After Liberalism: George Bancroft and American Liberalism

I’m just now discovering this.

It figures though that Paul Gottfried would have already come across the importance of George Bancroft in the history of American liberalism. This excerpt comes from Paul Gottfried’s book After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State.

“While Tocqueville and Guizot underlined the link between American democracy and America’s decentralized republic, a new and fateful view of the American regime surfaced in the theorizing of George Bancroft (1800-1891). Jacksonian Democrat, career diplomat, and author of the ten-volume A History of the United States, Bancroft admired German idealist philosophy, which he popularized in the United States. As a young man he had studied in Göttingen, Berlin, and Heidelberg and, while in Germany, had become intimately familiar with the historical speculation of G.W.F. Hegel. His own work incorporated several umistakable Hegelian themes: that history showed the progressive unfolding of the divine personality; that this process was reflected in the advance of human liberty; and that liberty had developed most fully in the Protestant Germanic world. For Bancroft, unlike Hegel, however, this progress toward liberty reached its culmination on American soil. Bancroft presents the American people as the ultimate bearers of divinely ordained liberty and makes this point explicit at the end of his History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States (1882): “a new people had arisen without kings or princes or nobles. They were more sincerely religious, better educated, and of nobler minds and of purer morals than the men of any former republic. By calm meditation and friendly councils they had prepared a constitution which, in the union of freedom with strength and order, excelled every one known before.”

The spirit of the people thus described was held to be democratic, and Bancroft subscribed to Americans a collective wisdom which found expression in their political architecture. The American federal union, as he saw it, was no mere convenient state but “the only hope for renovating the life of the civilized world.” The political institutions fashioned and inspired by America’s democratic people assumed in Bancroft’s writing a mystical quality, and his insistence that the voice of the people is the voice of God led Tocqueville to remark that “pantheism is the religion most characteristic of democracies.”

The American capacity for self-government that Bancroft exalted was not in the end the American propensity for local self-rule. Bancroft glorified a national democratic will, and his History of the United States ends appropriately with the topic “consolidating the union.” According to Bancroft, an American people and an American national government were both inchoately present even before the colonies became a nation-state: “For all the want of government, their solemn pledge to one another and mutual citizenship and perpetual union made them one people; and that people was superior to its institutions, possessing the vital form which goes before organization and gives it strength.”

George Bancroft was the most influential American historian of the 19th century and his History of the United States was a highly influential work of metapolitics. It was Bancroft who concocted the myth that American national identity was synonymous with progressive liberalism and that America had some kind of divine mission to evolve into a more perfect state and spread its gospel across the globe.

Bancroft was a second generation, Harvard educated Yankee who absorbed this stuff like a sponge while studying abroad in the late 1810s/early 1820s. When he returned to the United States, he came back as a Europeanized cosmopolitan liberal. He spent the rest of his life injecting this garbage into the American intelligentsia. This happened well after the American Founding.

The following excerpt comes from Colin Woodard’s book Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood:

“It was during that sojourn in the capital that Bancroft made the decision to write a history of the country that would help guide its people to their destiny …

For much of 1833 and early 1834 he did little else but write. He was at work twelve to fourteen hours a day, scrawling out words in his compact script, four lines to a page, then revising them in the ample spaces in between. Some of the pages became so clotted with ink from his alterations that it would be difficult for a printer to decode his intentions. But the pages stacked higher, and within them was a story of America and its purpose.

He had settled on a theme even before he started his research.

History, he was convinced, was the unfolding of God’s plan for the world, and that plan was the progressive development of liberty, equality, and freedom. This Providential view of humanity’s past, present, and future had been passed on to him by what he had learned from his father, his boarding school, his college, and his faith. His professors in Göttingen and Berlin had reinforced this paradigm, even if most of them expressed this discernable direction of history in secular terms.

Hegel, Heeren and Eichhorn had taught him to focus on nations – Volk, or peoples – as the primary actors in history’s progress. Each group had its own intrinsic characteristics and each grew like an organism from the instructions encoded in its seed, its spirit, its Volkgeist. World history was led, these professors had demonstrated, by a series of nations each taking its turn to carry the baton of freedom and liberty as far as it was capable before handing it off to another. Greece was succeeded by Rome, a corrupted Rome was conquered by the Teutons, the ancient Germanic peoples who the first-century Roman historian Tacitus said were morally upright and democratically organized; the Teutons in turn invaded the British Isles, passing the torch to the resulting Anglo-Saxons. It had then, Bancroft was already certain, been taken up by British-settled North America.

America had to be a chosen nation. Bancroft’s Puritan ancestors believed themselves to be such an elect people, tasked by God to erect a City upon a Hill, to conduct an errand in the wilderness to create a more perfect and godly society. Bancroft assumed his Greater New England region was exemplary of the country as a whole, that its deep cultural values and ideals were broadly shared. Those values, he believed, were unfolding from the Anglo-Saxon germ, spreading by means of roads, canals, and steamboats to fulfill the divine plan.

