The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVII. Writers on American History, 1783–1850

§ 17. Sparks

Jared Sparks was born at Willington, Connecticut, in 1789. His youth was clouded by misfortune, but his intellectual ability brought him into notice, and friends sent him to college. He took a high rank at Harvard, where he was looked upon as a man of great promise. A residence of four years in the South as a Unitarian minister in Baltimore gave Sparks a national feeling and probably stimulated his interest in national history. In 1823 he returned to Boston to be the editor of The North American Review. This journal was then languishing under the editorship of Edward Everett, but Sparks secured control and placed it on a sound basis. In 1830, when he sold his last remaining share in the enterprise, he had received $19,000 besides an annual salary of $2200.

Sparks gave up the Review to devote himself to history. As early as 1824 he formed a plan to produce a complete edition of Washington’s writings. He intended to write history that paid and did not think it discreditable to have an eye on the popular demand. In 1826 and 1827 he made journeys through the original thirteen states collecting materials from unpublished documents. In 1828 and 1829 he visited Europe and was given access to the British and French archives. By this time he was full of enthusiasm. “I have got a passion for Revolutionary history,” he said, “and the more I look into it the more I am convinced that no complete history of the American Revolution has been written.” At this time he was full of schemes, each connected with the Revolution, and several works came out of them. But always in the back of his mind lay the plan of a great documentary history of the Revolution. While preparing the edition of Washington he learned from President John Quincy Adams that in 1818 Congress had appropriated money to publish the foreign correspondence of the Continental Congress during the Revolution. Adams was then too busy to give the matter his attention, and nothing was done about it. Sparks caught at the suggestion that he should take it up, and he made an agreement with Secretary Clay by which he was to print and sell to Congress one thousand copies of this correspondence at $2.12 1/2 a copy and to have $400 a volume for copying and editing. The work was done in eighteen months and for the entire set of twelve volumes the editor received $30,300. As his chief expense was for printing and translations, his net earnings must have been considerable. In the following year (1830), he proposed to Secretary Van Buren that the work be continued through the period of the Continental Congress. Van Buren agreed, and Congress passed the necessary act, but at the last moment the new secretary of state, Edward Livingston, made the contract with Frank P. Blair. Livingston blandly admitted that Sparks should have had the appointment but said that Blair’s selection was demanded by the politicians.

The writings of Washington now occupied Sparks’s time, but before they began to appear he brought out The Life of Gouverneur Morris (1832), in three volumes. In 1834 appeared Volume II of The Life and Writings of George Washington, and the rest of the twelve volumes followed regularly until the series was complete in 1837. The last to appear was the biography, the first volume in the set. The general verdict of the day was that it was a work worthy of the exalted subject. From 1836 to 1840 was published The Works of Benjamin Franklin, in ten volumes, and between 1834 and 1838 came the first series, and between 1844 and 1847 the second series, of The Library of American Biography, in all twenty-five volumes. In 1853 he issued The Correspondence of the American Revolution, a series of letters to Washington in four volumes.

Sparks’s letters are full of his greater plan, and he recurred to the idea again and again until he was an old man, but he did not carry out his purpose. In fact, Sparks suffered an eclipse about 1840. After that date he did little besides editing the second series of the American Biography and writing several pamphlets and addresses. From 1838 to 1849 he was professor of history at Harvard, but the conditions were such that he had more than half his time for writing. From 1849 to 1853 he was Harvard’s president, retiring to do literary work. It is hard to explain the paucity of results during these last years without assuming that he had lost his zeal after the achievement of his first great work, the Washington cycle. He died in 1866.

As a historian Sparks is to be measured by the American Biography, the best work of the kind then prepared. Even here his chief service was as an editor; for he wrote comparatively few of the individual sketches. Those he did write, however, were well done. His greatest editorial achievement was the Washington, an epoch-making work. It set a new standard of scholarship, founded upon accurate and broad knowledge, for American students of history. Edward Everett spoke truly when he said of it in The North American Review: “The American press has produced no work of higher value.”

But Sparks had serious faults. In 1833 he sent Judge Story a specimen volume of his work accompanied by manuscript copies of the letters in it. Story could thus see in what respects liberties had been taken with the texts. He said in reply:

  • There is not an instance in which you have failed to give the identical sense with more accuracy and clearness [than in the original]. You have done exactly what I think Washington would have desired you to do, if he were living. I cannot, therefore, in any manner object to it on my own account.
  • But he added that he feared the critics would take objections to the changes of literary form. Had the hint been taken, Sparks’s reputation as an editor would be higher.

    The editor’s Nemesis at length overtook him. In 1847 appeared the Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, containing many letters from Washington to Reed, his secretary. The editor had printed them as they were sent by the author. The public now had two copies of certain letters, one published by Sparks and one by Reed. Sharp eyes soon discovered discrepancies, and Sparks was charged in the press with correcting, embellishing, and altering to suit his own purposes letters which should have been reproduced literally. In 1851 Lord Mahon’s History of England reached its sixth volume, in which an appendix repeated the charges. Then followed a long controversy in which Sparks was put to his mettle to defend himself. It is known that Washington in his old age corrected many of his letters which he had kept in letter books. Sparks sought excuse in saying that this indicated that Washington wished all his letters revised, and that he had merely done what Washington himself would have done. Needless to say, this excuse did not satisfy the critics. The controversy probably served a good turn to scholarship. Coming in connection with the first great work of editing in the field of American history, it attracted wide attention, and fixed in the minds of scholars the necessity of accurate reproduction of documents. It should be said for Sparks that many others of his time thought that an editor ought to correct the letters he reproduced. Exact reproduction, however, had become the rule with the best editors.