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History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent. By
GEORGE BANCROFT. VOL. V. pp. 459. Boston. 1852. A
unity, which pervaded its different eleto an artist, than the composition of ments, and connected it with the politics American history has been to Mr. Ban and culture of Europe, was hardly suscroft. If genius is subject to the law of pected ; much less was it unfolded in its predestination, we should say that he was profound relations with the past and the born expressly for the fulfilment of this future. When Mr. Bancroft first anwork. At all events, he has made it his nounced his intention of writing the hispeculiar mission; he has engaged in it as tory of the United States, the plan was à chosen and favorite labor; he has ga received, as we have been told, with utter thered constant inspiration from his indifference by eminent literary men whom theme ; and melted all that was harsh and he consulted. They perceived that there prosaic in its details into fluent and har was already a plenty of isolated narramonious beauty, by the warm glow of his tives; but they had no comprehension of enthusiasm. Seldom has a work of liter the philosophic unity which might be ary art borne such an impress of the sen given to the subject by the hand of a timent, in which it was conceived. Its master. It remained for the youthful and profound sincerity of thought, its faithful ambitious scholar, fresh from historical ness to the convictions from which it pro and philosophical studies under the influceeds, its loyalty to the ideas with which ence of the best European culture, to it identifies the action of Providence in the falsify their predictions, and enlarge the progress of the ages, give a freshness and sphere of their ideas, by the production vitality to its narrative, which we rarely of a work combining originality, depth, tind in philosophical histories. We venture and picturesque beauty, to such a degree, to believe that no other subject could pre as at once to elevate it to the highest rank sent such a powerful appeal to the sym in American literature. He has redeemed pathies of the author; and we are certain the subject from the repulsive barrenness that it is precisely the intellectual charac of the mere annalist, connected its events teristics which he possesses, that are best with the principles on which they depend, adapted to develope the great theme in evolved the universal laws which underlie all its grandeur and comprehensiveness. the special developments of history,
The condition of American history, pre thrown around the fortunes of a few vious to the cultivation of the field by struggling victims of oppression, the fasciMr. Bancroft, afforded little promise of nations of eloquence, seized upon the brilliant success in its elaboration. Its imaginative elements in their story with leading facts had been succinctly related. the alert fancy of a poet, and illustrated Its annals had been recorded with di their progress from dependence to freeligent minuteness. The principal dates dom by the lights of a noble and suggesand incidents were familiar to every tive philosophy schoolboy. The simple narratives of con The adaptation of the subject to the temporary documents had been wrought author, and of the author to the subject, up into popular displays of festive elo has been a singularly happy circumstance quence. Poetry had thrown its enchant in Mr. Bancroft's literary career. Not ments around the romantic features of that he would have failed of distinction our colonial and revolutionary epochs. in any department of intellectual effort. But still every thing was in a chaotic to which he might have devoted his enstate. No plastic spirit had shaped the ergies. He possesses too choice and brilcrude materials into the epic symmetry, liant gifts of nature, not to have attained which forms the appropriate dress of an enviable eminence. Uniting a remarktruth, as well as of fiction. No previous able versatility of thought with great acwriter had dreamed of the singular capa tivity of temperament, he has exhibited bilities of the subject. It had been regard the qualities which insure the success of ed only with the most superficial views. the poet, the orator, the elegant essayist, The general principles involved in the de and the founder of philosophical systems. velopment of American civilization, had But in no other sphere than that with never been investigated; scarcely had which his name has become identified, they occupied the attention of thinking could he have found such scope for the men. The time for that had not yet come. exercise of his peculiar endowments. He Thus far, our history had been written was the first writer to conceive of the only by piecemeal ; and the sublime history of his country, as an integral
unity; and in this conception he has narrative writing.
