Jared Sparks

Jared Sparks books and biography


Jared Sparks

Jared Sparks

Jared Sparks (10 May 1789 - 14 March 1866) was an American historian, educator, and Unitarian minister. He served as President of Harvard University from 1849 to 1853.

Born in Willington, Connecticut, he studied in the common schools, worked for a time at the carpenter's trade, and then became a schoolteacher. In 1809-1811 he attended Phillips Exeter Academy where he met John G. Palfrey and George Bancroft, two schoolmates who became his lifelong friends. He graduated from Harvard University (A.B., 1815 and A.M., 1818); taught in a private school at Lancaster, Massachusetts, in 1815-1817; and studied theology and was college tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard in 1817-1819. In 1817-1818 he was acting editor of the North American Review.

He was pastor of the First Independent Church (Unitarian) of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1819-1823, Dr William Ellery Channing delivering at his ordination his famous discourse on Unitarian Christianity. During this period Sparks founded the Unitarian Miscellany and Christian Monitor (1821), a monthly, and edited its first three volumes; he was chaplain of the national House of Representatives in 1821-1823; and he contributed to the National Intelligencer and other periodicals.

In 1823 his health failed and he withdrew from the ministry. Removing to Boston, he bought and edited in 1824-1830 the North American Review, contributing to it about fifty articles. He founded and edited, in 1830 the American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge, which was continued by others and long remained a popular annual.

After extensive researches at home and (1828-1829) in London and Paris, he published the Life and Writings of George Washington (12 vols., 1834-1837; redated 1842), his most important work; and in 1839 he published separately the Life of George Washington (abridged, 2 vols., 1842). The work was for the most part favorably received, but Sparks was severely criticized by Lord Mahon (in the sixth volume of his History of England) and others for altering the text of some of Washington's writings. Sparks defended his methods in A Reply to the Strictures of Lord Mahon and Others (1852). The charges were not wholly justifiable, and later Lord Mahon (Stanhope) modified them. While continuing his studies abroad, in 1840-1841, In the history of the American War of Independence, Sparks discovered in the French archives the red-line map, which, in 1842, came into international prominence in connection with the dispute over the north-eastern boundary of the United States.

Sparks was one of the American intellectuals who received Alexis de Tocqueville during his 1831-32 visit to the United States. Sparks's extensive conversations and subsequent correspondence informed Tocqueville's best-known work, Democracy in America.

In 1842, Sparks delivered twelve lectures on American history before the Lowell Institute in Boston, In 1839-1849 he was McLean professor of ancient and modern history at Harvard. His appointment to this position, says his biographer, was the first academic encouragement of American history, and of original historical research in the American field. In 1849, he succeeded Edward Everett as president of Harvard. He retired in 1853 on account of failing health, and devoted the rest of his life to his private studies. For several years he was a member of the Massachusetts board of education.

Jared Sparks died on the 14th of March 1866, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His valuable collection of manuscripts and papers went to Harvard; and his private library and his maps were bought by Cornell University. He was a pioneer in collecting, on a large scale, documentary material on American history, and in this and in other ways rendered valuable services to historical scholarship in the United States.


Other works by Sparks include:

  • Memoirs of the Life and Travels of John Ledyard (1828)
  • The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (12 vols, 1829-1830; redated 1854)
  • Life of Gouverneur Morris, with Selections from his Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers (3 vols, 1832)
  • A Collection of the Familiar Letters and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Franklin (1833)
  • The Works of Benjamin Franklin; with Notes and a Life of the Author (10 vols, 1836-1840; redated 1850), a work second in scope and importance to his Washington
  • Correspondence of the American Revolution; being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, from the Time of his taking Command of the Army to the End of his Presidency (4 vols, 1853)

He also edited the Library of American Biography, in two series (10 and 15 vols respectively, 1834-1838, 1844-1847), to which he contributed the lives of Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, Marquette, La Salle, Count Pulaski, Jean Ribault, Charles Lee and John Ledyard, the last a reprint of his earlier work.

In addition, he aided Henry D Gilpin in preparing an edition of the Papers of James Madison (1840), and brought out an American edition of William Smyth's Lectures on Modern History (2 vols., 1841), which did much to stimulate historical study in the United States. Francis Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851) was dedicated to Sparks.


See Herbert B Adams, The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks (2 vols, Boston, 1893); also Brantz Mayer, Memoir of Jared Sparks (1867), prepared for the Maryland Historical Society; and George E Ellis, Memoir of Jared Sparks (1869), reprinted from the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for May 1868.

Academic Offices
Preceded by
Edward Everett
President of Harvard University
Succeeded by

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