08 April 2011

George Bancroft

In his History of the United States (1875), George Bancroft highlights the authority of the Second Continental Congress that began meeting in May 1775.
Whom did they represent? and what were their functions? They were committees from twelve colonies, deputed to consult on measures of conciliation, with no means of resistance to oppression beyond a voluntary agreement for the suspension of importations from Great Britain. They formed no confederacy; they were not an executive government; they were not even a legislative body. ... They had no treasury; and neither authority to lay a tax, nor to borrow money. They had been elected, in part at least, by tumultuary assemblies, or bodies which had no recognized legal existence.
Bancroft, History of the United States, 353-354
Bancroft's fidelity to primary sources was nearly pathological, according to Richard Vitzthum.
While some historians improve their work through revision, Bancroft did not. Revision tended to carry him further and further away from his evidence, a temptation that he, of all historians, would have been well advised to resist. When he revised, he did not go back and restudy his sources: thus his first editions reflect his fullest immersion in the evidence.
Richard C. Vitzthum, "Theme and Method in Bancroft's History of the United States," New England Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1968), 363, note 4.
But fidelity is perhaps the wrong word. The sources adorned more than they informed Bancroft's narratives.
The omnicompetent narrator of the History merely fits useful ideas and phrases from the sources into his own interpretive context. His disregard for the context in which they originally appeared is often complete. ...
[T]he History is based as often on secondary as on primary sources, belying Bancroft's claim here that he chiefly used primaries ... in saying he "derived" his narrative from source material, he means he has raised it to the level of philosophy.
Vitzthum, 372
Whether primary or secondary, Bancroft's citations are incomplete.
Bancroft to a large extent based his narrative on source material, both manuscript and printed, but ... did not scorn to employ secondary works which he considered reliable. ... The chief criticism of the historian's use of sources--which is one of technique--is that his style of citation is not sufficiently complete always to give the reader the information necessary for checking up or for himself locating the source.
Watt Stewart, "George Bancroft Historian of the American Republic," Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol. 19, No. 1 (1932), 80.

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