Each sentence is opened "fresh fields and pastures new,” fraught with a weighty meaning. In a converting the arid wastes of solitary few lines, are often condensed the results and unrelated events into scenes of living of extensive research. Chapters are and beautiful harmony. In this respect, crowded into a paragraph. The connecthe enjoys the same felicity with our inost ing links on which the charming play of universally admired prose writer, Wash style so much depends, are wanting. The ington Irving. What Irving has done for well-rounded transitions, by which the the local scenery of his native land, Ban reader is gently transported from one croft has done for its history. Under the topic to another, without a sense of mental magic touch of Irving, the picturesque fatigue, are seldom supplied, so that the glories of the American streams and for- journey, instead of leading over a smooth ests have been revealed in lovelier en and facile road, takes us up a mountain chantment, wedded to a thousand quaint ascent, where a watchful eye and strong traditions, and crowned with a natural nerve are essential to progress. In the home-like charm that appeals to the heart pages of Bancroft we rarely find the sweet no less than to the eye. In like manner, and limpid flow of expression, which gives Bancroft has invested familiar themes with such a seductive enchantment to the style a new significance, combined the imagina of Washington Irving; nor do they ever tion with the memory in the retrospect of exhibit the well-mannered diffuseness, the the Past, adorned the deeds of our ances soft, velvety evenness of surface, which tors with the chaste coloring of historical make the reading of Prescott an almost portraiture, and revived the fading me voluptuous delight. But this defect in morials of our heroic age in a form of narrative, is inherent in the plan of his permanent reality. We may say of both history. He aims at integral representhese great writers, that they have been tation, rather than at a lucid but superequally fortunate in the moment of their ficial sketching of events. The attempt appearance on the scene of American let to unfold the seminal idea of American ters. Each had his destined work; the history, to portray the course of affairs world into which they were born was in their relations with the great worldunoccupied ; a crowd of materials lay drama of the age, and to combine the open to their hand; with the true instinct veracity of facts with the proportions of of genius they recognized their advantage; epic unity, could hardly be carried into and the signal success which they have effect within the limits of a smoothly reaped, is no less due to the fortunate flowing narrative. accident of their position, than to the ac The first condition of good narrative, knowledged splendor of their endowments. however, Mr. Bancroft possesses in a most Such is often the apparently precarious
eminent degree. His statements are tenure of literary fame. We think it may founded on thorough investigation. With a partly be explained by chronology—that strong disposition to generalize in theorya few years earlier or a few years later, the leading attribute of all philosophical would have changed the fate of the great minds—he never indulges it, in the sphere est “ heirs of renown”-forgetting that it of facts. He never loses sight of minute is the glorious privilege of genius to de events and circumstances in a cloud of tect the latent qualities of the time, to generalizations. Practised in the examdiscover the unshaped materials of poetry ination of historical evidence, he brings a and creative thought amidst the rubbish singular sagacity to the decision of those of daily life, and, like the healing descent delicate points, where the balance often of the angel, to call forth potent elements trembles in suspense, but on which the of vitality from the stagnant pool of cus most pregnant issues depend. No one can tom. No doubt the genius, both of Iry detect any marks of haste or impatience, ing and Bancroft, is indebted to oppor any neglect in the search for latent evitunity; but how often has the same dence, any reluctance to unravel vast and opportunity been presented, with no an repulsive masses of testimony in the conswering inspiration to turn it to account! struction of his narrative. Cherishing de
The peculiar merit of Mr. Bancroft as a cided predilections in matters of opinion historian, consists not in any one pre and taste, he has preserved such remarkdominant characteristic, which designates able impartiality of statement, that the his mode of composition, but in the com very breadth and candor of his views has pleteness and artistic proportion with led censorious and cavilling judges to acwhich he has constructed an organic whole cuse him of time-serving. But no such from a vast collection of materials. Re charge is warranted by facts. He never garded merely as a narrator, we cannot conceals his own convictions ; never proassign him the highest rank. His style fesses sympathy with an opinion which he is too elaborate for the graceful flow of does not respect; and above all, never
colors the truths of history to serve a fa union through the establishment of pervorite purpose. With the strict fidelity sonal freedom, and emancipate the nations of his narrative, which is, no doubt, the from all authority not flowing from themprimary demand in a genuine historian, selves. The battle was fought for the but which is perhaps the least frequently advancement of the principles of everlastfully realized, Mr. Bancroft exhibits other ing peace and universal brotherhood. Its qualities, which greatly distinguish him fruits were to be the substitution of the from previous writers.
