written.

George Bancroft in Old AgeFor my research paper, I plan to explore the influence of historian George Bancroft (right) on Antebellum, Civil War, and Postbellum American history. I may need to shave this down a bit depending on how much material I find.

Bancroft was one of the best known American historians of the 19thcentury. While Harvard educated (he entered at 13 and graduated at 17!), he is considered a “literary historian,” who wrote in a style popular with A History of the United States Bancroftthe public. His primary work was the multi-volume History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, which he began writing in 1830. [Picture left of remaining vHe published the first three volumes over that decade. The final set would be ten volumes. A first revision was completed and published as six volumes in 1876 as part of the national centennial.

Perhaps less known is that Bancroft, while Secretary of the Navy, created the Naval Academy. He was also chosen by Congress to eulogize Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times reprinted that Eulogy on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the event in 1915. It, along with drawings of the event, can be seen in their entirety here.

I have located the index to his papers housed on microfiche at Cornell University and two biographies which leverage that material. The first, a two volume set 1971 reprint of M.A. DeWolfe Howe’s 1908 work The Life and Letters of George Bancroft I was able to find on the Amazon Marketplace in almost pristine shape. The second, George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel, was written by Russel B. Nye and published in 1945. It’s on order. There are other large collections of Bancroft materials in holdings by the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. I’m beginning in earnest a search for articles that deal with his contributions to American history as well.

As a follow-up at some later point, I think it would be very interesting to contrast the style and impact Bancroft Portraitof George Bancroft with Charles and Mary Beard. As a historian friend of mine said, “you’d be hard pressed to find two more different expositors on the American experience than Bancroft and Beard. Bancroft was an unabashed patriot and advocate of democracy, to a degree that would be considered embarrassing in most academic settings today. Still, he was indeed the most articulate and widely-read of our early historians, and his writings both reflected and helped to create the sense of American exceptionalism that has prevailed for most of our history as a nation.”

You might recall that Charles and Mary Beard were the first to suggest that the Civil War was the second American revolution as was mentioned in my previous post here.

The exceptional oil on canvas portrait above of Bancroft in later life was painted by Gustav Richter, a German painter (1823 – 1884). It is a part of the Harvard University Portrait Collection and is on display at Memorial Hall.

More as I get into my research.

Photo credits:
Photo of George Bancroft in middle age taken by Mathew Brady, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photo of painting above: The President and Fellows of Harvard College.



The Civil War as Revolution – Part IV


[Note: This post continues a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

George Clemenceau

George Clemenceau [Source: Public Domain - Smithsonian American Art Museum (Wikipedia Commons)

Continuing with the topic of the Civil War as the second American Revolution, the impact of what McPherson termed internal revolution was even more dramatic than external revolution. At its heart was the change in status of the nation’s four million slaves, their emancipation, “…elevation to civil and political equality with whites, and the destruction of the old ruling class in the South – all within the space of a half-dozen years.”[i] George Clemenceau called it “one of the most radical revolutions known to history.”[ii] A slave freed in the 1860’s exclaimed that “the bottom rail’s on top.”[iii] A South Carolinian called post war Reconstruction – without slavery – “the maddest, most infamous revolution in history.”[iv]

But both McPherson and Ransom present the cases of historical revisionists who, in the 1960s and 1970s contested the notion “that the American Civil War accomplished any sort of genuine revolution….Some even denied that it produced much significant change in the social and economic structure of the South or in the status of black people.”[v] One thrust of their argument was that much of the momentum surrounding the industrial revolution was gained in the decades before the Civil War. This challenge to Beard’s thesis of the war as an economic revolution, suggests that advancements such as “the railroad, the corporation, the factory system, the techniques of mass production of interchangeable parts, the mechanization of agriculture, and many other aspects of a modernizing industrial economy – began a generation or more before the Civil War, and that while the war may have confirmed and accelerated some of these,” it really didn’t cause a major shift in direction.[vi] While McPherson concedes that these changes were well underway, he finds in them support of Beard and Moore theses rather than detraction. The reason is that modernization was occurring in the North, not the South.

