The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XVII
- 1 § 1. Historians of the Revolution.
- 2 § 2. Gordon; Ramsay; Drayton; Moultrie; Marshall; Wirt.
- 3 § 3. Mrs. Warren; Weems; State Histories.
- 4 § 4. Belknap; Trumbull; Proud; Minot; H. M. Brackenridge; Ramsay; Burk; Williamson.
- 5 § 5. Status of Historical Studies.
- 6 § 6. General Histories of the United States.
- 7 § 7. Abiel Holmes.
- 8 § 8. Pitkin.
- 9 § 9. Hildreth.
- 10 § 10. Palfrey.
- 11 § 11. Tucker.
- 12 § 12. Bancroft.
- 13 § 13. Collectors of Materials.
- 14 § 14. Hazard.
- 15 § 15. Belknap.
- 16 § 16. Jedidiah Morse.
- 17 § 17. Sparks.
- 18 § 18. Force.
- 19 Footnotes
§ 1. Historians of the Revolution.
The Revolutionary War gave our historians new motives for writing. A glorious struggle was to be described; the states, just raised out of the rank of colonies, began to demand the preservation of their earliest history; and the nation, inspired by great hopes for the future, felt that it must have loyal men to prepare the record of common growth and common achievement. The men who responded to these impulses were, perhaps, less cultured than the best of the old historians. It was long before there appeared among them one who could be ranked with Hutchinson, though some of them wrote well and displayed great industry. The stream was wider than formerly, but it was not so deep.
Of those who wrote about the Revolution, in one phase or another, the best were the Rev. William Gordon, Dr. David Ramsay, William Henry Drayton, General William Moultrie, John Marshall, and William Wirt. Less scholarly but more widely influential were Mrs. Mercy Warren and “Parson” Weems.
§ 2. Gordon; Ramsay; Drayton; Moultrie; Marshall; Wirt.
Gordon, who was born in England, preached at Roxbury, Massachusetts, from 1770 to 1786. He was an active Whig, and after his return to England he wrote in four volumes a history of the Revolution (1788), which was widely read by the English, and in America was honoured with a pirated edition and long extracts in the newspapers. We now know that Gordon copied freely from The Annual Register, of which the parts dealing with America were at that time written by Edmund Burke. It is even charged that Gordon tempered his narrative to please the feelings of his friends in England. His book is but slightly esteemed. Dr. Ramsay (1749–1815), of South Carolina, though educated to be a physician, was more a politician and littérateur than a scientist. His History of the Revolution of South Carolina (1785) and History of the American Revolution (1789) were well received by an uncritical generation. It remained for a later age to discover that the second of these books, long accepted as an original work, was largely drawn from The Annual Register. Drayton and Moultrie were prominent South Carolinians, one a political and the other a military defender of the Whig cause. Each wrote an excellent account of what he had seen in his own state. Marshall and Wirt were Virginia lawyers who thought it their duty to portray the lives of two great men of the Revolution. From the first we have the Life of Washington (1804–07) in five volumes, a heavy book without literary style and smacking of Federalist opinions. It displeased the followers of Jefferson but had a wide circulation among those who did not agree with the great Republican leader. For posterity it has value chiefly as a solid source of information. Wirt’s Life of Patrick Henry (1817) is much unlike Marshall’s book. It was well written—Wirt had a polished style—but it was a hasty and inadequate picture of a most important life. A better but less readable biography was William Tudor’s Life of James Otis (1823).
§ 3. Mrs. Warren; Weems; State Histories.
Mrs. Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), a sister of James Otis, was the wife of James Warren of Boston. Her three-volume History of the American Revolution (1805), a loosely written book which contained many biographical sketches, was popular and for a long time furnished the average New Englander his knowledge of the Revolution. Five years earlier had appeared the most successful historical book of the day, Weems’s Life of Washington. The author was a versatile man, who could be buffoon, fiddler, parson, or hawker of his book as occasion demanded. He had not known Washington, but he created the impression that he wrote from personal knowledge by announcing himself as “formerly Rector of Mt. Vernon Parish.” The book was a romance, interlarded with pious stories. It was slightly esteemed by educated men of the day but was acceptable to the unsophisticated. Except as a curiosity, it is beneath contempt or criticism.
