January 17, 2012

Death of Bancroft: a world of truth

George Bancroft was 90 years old when he died in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 1891. Though his most well-known role was probably as the Secretary of the Navy, appointed by President James K. Polk, he was also an author. His writings are almost exclusively focused on the history of the United States and in that field he was highly regarded.

He also wrote an essay called "The Last Moments of Eminent Men" (1834), in which he described advice on dying mostly from famous political leaders and writers. He begins by stating his disagreement with Lord Byron that heaven prefers the young. Instead, he says, that "length of days" is desirable and, further, that "gray hairs are a crown of glory: the only object of respect that can never excite envy." By then, Bancroft suggests, ambition transitions to observation, and an old man can be satisfied with their experience, and the happy man always wishes to prolong life.

Even so, Bancroft notes, despite this love for life, one need not look at death "with abjectness." He refers to the bravery of soldiers or of sailors who venture into stormy seas as a sign that death can be faced with courage. His essay further discusses deathbed superstitions, those who seek death through suicide, and men who vainly build their monuments while yet living. The essay, really, talks about the value of life and the peace of death. Bancroft concludes with a paragraph dedicated to people like himself:

A tranquil death becomes the man of science, or the scholar. He should cultivate letters to the last moment of life; he should resign public honors as calmly as one would take off a domino on returning from a mask. He should listen to the signal for his departure, not with exultation, and not with indifference. Respecting the dread solemnity of the change, and reposing in hope on the bosom of death, he should pass without boldness and without fear, from the struggles of inquiry to the certainty of knowledge, from a world of doubt to a world of truth.

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