October 2, 2017

Pages 532-534
Whole Number 33

JARED SPARKS (1789-1866)
A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

by Russell E. Bidlack



Of all the many thousands of persons named Sparks who have lived and died in the United States, the one whose name one meets most frequently in historical and literary works is that of 43.2.5.8.1 Jared Sparks who was born May 10, 1789, and died March 14, 1866. Jared Sparks was born out of wedlock, the son of Eleanor Orcutt, daughter of Caleb Orcutt, a prosperous farmer of Willington, Connecticut. (Willington is a little town on the Willimantic River in Tolland County, Connecticut.) When Jared was seven months old, Eleanor married 43.2.5.8 Joseph Sparks, a young farmer of Willington who had served in the American Revolution and whose pension papers, with a sketch of his family, appear in the present issue of the Quarterly Throughout his life, Jared went by the name "Jared Sparks," and, according to tradition in the town of Willington, Joseph Sparks was actually Jared's father.

At the age of six, Jared left the home of his parents to live with his mother's childless sister, Chloe, and her husband, Ebenezer Eldridge. In 1800, he accompanied his aunt and uncle to their new home in Camden, New York. Herbert B. Adams, in his two-volume Life and Writings of Jared Sparks, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1893), tells us that during part of this journey, which was made in the month of February, the boy "was put out of the sleigh by his thoughtless uncle, and told to 'hold on behind.' Overcome with numbness from cold, he fell off the runner, and was left unnoticed in the snow by the roadside, where he would have perished if he had not been rescued by another traveler, following in the track of the first, to whose careless keeping the lad was restored."

In a letter which be wrote in 1817, Jared stated that it was his reading of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography "which first roused my mental energies, such as they are, and directed them to nobler objects than they seemed destined by fortune and the facts to be engaged in." As a mere child, Jared developed a strong interest in mathematics and astronomy, and in the public library at Willington there is preserved a wooden sphere with the countries of the World carved in the surface that was done by Jared Sparks when he was nine years old. His name is carved on the base. The site of his birthplace in Willington is marked and, according to Leon O.Woodwarth, a local historian, it has long been considered as one of the 'sacred spots' of the town --"Jared Sparks being a very inspiring man of high ideals and a wide sphere of influence."

From the time he was eleven until he was thirteen, Sparks attended school only two months each winter. In 1805, however, he returned to his parents' home in Willington and attended a school kept by Oliver Holt. He learned so rapidly that Holt was soon forced to confess that he had taught the lad all he knew himself, and he was sent to a school in Tolland. There he quickly mastered all which that schoolmaster could offer. In the winter of 1807-08, Sparks was hired by the selectmen of Tolland to teach the school himself for four months--at a salary of eight dollars per month. During the summer he worked as a carpenter and was able to get another school near Tolland for the next winter which paid him ten dollars per month. When he closed this school on February 17, 1809, be took an account of his property. Of the $122 which he had earned during the past thirteen months, he found he had spent but $50.59, and of that amount, $15 had been invested in books.

After closing his school in 1809, Jared began the study of algebra and Latin under the Rev. Hubbell Loomis, for whose instruction he paid the parish minister one dollar per week. Even here, young Sparks was able to earn part of his modest tuition--between lessons he shingled the parson's barn. The Rev. Mr. Loomis was so favorably impressed by young Sparks that, through the assistance of the Rev. Abiel Abbot, he secured a scholarship for him at Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare him for college. In 1811, Jared entered Harvard. Although several years older than his classmates, and forced to earn his living while going to school, he was a social as well as a scholastic success, and he was graduated with high honors. From 1817 to 1819, he attended the Harvard Theological School while earning his living as a tutor in science at Harvard.

Upon receiving his master's degree, Sparks became pastor of the First Independent Church (Unitarian) of Baltimore where he served from May, 1819, to April, 1823. He then accepted the position of Chaplain of the House of Representatives in Washington. Here he served one year and closed his ministerial career.