§ 4. Belknap; Trumbull; Proud; Minot; H. M. Brackenridge; Ramsay; Burk; Williamson.
Of the state histories that appeared in this period a few are worthy of mention. Jeremy Belknap (1744–98) wrote a History of New Hampshire (three volumes, 1784–92), which is of the first rank in our historical compositions. Had its theme been more extended, it would have become a household memory in the country. Benjamin Trumbull’s (1735–1820) History of Connecticut (2 vols., 1818) and Robert Proud’s (1728–1813) History of Pennsylvania (2 vols., 1797–98) were of scholarly standards but heavy in style. George Richards Minot (1758–1802), a brilliant Massachusetts lawyer, wrote a History of the Insurrection in Massachusetts (1788), dealing with Shays’ Rebellion, and followed it by a continuation of Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts (2 vols., 1798–1803). The books were well written and have maintained their credit. Here should be mentioned Henry M. Brackenridge’s (1786–1871) History of the Western Insurrection (1817), a fair-minded narrative of the Whisky Insurrection, which was very popular and ran through several editions. Three Southern books which may here be spoken of are hardly up to the standard of the state histories. Dr. Ramsay’s History of South Carolina (2 vols., 1809) was not equal to his work on the Revolution. John D. Burk (d. 1808) wrote a less valuable work in his History of Virginia (3, vols., 1804–05). He was an ardent Republican who rhapsodized on liberty. Dr. Hugh Williamson (1735–1819), who wrote a History of North Carolina (2 vols., 1812), was a Pennsylvanian by birth, clergyman and physician by education, merchant and politician by necessity. He lived a while in Edenton, North Carolina, was elected a member of the Continental Congress, and served in the Constitutional Convention. In 1793 he removed to New York, where he acquired a high reputation for learning. His history, however, was thin and disappointing.
§ 5. Status of Historical Studies.
These men worked under the disadvantage that they were writing at a time when the minds of the people were absorbed with the struggle for national existence. Ebenezer Hazard, in 1779, described the situation as follows:
- The war and the numerous avocations consequent upon it, have thrown every man’s mind into such an unsettled and confused state that but few can think steadily upon any subject. They hear of useful designs, they give you all the encouragement which can be derived from the warmest approbation of your plan, they will even promise you assistance. Politics intrude,—kick you and your designs out of their heads; and when you appear again, why they really forgot that the matter had been mentioned to them. I have been repeatedly served so with reference to my collection.
After the war came the years of constitution-making, and then a long period during which foreign affairs occupied most minds exclusively. It was a time, also, when unusual business opportunities enthralled the best intellects in the country. Thus there were few competent persons to whom the quiet task of writing history made appeal. It is not strange that Hazard had few people to encourage him.
Our post-Revolutionary period has been compared with the years following the French Revolution, in which there was a notable outburst of literary activity. The contrast is unfair. The French Revolution came upon an old and well-developed society, kept down by outworn social ideals, and when it had passed the shackles were broken. In the United States an immature society was relieved of the power that had hitherto done no more than impose irritating checks on its development. This wilful young people were given an opportunity to do as they pleased. They had no rich culture waiting to fill a new era with its splendour. They were fighting their way up from the bottom, and the process was necessarily slow.
§ 6. General Histories of the United States.
A third group of historians was those who undertook to write general histories of the United States. They were inspired with the spirit of nationality, whatever their views of the new Union. They wished to depict the relations of the colonies to one another and their struggle against Britain’s policy of strict control. The first histories presenting a general account of the colonies came from England, where as early as 1708 John Oldmixon, in his British Empire in America, made a sorry attempt to treat English America as a whole. In 1780 George Chalmers published his Political Annals of the Present United Colonies, followed in 1782 by another work called Introduction to the History of the Revolt of the American Colonies. Chalmers was an able writer and gave at least continuity to his subject. He was, however, strongly British in sympathy, and his work was not esteemed in the United States. It stimulated more than one American to write what he considered a true history of the rise and progress of the Revolutionary struggle.
