Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

George Bancroft (1845–1846): Secretary of the Navy

George Bancroft was born in 1800 in Worcester, Massachusetts. He graduated, with honors, from Harvard College in 1817 and remained at the school another year for divinity studies. By 1818, Bancroft was in Europe studying theology and philosophy at Gottingen University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1820; he was also at the University of Berlin, where he studied with Georg F. Hegel and Alexander von Humboldt.

In 1822, Bancroft was back in the United States, serving as a tutor of Greek at Harvard. After a short stint as a clergyman, Bancroft devoted his attention to writing and opening the Round Hill School at Northampton, Massachusetts, where he taught for eight years. He sold his interest in the school in 1831 and devoted his attention to writing full-time. By 1834, he had published the first volume of what would become the ten-volume History of the United States.

During the forty years Bancroft devoted to his literary project, he also pursued Democratic politics in his home state, becoming collector of the Port of Boston in 1838 at the request of President Martin Van Buren. Though Bancroft had expressed an interest in becoming the U.S. minister to Prussia, President James K. Polk, in 1841, tapped Bancroft to become his secretary of the Navy, a post Bancroft held from 1845 to 1846. During that time, Bancroft would establish the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

Following that stint, Bancroft became the U.S. minister to Great Britain (1846-1849). He would also serve as minister to Prussia (1867-1871) and minister to the German Empire (1871-1874). When the Civil War erupted, Bancroft, due to his stance on slavery, switched his party loyalty and became a Republican.

By 1874, Bancroft had completed the final volume of his epic History of the United States, an achievement that would earn him a place among the greatest of U.S. historians. He died in 1891.

For further reading:

Handlin, Lilian. George Bancroft: The Intellectual as Democrat. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Nye, Russel B. George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel. New York: Knopf, 1944.