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George Bancroft

The Intellectual as Democrat

By (author) Lilian Handlin
Format: Hardback
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, United States
Imprint: Joanna Cotler Books
Published: 31st Jul 1984
Dimensions: w 160mm h 250mm
ISBN-10: 0060390336
ISBN-13: 9780060390334
Barcode No: 9780060390334

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Kirkus US
A vibrant though iffy re-evaluation of the 19th-century phenomenon - a mere Illustrious Name today - who produced a hugely popular multi-volume History of the United States (1834-76), became an intellectual bulwark of the new Democratic Party, got appointed Secretary of the Navy and founded the Naval Academy at Annapolis, served as Minister to Great Britain and Germany, and much, much more. Over time, Bancroft came to be regarded chiefly as a tubthumping chauvinist, oracle of the vox populi, and missionary of manifest destiny. This is simplistic and off-the-mark, Handlin argues. Bancroft was also a dyed-inthe-wool New Englander, brought up on the cautious principles of moral philosophy, trained for the pulpit at Harvard, devoted to what he called practical Christianity, and ever-mindful of his wordly fortune and reputation: a democrat, to be sure, but no radical individualist or leveller. Like Tocqueville, whom he anticipated in certain important respects, Bancroft appreciated the inertia and caution of a democratic people, their suspiciousness of innovation and innovators, their reliance on custom and tradition, even their capacity for self-satisfied and self-righteous narrow-mindedness. His extended and elaborate celebrations of these traits made him, in effect, a conservative, albeit a conservative of a variety not often recognized as such. At the same time, it appears to Handlin (as it did to some of the contemporaries) that Bancroft took up, tailored, and trimmed much of what he thought in order to win elections and advance his career. Hence, "the intellectual as democrat": not a democrat in the conventional sense, and, for Handlin, a perfect example of how those who follow the life of the mind in America must subvert their talent to gain a fleeting popularity. Her distaste has a sour ring, her lament is a familiar academic one, her re-classification of Bancroft will not go unchallenged. But what he did she describes with finesse, flashes of wit and insight, and genuine feeling. An important book, regardless. (Kirkus Reviews)