§ 7. Abiel Holmes.
Of the Americans who undertook to do the same thing, and to do it in a spirit more friendly to the cause of America, the first man worthy of notice here was the Rev. Abiel Holmes (1763–1837), whose American Annals (2 vols., 1805) represented much accurate and careful work. It marked the author as a man of scientific mind, worthy of equal respect with his son, the delightful Autocrat. The next to take up the task was Benjamin Trumbull, whose history of Connecticut has already been mentioned. He planned to write a history of the United States in three volumes and prepared for it by collecting many documents. The first and only volume, published in 1810, carried the narrative to the year 1765. Accuracy of statement and a spiritless style are the chief characteristics of the work.
§ 8. Pitkin.
Somewhat later came Timothy Pitkin’s (1766–1847) Political and Civil History of the United States (2 vols., 1828). The author was a man of great industry and painstaking care. He had a fancy for statistical knowledge, and wrote also a valuable Statistical View of the Commerce of the United States (1817). His political history has the merits and the demerits to be expected in a statistician. Although it is marked by accuracy and a just sense of industrial development, its style is disjointed and difficult. Pitkin strove for fairness, but he saw the history of the country as a man of New England would see it. His own section bulked large in his treatment, and he did not get the point of view of the rest of the Union.
§ 9. Hildreth.
Twenty-one years after Pitkin’s book was published, New England found a still abler and more satisfying historian in Richard Hildreth (1807–65), who in 1849 gave to the world the first three volumes of his History of the United States; three more appeared in 1852. The six volumes cover the years 1492 to 1821. For the lover of entertaining literature the book is a failure, but for one who enjoys a solid presentation of facts it has merit. Few other men have written down so many statements of fact in so small a compass with such great reliability. In the preface Hildreth said that he wished to describe the fathers of the nation as they were,
- unbedaubed with patriotic rouge, wrapped up in no fine-spun cloaks of excuses and apologies, without stilts, buskins, tinsel, or bedizzenment, in their own proper persons, often rude, hard, narrow, superstitious and mistaken, but always earnest, downright, manly, and sincere. The result of their labours is eulogy enough; their best apology is to tell the story as it was.
There can be no doubt that the author tried in all honesty to carry out his purpose. “We encounter [in Hildreth],” said The Edinburgh Review, “the muse of American history descended from her stump, and recounting her narrative in a key adapted to our own ears.”
§ 10. Palfrey.
An historian who did not liberate himself entirely from patriotic bias was John Gorham Palfrey (1798–1881). Although he falls slightly without the limits of time assigned to this chapter, he was by nature and purpose a member of what has been called the “filio-pietistic” group. Bred a Unitarian minister, and pastor for a time of Brattle Square Church, Boston, he served as Dexter Professor of Sacred Literature in Harvard University (1830–39). >From 1836 to 1843 he was editor of The North American Review. He held several political offices in his State, and was a member of Congress in 1847–49. From 1861 to 1867 he was postmaster of Boston. He wrote many tracts, religious, political, and historical. Nevertheless, he kept true to his love for the history of New England. In 1858–64 he brought out in three volumes a History of New England during the Stuart Dynasty. It won instant recognition and the author followed up his success with two more volumes, History of New England from the Revolution of the 17th Century to the Revolution of the 18th (1875–90). The two parts were later shorn of their most irrelevant passages and issued as a Compendious History of New England in four handy volumes. So far as the mere statement of facts goes, it is safe to say that Palfrey has given us a complete and sufficient history of colonial New England. He has not been careless or slothful. But to Palfrey all that New Englanders did and thought was good. He did not question the spirit of Puritanism, and he did not find its narrowness unpleasant; he accepted it as a thing of course. He was the last of the complacent defenders of the old régime in the land of Bradford and Winthrop. Before he had retired from the scene Charles Francis Adams’s severe blows were beginning to tell.
§ 11. Tucker.