A golden age was coming for humanity, and America would lead the way, ever forward, ever noble, ever good. …”

Such was this religious / philosophical paradigm of nonsense that was served up by George Bancroft and was swallowed in the antebellum era by Eastern elites. It has guided us down to the present day.

About Hunter Wallace 12367 Articles
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  1. Liberalism for me, means tolerance and willingness to see things from another person’s perspective. This also means an aversion to offending those who do not share my perspective.

    • @Malachi I agree. What passed as progressivism in 1830 would be Nazism in 2021. The words liberalism and progressivism are in themselves not a bad thing. The word “progress” is in the name

    • 18th century classical liberalism and the liberalism of the 1960s New Left are two very different things.

  2. @ perhaps if the learned mr.Bancroft and company, had stuck with the gospel of Jesus , we would.have a better history than we do, a better society today and better regard for ourselves and each other, than we do, things could have been much better, than the hey have.been, men from me.bancrofts native region, always seem to have a fixation or infatuation, with some other society and hence their annoying habit of shoving it down the rest of america’s throat.

  3. I would love to see what a “Teuton” looked like. Also, there is no evidence of a Saxon invasion of England. I suspect they came as mercenaries and traders. The pre-Charlemagne world seems almost inconceivable to me.

    • I imagine the Teutons as a Race of tall, uber-Aryan Viking types….peaceful and fair-minded by nature, hard-working, creative and intelligent, but lacking racial awareness or sufficient knowledge of the deceitful and diabolical jew.

  4. All had to believe in the pseudo-religious equality claptrap blathered by the insufferably arrogant & pushy descendants of Puritan assholes – or else.

  5. Looking back the American Republic never had the racial or cultural homogeneity necessary for long-term success. Its Founding Stock was already in the process of being replaced a mere century after the Republic was established.

  6. “Hegel, Heeren and Eichhorn had taught him to focus on nations – Volk, or peoples – as the primary actors in history’s progress. Each group had its own intrinsic characteristics and each grew like an organism from the instructions encoded in its seed, its spirit, its Volkgeist.”

    Well, that’s certainly NOT a permitted notion today, is it?

    If Bancroft’s vision is one of the sources of today’s cultural-Marxist hegemony, then the source has been distorted out of all recognition.

    Not saying the original source vision didn’t always have the potential to be twisted, but the key element of that vision (the essential character of peoples/races) has been removed from it, and that was its most essential point.

    Removed, or perhaps better to say inverted, because while Bancroft believed that Germanic Whites were the source of all that was best in this world (a bit overstated but broadly true), today the (((tribe))) that hijacked our culture a century ago has inverted that fundamental premise of Bancroft’s vision and reconfigured the Germanic White as the source of all evil, while silently inserting its own distorted, degenerate identity as the new racial uppermost caste.

    • “focus on nations – Volk, or peoples – as the primary actors in history’s progress. Each group had its own intrinsic characteristics and each grew like an organism from the instructions encoded in its seed”:

      Plutocrats would always rather have their victims focus on, be conscious of and proud of group genetics instead of noticing and focusing on how they are being exploited.

      Ethnocentrism and tribal- and family-centrism is natural and good. Encouraging it is easy, like exhorting ducks to swim – an easy method of distraction to keep the masses from thinking about their exploitation by the plutocracy.

  7. I don’t think Bancroft was wrong. However, he didn’t foresee how democracy and an open society could be turned against the Yankee Puritans. The assumption is other groups could be assimilated into that founding stock population. It doesn’t take a high IQ nor scholarly degree to fathom a cantankerous people like Jews would take advantage of Saxon honesty and generosity, and leverage such to our own detriment. Regarding cultural cohesion among American Protestant churches and Christian society before WWI, you might want to check out Robert Handy’s Establishment Undermined. Great primer.

  8. I remember going to my university’s library to read “After Liberalism” as soon as it came out. I got it before anyone else and read it at the library.

    This excerpt cuts to the heart of the problem. WASP elites in that era tied their liberalism to their ethnic identity. Their entire concept of racial pride was based on WASPs being the most liberal group in the world. They didn’t put group loyalty first, they put liberalism first.

    • This is a good point. Perhaps their way of dealing with any guilt over having so much or inheriting so much, was to pretend that third worlders were better than us.

  9. “It was Bancroft who concocted the myth that American national identity was synonymous with progressive liberalism and that America had some kind of divine mission to evolve into a more perfect state and spread its gospel across the globe.”

    This idea was present at the founding. The Founders repeatedly warned against messianic liberalism, because so many middle class people, especially fervently religious Protestants, were already talking like Bancroft during the early days.

    The messianic liberalism was always in the low-church Protestant religion. It didn’t have much influence on government policy early on because only large landowners could vote.

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