In 1824, Jared Sparks turned his attention to the field of literature. He purchased the North American Review (on credit), and for the next six years served as the magazine's editor. During that time he made it America's leading literary periodical and sold it in 1830, realizing a profit of nearly $10,000. While editing the Review, Sparks lived in Boston, the cultural center of the United States, and soon became one of the town's leading social and literary figures. His Life of John Ledyard, published in 1828, laid the foundation of his literary reputation.

Even before the publication of his biography of Ledyard, Sparks had begun the production which would bring him his greatest fame--his twelve-volume Writings of George Washington, which was published between 1834 and 1837. Sparks was the first person to be given access to the Washington papers. The first volume of this work comprised Sparks's biography of Washington.

While working on the Washington papers, Sparks found time to write a three-volume biography of Gouverneur Morris and to begin the editing of two other large sets-- the ten-volume Works of Benjamin Franklin and the twenty-five-volume Library of American Biography. Of the sixty lives Included in the latter work, Sparks himself wrote seven.

In 1839, Jared Sparks accepted a professorship of ancient and modern history at Harvard, the first such professorship created in any American university. A decade later, on February 1, 1849, he became the 18th president of Harvard. In his inaugural address, he attacked the elective system of studies then in vogue at Harvard. The changes which he introduced had wide influence, not only at Harvard but in other universities as well.

Jared Sparks did not enjoy performing the administrative duties demanded of a university president, for they deprived him of the time which he was in the habit of devoting to research. He delegated much of his authority to a lower official. In 1853, he published his four-volume Correspondence of the American Revolution, and shortly thereafter he resigned the presidency of Harvard.

From 1853 until his death in 1866, Sparks lived quietly at Cambridge, enjoying the fame and fortune which his pen had brought him. He collected a vast amount of material toward writing a history of the American Revolution, but this was a work which he never completed.

Jared Sparks is remembered today chiefly as an explorer in the field of American history. The fruits of his original and editorial labors amount to over one hundred volumes, and he succeeded, more than anyone else before him, in making Americans aware of their rich historical heritage. Modern historians think of Sparks as a member of the "old school" of history writers. Samuel Eliot Morison in writing of him for the Dictionary of American Biography (Vol. XVII, pp. 430-434), praised him as a pioneer in American historical investigation, but added: "Yet Sparks's editorial methods were very bad; for he treated historical documents as if they had been articals or reviews submitted to the North American, using the editorial blue pencil freely. He made omissions without indicating them, standardized spelling and capitalization, and undertook to improve Washington's English. . . . He approached history as a gentleman in the 'era of good feeling,' rather than as a scientific historian, resolved to tell the truth however unpalatable."

43.2.5.8.1 Jared Sparks was married twice. On October 16, 1832, he married Frances Anne Allen, daughter of William Allen, Esq., of Hyde Park, New York. She died of consumption on July 12, 1835, leaving a daughter, 43.2.5.8.1.1 Maria Verplank Sparks, who died of the same disease on January 2, 1846. On May 21, 1839, Jared Sparks was married, second, to Mary Crowninshield Silsbee, an heiress some twenty years his junior. She was the daughter of Senator Nathaniel Silsbee of Salem, Massachusetts. Five children were born of this latter marriage:

43.2.5.8.1.2 Mary C. Sparks, born May 29, 1842; died June 25, 1842.
43.2.5.8.1.3 Florence Sparks, born October 28, 1845; married November 16, 1876, Benjamin P. Moore.
43.2.5.8.1.4 William Eliot Sparks, born October 23, 1847; died in 18.86; he married on January 20, 1874, Harriet A. Mason.
43.2.5.8.1.5 Elizabeth W. Sparks, born May 1, 1849; married on March 9, 1876, Ed. C. Pickering.
43.2.5.8.1.6 Beatrice Sparks, born March 26, 1851.

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