Over against these books from the North we must place a Southern history, the existence of which was due to the belief that the South had not received fair consideration at the hands of men who knew little about its life and natural environment. Such a book was George Tucker’s (1775–1861) History of the United States (4 vols., 1856–58), which carried the story of the national development to the year 1841. The author was a lawyer in Virginia, a well-known and voluminous writer on political subjects. His History was not an extreme Republican book, as some have thought. It represented the ideas which one would expect from a conservative Virginian of the old school; it was well written, but not brilliant. Had it been offered to a section more accustomed to reading history, it would have been recognized as a standard book of its kind; as it is, it is known chiefly for the impression it made on those who held views it was intended to counteract. Tucker wrote also a Life of Thomas Jefferson (2 vols., 1837), probably the best of the early lives of this statesman.
§ 12. Bancroft.
The last of the general historians who fall within this chapter’s limits is George Bancroft, who, during his lifetime, held a larger place in the minds of his countrymen than any other historian who has lived in the United States. This he did partly because of his literary worth, partly because of his political activity, and partly because of his social prominence. President Arthur once said that the President is “permitted to accept the invitations of members of the cabinet, supreme court judges, and—Mr. George Bancroft.”
Bancroft was born in Massachusetts in 1800 and died in Washington in 1891. Having graduated from Harvard in 1817, he went to Göttingen on funds subscribed by Harvard and its friends. Back in America in 1822 with a doctor’s degree, he settled for a year at Harvard as tutor in Greek. He brought home from Europe many affectations of manner and such marked eccentricities that his influence at Harvard was undermined; at the end of a year he left, to become, with Joseph G. Cogswell, proprietor of a boys’ school at Northampton, Massachusetts. As a schoolmaster Bancroft was a failure, and he retired from the school in 1831. Meanwhile, he had begun to write. School-books, translations, and articles for The North American Review came out in rapid succession. By 1831 he had established the literary habit and had the reputation of being a ready and effective writer.
At this time Bancroft had begun to support the Democratic party. He was accused of doing it to obtain Federal office, but the charge was not substantiated. He was ever a defender of the doctrine of equality held by Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. In America he saw organized democracy which was to make humanity happy: to write its history became his hope. In 1834 appeared the first volume of his History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent. At the time neither Hildreth nor Tucker had written, and only Pitkin, Holmes, and Trumbull had undertaken a task like his. They were all didactic. Bancroft produced a work of a different character. There was a lofty and sonorous sense of detachment in his sentences. To the present age they seem sheer affectation; but to the men who had been reading the bald statements of fact hitherto offered as history, they seemed admirable. Edward Everett read the first volume through in twenty-four hours and wrote:
- I think you have written a Work which will last while the memory of America lasts; and which will instantly take its place among the classics of our language. It is full of learning, information, common sense, and philosophy; full of taste and eloquence; full of life and power. You give us not wretched paste-board men; not a sort of chronological table, with the dates written out at length, after the manner of most historians;—but you give us real, individual, living, men and women, with their passions, interests, and peculiarities.
Theodore Parker wrote: “I think you are likely to make, what I long since told you I looked for from you, the most noble and splendid piece of historical composition, not only in English, but in any tongue.” Emerson said of the History: “It is noble matter, and I am heartily glad to have it nobly treated.” Bancroft is less than a quarter of a century dead, and these beautiful laurels are already withered. A new age has accepted other standards than his. 17
Bancroft, our first historian who had studied in Germany, was well known at home and abroad as a hard student and a man of great learning. The abundant foot-notes in the first volumes of his history show how freely he used the sources in foreign languages. His experience in Germany led him to admire German scholarship in all its phases. At Göttingen he studied under Heeren, who was stressing the unity of history. In the preface of his first volume, Bancroft wrote: “The United States of America constitute an essential portion of a great political system, embracing all the political nations of the earth.” He did not, however, try to work out this theory in his volume, but told, like others, the story of voyages, settlements, colonies, and the common struggle for freedom.
