Изображения страниц

as chain armor is flexible, but not as is the human body. It may be doubted whether he is ever read for literary pleasure. Nevertheless, scattered through these twelve volumes are hundreds of passages well worth the study of those who enjoy an exhibition of mastery in the use of words.



One does well to read Bancroft in the tall, widemargined, and almost sumptuous volumes of the original editions. The page is open and inviting. Both text and notes have a personal flavor very diverting at times. There is no question as to the usefulness of an attractive page in works of this sort. Political histories should be made easy, not by picture-book methods, but by the legitimate arts of good printing.

The work is generously planned. Twelve octavo volumes are required to bring the narrative down to the ratification of the constitution.' Three volumes, comprising nearly fifteen hundred pages, are given to the Colonial period alone.

Bancroft announced his theory of historical writing in the preface of 1834. He was to be controlled

Two volumes of the original edition correspond to one volume of the author's last revision,' 1883–85.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

always by the principles of historical scepticism,' and his narrative was to be drawn ‘from writings and sources which were contemporaries of the events that are described.' Nothing commonly supposed to belong to American history was to be retained merely because it had been unchallenged by former historians.

The treatment, as shown in these volumes on the Colonial period, is in perfect accord with the author's conception of the dignity of the subject. The matter is as stately as the manner. Bancroft writes history as a lord high chamberlain conducts a court function. He feels that during the ceremony of discovering a world and planting a nation there should be no unseemliness, certainly no laughter or disturbance.

The characters go through their evolutions like well-drilled courtiers. So stately are they as to appear scarce human. Homely and familiar traits are almost completely suppressed. The founders of America, as we see them looming in the pages

of Bancroft, are not men but incarnate ideas. They are the embodiment of principles and virtues. Winthrop is enlightened conservatism, Vane is generous impetuosity, Roger Williams is liberty of conscience. Strive how we will to bring these men nearer, to make them tangible, the effort is not wholly successful. These figures of the past, like the characters of a morality-play, persist in remaining personified ideas.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

As a reaction against 'classical' history comes history of the gossiping school. Thanks to you, said Brunetière, welcoming Masson to the French Academy, 'we now know the exact number of

Napoleon's shirts.' Bancroft was not interested in the spindles and shoe-buckles of the Puritans. Many people are, but they must find elsewhere the gratification they seek. Whoever wishes at any time absolutely to escape anecdotage, homely detail, and piquant gossip, has it always in his power to do so; he can read Bancroft's three volumes on the Colonial period and dwell among abstractions.

Even if not at this stage of his career the most human of writers, Bancroft is a comforting historian to return to, after having dwelt for a while with those who instruct us how low and mercenary in motive, how impervious to liberal ideas, were the men who planted English civilization in America. Historical iconoclasts all, they are frightfully convincing. Some of their arguments lose a degree of force as it dawns on the reader that Seventeenthcentury men are being judged by Nineteenth-century standards. When Bancroft wrote, the habit of abusing the ancestors had not become deepseated.

Turning from the Colonial period, the historian takes up the period of the American Revolution. Seven volumes are required for telling the story. The logical arrangement is by 'epochs. They are four in number: Overthrow of the European

[ocr errors]



Colonial system,' 'How Great Britain estranged ‘America,''America declares itself independent,' “The Independence of America is acknowledged.''

General histories must treat of many things, the doings of authorized and representative assemblies and the doings of the mob, skirmishes, battles by land and sea, diplomatic intrigues, party combinations, political and military plots, the characters of the actors in the historic drama, and the setting of the stage on which they played. While doing all

parts of his task with workmanlike skill, a historian will be found to excel in this thing or in that. Bancroft's accounts of military operations are always clear, energetic, and often extremely readable. He could not, like Irving, ‘render you a 'fearful battle in music,' but he never made the mistake of supposing that he could. He had not the graphical power of Parkman, but he had enough for his purposes.

His character sketches of the men who figured in the struggles for American independence are among the best parts of his writing. The patriots and their friends in England and on the Continent

1 In the last revision' Epoch Four is divided into unequal parts and the titles are reworded: Epoch first, · Britain overthrows the · European colonial system,' 1748-63; Epoch second, · Britain • estranges America,' 1763–74; Epoch third, • America takes up “arms for self-defence and arrives at independence,' 1774-76; Epoch fourth, America in alliance with France,' 1776-80; Epoch fifth, The People of America take their equal station among the powers of the earth,' 1780 to December, 1782.


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

are too 'uniformly creatures of light, but their opponents are not represented as necessarily creatures of darkness. If Bancroft could be more than fair to his own side, he was incapable of being wholly unfair to the other. His tendency is to regard human character as all of a piece, fixed rather than fluctuating. Men (politicians included) have been known to grow in virtue as they grow in years. Bancroft was over complacent in his attitude towards frenzied impromptu Revolutionary gatherings whose motives could not always have been so guiltlessly patriotic and disinterested as he represents them.' He was but little versed in the psychology of mobs.

Forceful at all points, Bancroft was singularly impressive in dealing with history as it is made in parliaments and conventions, in council chambers, cabinets, and courts of law. He was born to grapple with whole state paper offices. He knew the secret of subordinating a vast amount of detail to his main purpose. An important part of the American Revolution took place in Europe. Bancroft's capital merit consists in his having brought the event into its largest relations. The story as he told it did not merely concern the uprising of a few petty quarrelsome colonies, it became an im

* J. F. Jameson speaks of Bancroft's • tendency to convention• alize, to compose his American populations of highly virtuous • Noah's-ark men.' History of Historical Writing in America, 1891, p. 108.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »