George Bancroft 18001891

John Plumbe Jr. (18091857)
Quarter-plate daguerreotype, 1846

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Best remembered for his magisterial ten-volume History of the United States (1834–74)—one of the first comprehensive histories of America—George Bancroft also played an active part in Democratic Party politics in the 1840s. Though defeated in the campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 1844, he was tapped the following year by James K. Polk for the post of secretary of navy. In this position Bancroft acted decisively in supporting the newly elected president’s expansionist policies.

In the lead-up to the Mexican War, he directed the Pacific naval squadron to occupy San Francisco Harbor and other key California ports. Then, having been reassigned as the acting secretary of war, Bancroft ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead his military force into the contested Texas borderland—an action that led directly to war with Mexico. Following Taylor’s victory in the 1848 presidential election, Bancroft left public office and returned to his work as a historian.