His progress was leisurely. The second volume appeared three years after the first, the third in 1840. The fourth and fifth were published in 1852. The sixth came in 1854, the seventh in 1858, the eighth in 1860, the ninth in 1866, and the tenth in 1874. During these years his literary work was interrupted by political service. He was secretary of the navy from 1845 to 1846, minister to Great Britain from 1846 to 1849, and minister to Germany from 1867 to 1874. The tenth volume carried the work to the end of the Revolution; but in 1882 came two additional volumes with the title History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States. Hildreth wrote more rapidly, and his History, nearly as long as Bancroft’s, seems to have been written in six years.
§ 13. Collectors of Materials.
Another group of men, by collecting materials, compiling, and editing, rendered marked service to history in the first half of the nineteenth century. Beginning to collect for their own comfort they laid the foundations of great collections which have endured and grown and are now indispensable. The men who did this work are not to be forgotten; they were as truly servants of the historic muse as those who held her stylus.
§ 14. Hazard.
Of the efforts of Prince and Hutchinson as early collectors of documents mention has already been made. After the Revolution the first activity of that kind was due to the interest of Ebenezer Hazard (1744–1817) and Jeremy Belknap. Born the same year, they both graduated from college in 1762. Becoming fast friends, they left to posterity a correspondence which gives us our best glimpse of the conditions under which historical writing went forward in the two decades after the war.
Hazard first of the two began to collect documents. In 1777 he was appointed surveyor of post-roads and in 1782 postmaster-general. As surveyor he travelled over many parts of the country. He thus had opportunity to copy historical documents, and formed the design of publishing a documentary history of the Revolution. He rightly thought it a proper time to make collections of papers which otherwise would be lost. Congress gave him permission to take copies of such papers as were in its hands, free of expense of copying, and voted one thousand pounds for his expenses in securing copies elsewhere. This particular scheme was not realized, and there is no evidence that Hazard used the money voted. Dismissed from the office of postmaster-general in 1789 to make room for a politician, he soon afterwards announced a work with the title Historical Collections, State Papers, and Other Authentic Documents; and in 1792 the first volume was published. It contained papers, many of them very rare, relating to the American colonies before 1660. In 1794 came Volume II, most of it given up to the records of the New England Confederation. The two volumes did not pay expenses, and the editor, absorbed in business, lost interest in their continuation. Judged by what he published merely, Hazard had only a moderate influence on history in the United States. It is as the first collector and editor of documents after the Revolution that we must estimate him. He had the notion, shared by Sparks and Force in a later period, that it is possible to present the history of a people in a collection of documents. It was his failure to satisfy the general reader with such a collection that caused Hazard’s publication to remain unsold, and to be a source of discouragement to its compiler.
§ 15. Belknap.
Hazard influenced the work of Belknap, who, as a minister in Dover, New Hampshire, from 1767 to 1778, early became interested in the history of the colony and began to collect documents relating to it. In this task he was aided by Governor Benning Wentworth. Though Belknap had doubts about the propriety of a minister’s dabbling in history, the inclination was too strong to be resisted; and receiving encouragement from his friends, he proceeded as he had begun. In 1784 he published the first volume of his History of New Hampshire. Financially it was as great a failure as Hazard’s Collections. It was many years before he sold enough copies to pay the printer, but, unlike Hazard, Belknap was not discouraged. Having resigned his parish at Dover, after a disagreeable wrangle over his salary, in the following year he accepted a call to the church in Federal Street, Boston. From this time history became a chief phase of his activity. He was in the midst of a congenial group of educated men, and one literary demand after another was made on him. The editors of magazines appealed to him for articles; whatever co-operative work of history was projected—and there were several—he was sought for the enterprise. In 1792 he published Volumes II and III of his History of New Hampshire. The sales were large enough to wipe out the debts incurred by the first volume.