natural equality of man for hereditary His subject naturally suggests the pic- privilege, -of a government founded on torial sketches which form the appropriate the concord of opinion for the irresponembellishment of historical description. sible authority of an autocrat, and of the The admirable skill in word-painting, inauguration of a plebeian democracy by which would have given Mr. Bancroft the side of empires rejoicing in a long line distinction as a poet, if he had not selected of haughty sovereigns. a different career, finds ample sphere for Such is the groundwork on which the its exercise in the delineation of the for stirring events that form the subject of tunes of the colonists. The fragrant the present volume are traced. Conriches of the primeval forest in contrast tinuing the description of the antecedents with the elegancies of advancing civiliza of the revolution, it shows how Great tion; the teeming abundance of animal Britain estranged America by the series life which rejoiced the eyes of the hardy of Parliamentary assumptions which reachsettlers in quest of food ; the bounteous ed their climax in the passage of the luxuriance of vegetation revealing the vir Stamp Act, Feb. 27th, 1765. The narraginal resources of the unexhausted soil ; tive, though singularly condensed, is suffithe quaint simplicity of rural life among ciently copious for a lucid exposition of the primitive families in the wilderness, facts; the progress of British legislation is and on the banks of delicious streams; followed, step by step, and described with the aboriginal poetry of Indian manners patient minuteness; the characters of the while yet uncontaminated by the vices of most eminent English statesmen then on artificial society, present an irresistible the stage, are placed in a clear light by temptation to the pencil of the artist, brief graphic sketches, as well as by the which Mr. Bancroft has genially followed vivid portraiture of their deeds; while the in the numerous gorgeous episodes that connection of American independence, with afford such a grateful relief to the pre the grand historical drama of continental vailing severity of tone in the representa Europe, is unfolded with that remarktion of events.
able breadth and keenness of vision,—that But it is not merely with the eye of a extraordinary alertness of mental assopoet that Mr. Bancroft has contemplated ciation, which detects the bearing of disthe vast panorama of American history. tant and apparently insignificant events on Trained in the schools of a profound trans the question under discussion, for which, cendental philosophy, which looks on ex in our opinion, Mr. Bancroft is without a ternal events as the exponents of some rival among living historians. vital principle, he seeks the pervading, The first four chapters of this volume energizing idea, which underlies and in present a masterly view of the condition spires the progress of American institu of Europe, including England and her tions. This he detects in the inborn as dependencies, prior to the American repiration of the human soul for freedom, volution, and during the debates in Parits consciousness of a spiritual destiny, liament on the taxation of the colonies. and its desire for the realization of univer Not only is the political character of the sal unity. Hence, to Mr. Bancroft, the age portrayed with a peculiar brilliancy progress of history is the shadowing forth of coloring, but a profound analysis is in time and space of the inherent tenden given of the development of ideas which cies of the soul. American history sur prepared for the assertion of freedom by passes in dignity and grandeur the deve the colonists of America. According to lopments of former ages, inasmuch as it Mr. Bancroft, the cause of the Protestant is the outbirth of a sublimer and more sig. Reformation had gained such signal nificant idea. In his view, “the diurnal triumphs in the Seven Years' War, that flow of existence never rests, bearing the the great Catholic powers were compelled human race onward, through continuous to band together, in order to check the change. Principles grow into life by in progress of change. The religious, poliforming the public mind, and in their ma tical, military, and industrial forms of the turity, gain the mastery over events: fol Middle Age were undermined; the dylowing each other as they are bidden, and nasties that had been consecrated by the ruling without a pause.” The American Roman Church had yielded to the offrevolution was designed to organize social spring of the Reformers, and Protestant
