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Jared Sparks to Thomas Jefferson, 12 November 1817

From Jared Sparks

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Nov. 12. 1817.

Sir,

In addressing you I am not certain that I do not take an inexcusable liberty, but it is one, which I am prompted to take, by the interest I feel in the subject respecting which I am about to make some inquiries. I observe in your Life of Capt. Lewis, prefixed to Lewis & Clarke’s Travels, a short notice of our unfortunate countryman, Ledyard. I have always been an ardent admirer of this man’s character. He seems to have possessed in an eminent degree many of the qualities, which contribute to form a great mind. So high a spirit of enterprize, so much energy of body & mind, so much firmness of purpose & ardour in pursuit, have seldom been combined. I have often lamented, that the distinguishing traits of his character, & the remarkable incidents of his life, are so little known in the country of his birth; & I have been more than once mortified to find persons of intelligence express surprize at being told he was not an Englishman. I am at present editor of a periodical work published in Boston, called the North American Review, and it is for the purpose of obtaining materials for giving a more correct account of the life of Ledyard, than has yet appeared, and of making his character better known and more justly appreciated by his countrymen, that I trouble you with this letter. It has occurred to me, that you may give some information & many hints, on this subject, which could not be derived from any other source; and I think I have the best reasons for feeling an assurance, that you will be willing to afford such aids as may be in your power, to set in its true light the fame of a man, who was an American, and an honor to his country. I have never seen any writings of Ledyard’s, except a small book describing his voyage round the world with Capt. Cook. This was published in Connecticut, & dedicated to Governor Trumbull. The narrative is simple and entertaining, but the style is rude, & discovers no skill in composition. From two or three short biographical sketches, which have fallen in my way, I have been led to suppose there is a good deal about him in the Transactions of the African Institution; but whether written by himself or not, I could not determine. From his native town in Connecticut, & the records of Dartmouth College, where he was for a time, I shall probably be able to learn something respecting his early life. Any information you may have the goodness to furnish, either by reference to books or from personal knowledge, will be accepted with grateful acknowledgments.

With high respect & esteem, permit me, Sir, to subscribe myself your humbl & obt servant,

Jared Sparks

RC (DLC); addressed: “Thomas Jefferson, Esqe Montecello, Virginia”; franked; endorsed by TJ as received 23 Dec. 1817 and so recorded in SJL.

Jared Sparks (1789–1866), historian, documentary editor, and author, was born in Willington, Connecticut. Though limited family resources initially restricted his opportunities for formal schooling, he showed an early aptitude for learning and received a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1809. Sparks entered Harvard University two years later, graduating in 1815. He worked as a science tutor at Harvard, 1817–19, and from 1817–18 he also edited the North American Review. In 1819 Sparks was ordained as a Unitarian minister and accepted the pulpit of a church in Baltimore, where he remained until 1823. He visited Monticello in 1820 and served as chaplain of the United States House of Representatives for one session beginning in 1821. Returning to Boston in 1823, Sparks bought the North American Review, enhanced its reputation as the leading American literary journal, and sold it at a profit in 1830. He eventually researched and published numerous works on American history, including The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 12 vols. (1829–30); The Life of Gouverneur Morris, 3 vols. (1832); The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols. (1836–40); and The Writings of George Washington, 12 vols. (1834–37). For these editions Sparks obtained unprecedented access to original papers and pioneered the field of documentary editing, though he was criticized even in his lifetime for his liberal corrections and silent omissions. Sparks was the first McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, 1838–49, and served as president of the university, 1849–53. After his retirement in the latter year, he collected material for a history of the American Revolution that he never completed. Sparks died in Cambridge, Massachusetts (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Herbert B. Adams, The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks, 2 vols. [1893]; MH: Sparks Papers; General Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the Phillips Exeter Academy. 1783–1903 [1903], 20; Harvard Catalogue description begins Harvard University Quinquennial Catalogue of the Officers and Graduates, 1636–1925, 1925 description ends , 7, 25, 117, 192; Sparks’s Account of a Visit to Monticello, 20 Aug. 1820; Boston Daily Advertiser, 15 Mar. 1866).

For his short notice of John Ledyard, see TJ to Paul Allen, 18 Aug. 1813, document 1 in a group of documents on TJ’s Biography of Meriwether Lewis printed at that date. Ledyard’s small book was A Journal of Captain Cook’s last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and in quest of a North-West Passage, between Asia & America (Hartford, 1783; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3940). Ledyard traveled to Egypt in 1788 under the sponsorship of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, a British organization that printed extracts of his communications in its Proceedings 1 (1810): 23–46. A native of Groton, Connecticut, Ledyard attended Dartmouth College, 1772–73 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; Sparks, The Life of John Ledyard, the American Traveller [1828], 1–19).

After TJ’s death Sparks renewed his requests to see TJ’s correspondence with Ledyard and received copies in November 1827 (Joseph Coolidge to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, 18 Dec. 1826 [ViU: ER]; Coolidge to Nicholas P. Trist, 5 Jan., 18 Apr., 16 Oct., 5, 26 Nov. 1827 [DLC: NPT]).

Index Entries

  • A Journal of Captain Cook’s last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and in quest of a North-West Passage, between Asia & America (J. Ledyard [1751–89]) search
  • Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa; and J. Ledyard (1751–89) search
  • Biddle, Nicholas; History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark search
  • Cook, James; J. Ledyard (1751–89) accompanies search
  • Dartmouth College; and J. Ledyard (1751–89) search
  • History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark (N. Biddle) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Biography of Meriwether Lewis search
  • Ledyard, John (1751–89); A Journal of Captain Cook’s last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and in quest of a North-West Passage, between Asia & America search
  • Ledyard, John (1751–89); biography of search
  • Lewis, Meriwether; TJ’s biography of search
  • North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal search
  • schools and colleges; Dartmouth College search
  • Sparks, Jared; and J. Ledyard (1751–89) search
  • Sparks, Jared; identified search
  • Sparks, Jared; letters from search
  • Trumbull, Jonathan (1710–85); governor of Conn. search