To The Columbian Magazine of Philadelphia he contributed from time to time a number of very well prepared biographical sketches of persons associated with the early history of America; and in 1794 they appeared in Volume I of an American Biography. Other sketches came out in a second volume (1798). A third was planned, but the author died before it could be written. These sketches were based on the best sources then available and were written in the author’s best style. For the same magazine Belknap also wrote a series of satirical letters dealing with the early history of New England. They were published in a separate volume called The Foresters (1792), enlarged in an edition of 1796. Belknap died suddenly, in the midst of literary schemes, in 1798. He was the best American historian of his day, and the most zealous in preserving historical memorials.
Probably Belknap’s greatest service was his efforts in founding the Massachusetts Historical Society. While he had valuable aid from other men, he was the force that brought these others together; and until the time of his death he was the leader in the actual work of the society. Belknap himself said that he got the idea from John Pintard of New York. The project was launched in 1791, in accordance with plans prepared by Belknap. The membership was limited to thirty corresponding and thirty resident members, only ten of the latter being elected at first. The object was to collect, preserve, and publish historical materials. As long as he lived Belknap was a most active member, visiting nearby towns for document, supervising the publications, and finally leaving the Society his own manuscripts.
§ 16. Jedidiah Morse.
One of the friends of Belknap and Hazard—and a connection of Hazard’s by marriage—was Jedidiah Morse (1761–1826), minister at Charlestown, Massachusetts. He was the author of the first American geography (1789), a book containing much more than mere geographical description. To gather the accounts of natural resources, means of communication, and statistics the author made many journeys. He also collected facts for his Annals of the American Revolution (1824), a compilation which posterity does not esteem highly. But it served its day, and was for a time widely read. Morse was probably indebted to Hazard and Belknap for the impetus that set him to writing. The latter complained that it was only Morse who could make money out of what he wrote.
When Morse published his thin work, two other men, Jared Sparks and Peter Force, were planning much greater enterprises. One was a New England man, a Harvard graduate, a minister of accepted standing, and a member of the most select literary circle of Boston. The other was a self-taught printer’s boy who became publisher and editor, with a passion for collecting. Each served well the cause of historical research.
§ 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.
§ 18. Force.
Peter Force was born in New Jersey in 1790. When very small he accompanied his father to New York, where, after a short term at school, he became a printer’s boy. He proved intelligent and reliable and rose to the first place in the business. In 1816 he became managing partner in a shop which his former master established in Washington to execute a government contract. In 1823 he became editor and proprietor of The National Journal, then in the interest of Monroe’s administration and later an Adams organ. In 1830 his party had disintegrated, and, being of all men least able to find another, he saw his paper run into a decline that left him without employment.
Earlier than this he had made plans for publishing a great collection of documents on the American Revolution. Sparks was just bringing his Diplomatic Correspondence to a successful close, and the profits of the enterprise had attracted the attention of more than one Washington editor. It seemed a favourable time to attempt the execution of Force’s scheme. He found a partner in Matthew St. Clair Clarke, clerk of the House of Representatives, who had money enough to launch the enterprise and political influence enough to get it authorized by Congress. Accordingly, after some negotiations Congress on 2 March, 1833, at the very time the compromise tariff bill and the “Force Bill” disposed of the South Carolina crisis, passed a brief law authorizing the secretary of state to contract with Force and Clarke for the publication of a documentary history of the American Revolution, provided it did not cost more proportionally than Sparks’s work.
Edward Livingston was then secretary of state. His contemporaries considered him an impractical man, and the contract he now made goes far to support their view. It was agreed that the work should be published in folio form, the government to take fifteen hundred copies at 1 7/8 cents a page a copy. Thus $22,500 would be paid for each volume of eight hundred pages. No limit was set to the number of volumes, and as the mass of materials was large the work might be made to extend to many volumes. Among Force’s manuscripts, in the Library of Congress, is a memorandum in which he and Clarke estimated their profits, not including the expenses of collecting materials, at $11,000 on a volume of eight hundred and fifty pages. Force had begun to collect, according to his own statement, as early as 1822; but his efforts had evidently been desultory. He now gave all his time to the work, his partner advancing the necessary funds.