ism had so far fulfilled its political ends, sarcasm against the Roman hierarchy as no longer to threaten the world with from the annals of the race. Addressing convulsions. But Protestantism contained free thinkers throughout the cultivated within itself the seeds of a more expanded world, the influence of his writings pergrowth. It was the harbinger of new vaded' Europe. In an age of skepticism, changes in the state, for the common be he was the prince of scoffers, reflecting the nefit of civilized man. The dominant idea licentious brilliancy of the aristocracy, of the Reformation, was the right of pri when almost every considerable house in vate judgment. The liberty of the indi Paris had pretensions as a school of philovidual in affairs of opinion had been pro sophy. With no conception of the regeclaimed by Descartes, and under the more nerating power of truth, he cherished the comprehensive form of philosophical free humanizing influence of letters. Weldom, had taken deep root even among the coming whatever tended to soften barnations which adhered to the old faith. barism, to refine society, and to stay New theories in politics, ethics and indus the cruelties of superstition, he had no try, sprung up on the basis of individual hopeful visions of the coming of popular supremacy. The first fruit of this intel
power; he heard not the footsteps of Prolectual movement was skepticism, groping vidence along the line of centuries, and its way through the clouds of tradition; the regarded the vital changes in government, educated mind of Europe turned its inqui as among the accidents of a day. Nor did sitive activity in the direction of doubt. he comprehend the tendency of his own As in the days of Luther and Calvin, it labors. In mocking the follies and vices of pleaded the Bible against popes and pre French society, he had no wish to destroy lates, it now invoked the authority of its institutions, and would have hated the reason on every object of human thought thought of hastening a democratic revoluProceeding in the way of skepticism, the tion. “Thus,” says Mr. Bancroft,“ skepnew reform led to revolution.
ticism proceeded unconsciously in the Prussia, which had been the favorite work of destruction, invalidating the past, disciple of Luther, and the child of the yet unable to construct the future. For Reformation, now under the absolute rule good government is not the creation of of Frederic the Great, still extended pro skepticism. Her garments are red with tection to the activity of reason, as ex blood, and ruins are her delight; her pounded in every variety of creed. It gave despair may stimulate to voluptuousness a shelter to Rousseau; invited D'Alembert and revenge; she never kindles with the and Voltaire as its guests; encouraged disinterested love of man." Semler in his boldness of criticism on Montesquieu possessed a mind of a difthe records of the Bible; inspired Lessing ferent and inore organic tendency. He diswith lofty hopes for the education of the covered the title-deeds of humanity berace to a universal brotherhood; and intro neath the rubbish of privileges, convenduced the pregnant analyses of Immanuel tional charters, and statutes. Disdaining Kant, as profound and free a spirit as any the impotence of epicureanism, his genesince Socrates, into the teachings of its rous nature found no resting-place in youth.
doubt. He saw that society must repose In France, the spirit of the Middle Age on principles which do not change even in was struck with death. The nobility, the midst of revolutions; that Christianity, which numbered not much more than a which seems to aim only at the felicity of hundred thousand souls, was overbalanced heaven, is also the foundation of human by the many millions of an industrious blessedness on earth. In the laws of people. Its young men, trained by the every nation, he sought for the truth study of antiquity, imbibed republican which had inspired them; and recognized principles from the patriot writings of the priority of justice behind the conGreece and Rome. Authority in conflict fused mass of positive rules. Full of the with free opinion, only called forth licen- inquiring spirit of his time, he demanded tiousness, and was laughed out of counte tolerance for all opinions; and though he nance by the potent audacity of ridicule. failed to discover the true basis of governSkepticism spread its taint over the social ment, he gave a powerful impulse to the circles of the capital ; it was infused into principles of political liberty. every department of literature and science, The new ideas fell with quickening inand blended with the intellectual life of fluence on the fruitful genius of Turgot, the nation. Using the weapons of polished who came forward in the virgin purity of wit and brilliant vivacity, Voltaire main philosophy to the duties of active life. To tained the cause of free inquiry with a pe him, the human race was one great whole, tulant contempt of restraint. With the composed of members of one family, unspirit of a partisan, he searched the ar der a common Father, and always marchchives of history, and drew materials for ing, though with slow steps, towards a