Jared Sparks

Jared Sparks (1789-1866), American editor, Unitarian minister, and historian, pioneered in publishing the source documents of American history.

Jared Sparks was born on May 10, 1789, on an impoverished farm in Willington, Conn. He graduated from Harvard in 1815, studied theology at the Harvard Divinity School, and was briefly a magazine editor. He was a Unitarian minister from 1819 to 1829, when he bought the North American Review and became its editor.

In the summer of 1823 he wrote in his diary, "Meditating on the importance of having a new history of America." The next year he began preparing an edition of George Washington's writings. His great ambition was to write the full history of the American Revolution. He gathered materials for this theme in archives of the original 13 states and in Europe.

Sparks published a series of volumes, beginning with the Life and Travels of John Ledyard (1828), concerning the famous traveler from Connecticut. In the next 2 years The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, in 12 volumes, appeared. A subsidy from the Federal government aided in its publication. The Life of Gouverneur Morris, in three volumes, followed in 1832. Between 1834 and 1837 The Life and Writings of George Washington appeared in 12 volumes. One volume contained the biography, the rest included Washington's letters and public papers. Sparks was also preparing an edition of Benjamin Franklin's writings. Ten volumes of The Works of Benjamin Franklin were published between 1836 and 1840; one volume was devoted to biography. The Washington and the Franklin were Sparks's most creditable achievements.

The energetic historian also projected a "Library of American Biography." Through the lives of distinguished men, readers could trace a connected history of the nation. Eventually 25 volumes were published containing 60 biographies, of which Sparks wrote 8. In 1853 the Correspondence of the American Revolution, Being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, in four volumes, appeared.

Sparks filled vast gaps in American historiography, but his weaknesses were many. He was uncritical in depicting his subjects, whom he was inclined to portray without blemish. He lacked the literary gifts of other contemporary historians. As editor, he altered documents or omitted them if unfavorable to the image he wished to project. Yet the sheer volume of his productivity transformed the character of American historical writing.

Sparks was well rewarded. Americans avidly read books on the American Revolution. Sparks taught the subject at Harvard after 1839 and lectured on the Revolution to large public audiences. In 1849 he was elected president of Harvard, but he was an unhappy administrator, resigning after 4 years. The hectic early years gave way to a quiet period of correspondence with younger historians and public figures. He died in Cambridge, Mass., on March 14, 1866.

Further Reading on Jared Sparks

The best source is Herbert B. Adams, The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks (2 vols. 1893), the official biography based on Sparks's papers. John S. Bassett edited the Correspondence of George Bancroft and Jared Sparks, 1823-1832 (1917). Bassett's The Middle Group of American Historians (1917) has an important chapter on Sparks. A briefer summary of Sparks's achievement may be found in Michael Kraus, The Writing of American History (1953).