The South remained a labor-intensive, labor-repressive undiversified agricultural economy. The contrasting economic systems of the antebellum North and South helped to generate the conflicting proslavery and antislavery ideologies that eventually led to war. Northern victory in the war was therefore a triumph for the northern economic system and the social values it generated. The war discredited the economic ideology and destroyed the national political power of the planter class.[vii]

More challenges to the war as revolution in Part V.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[i] James McPherson,Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 10., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., 11., [iv] Ibid., 13., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid.


The Civil War as Revolution – Part II


[Note: This post continues a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]


Charles Beard

Mary Beard

The idea that the American Civil War was a second American revolution originated with Charles and Mary Beard in the late 1920’s.[i] It began a debate which has taken pendulum-like swings through the years as history’s revisionists and counter-revisionists have tangled with the questions of cause and effect of the war. Beard considered the war a “class conflict between a Yankee capitalist bourgeoisie and a southern planter aristocracy.”[ii] It was thus a struggle between the “contending economic interests of plantation agriculture and industrializing capitalism.”[iii] He downplayed sectional struggles as a cause of the war and even slavery, considering both consequential and peripheral. Beard’s case for the war as transforming on a revolutionary scale was that “the triumph of the North under the leadership of a Republican party, which represented the interests of northern capitalism, brought about ‘the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the distribution of wealth, [and] in the course of industrial development.”[iv]

Photo of Unfinished portrait miniature of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper Public Domain [Wikipedia]

Oliver Cromwell

He likened it to the overthrow of the king and the aristocracy by the middle classes of England in the 1640s that was the Puritan Revolution and also to the French Revolution in which the middle classes and peasants of France overthrew their king, nobility, and clergy. Beard considered that “‘the social cataclysm in which the capitalists, laborers and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South,’ was the ‘Second American Revolution, and in a strict sense the First’ – the first because the Revolution of 1776 had produced no such changes in the distribution of wealth and power among classes.”[v]

Wikipedia Commons]

Declaration of Human Rights

Roger L. Ransom, in his article “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited,” presents two additional “cases” for associating the Civil War with revolution. First, he considers “the elimination of slavery and destruction of the slave regime in the South as the revolutionary outcome of the war.”[vi] Both caused post war upheavals in the South.[vii] Secondly, he recognized that the people who lived through the war “saw revolutionary aspects in their struggle. Southerners regarded their ‘rebellion’ as a revolution against tyranny– in this case Northern Republicans–and looked for inspiration to the war in which their forefathers had rebelled against King George. Northerners, by contrast, saw the conflict as an effort to hold together the sacred union that was formed out of the rebellion against England. For both sides, the Civil War was a continuation of the struggle for freedom that began in 1776.”[viii]

King George III in Coronation Robes Public Domain [Wikipedia Commons]

King George

Perhaps the best case for the Civil War being America’s second revolution can be made by considering it in aggregate, the sum of parts. McPherson suggests that the arguments put forth by American political sociologist Barrington Moore, did just that. He “portrayed the Civil War as ‘the last Capitalist Revolution.’”[ix] Moore “sees the revolutionary dimension of the war not simply as a triumph of freedom over slavery, or industrialism over agriculture, or the bourgeoisie over the plantation gentry – but as a combination of all these things.” [x] More in the next post…

Note: For an excellent article by Professor Roger L. Ransom see The Economics of the Civil War.

This series on The Civil War as Revolution continues at the following links:  Part I, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and The Revolutionaries of the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary]

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[i] Roger L. Ransom, 1999. “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited.”Civil War History45, no. 1: 28. Database on-line. Available from Questia, Internet. Accessed 27 October 2007.
[ii] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 8., [iii] Ibid., 6-7, [iv] Ibid., 7, [v] Ibid., 8.
[vi] Ransom, “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited,” Civil War History, 4, [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid.
[ix] McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, 9., [x] Ibid.