By 1834 a storm of denunciation broke over them. Clarke had lost his office through the triumph of the Jackson men in the House. He was believed, before going, to have filched this fat job, by which he could publish an indefinite number of volumes at a great profit. The secretary of state was called on for an investigation, and there was an angry debate in the House; but nobody could discover means to annul a contract about which the only complaint was that it was unwisely made. Moreover, the plan announced provided for six series each containing several volumes, covering the whole existence of the country from the days of settlement until the adoption of the constitution. The title was The American Archives.
In 1837 the initial volume, the first of the fourth series, was before the public. It was made on such a comprehensive scale that the completed series would necessarily be gigantic. Moreover, the character of the contents was alarming. By “documents” most people understood manuscript materials, or rare fugitive papers; but here were included whole sections of the debates in Parliament, the journals of the Continental Congress, and many state laws, all previously accessible in print. It was Force’s idea to make a complete collection of Revolutionary material. In 1839 the second volume of the fourth series appeared, and in 1840 the third volume. Such was the feeling that in 1843 the publishers had not been paid for the third volume and could not get $6000 of the amount due on the second. Under these circumstances a compromise was made. The publishers agreed that the series should not exceed twenty volumes at a maximum average cost of $20,400 each, and that the secretary of state should approve the materials offered for publication. About this time Clarke sold his interest in the series to Rives, the partner of F. P. Blair.
For several years matters now proceeded satisfactorily. The fourth volume appeared in 1843, the fifth in 1844, and the sixth, completing the fourth series, in 1846. The first volume of the fifth series came in 1848, the second in 1851, and the third in 1853. Marcy was secretary of state in 1855, and when the material for the fourth volume was submitted, he refused to approve it in any part. To Force he said: “I do not believe in your work, sir! It is of no use to anybody. I never read a page of it and never expect to.” Neither he nor his successor, Lewis Cass, could be induced to change this decision, and The American Archives came to an end with Volume III of the fifth series, nine volumes in all having been issued.
In 1832 Force thought the series would contain not more than five volumes, eleven years later it was limited to twenty, but when nine had been published the story of the Revolution had been carried only to the end of 1776. At this rate it would have taken over thirty volumes to bring the story to the treaty of peace; and if it had been limited to twenty it must have been left incomplete. One other fact may have aroused Marcy’s disapprobation. By 1855 each Congress had formed the habit of ordering copies of the work for its own members not previously in the House, a species of graft unlikely to be terminated by Congress itself. On the other hand, it is undeniable that Marcy did not appreciate Force’s work and that he was illiberal, if not narrow-minded.
Early in the series Force adopted the following division of the matter bearing on the period any given volume was to cover: (1) The proceedings, papers, and correspondence of the Continental Congress; (2) The proceedings, papers, and correspondence of the assemblies, conventions, and councils of safety of the several states; (3) The proceedings, papers, and correspondence of the British Government and of the officers acting under it in our Revolution; (4) Miscellaneous letters and papers relating to the Revolution. This material was presented with accuracy and completeness, but poorly arranged, and with very few editorial notes. The indexes in the fourth series were inadequate, but the deficiency was remedied in the fifth.
After the rejection of his work Force continued in Washington, completing his collections and putting them into shape for publication, if fortune should bring the opportunity. The outbreak of the war removed the last hope of this kind. In 1867 he was too old to complete his task, and sold his library to the Government for $100,000. It contained 22,529 printed volumes, about 40,000 pamphlets, some valuable newspaper files, and enough transcripts to make 129 bound volumes. The collection was placed in the Library of Congress, where Force’s manuscripts remain unpublished. In 1879 Congress called for a report on the value of the collection, and received a lucid statement from the Librarian of Congress. No practical results followed.
Aside from the Archives Force is best remembered for four volumes of Tracts published from 1836 to 1846. They were mostly reprints of rare pamphlets relating to the earliest period of American history, and their publication was accomplished with financial sacrifices. “Whenever I found a little more money in my purse than I absolutely needed,” he said, “I printed a volume of Tracts.” Several pamphlets of his own composition were also published, none of them of much importance. They serve to show us how little of an author he was.
Bancroft and Sparks collected documents, and Sparks published documents, but each was an historian first of all. Force collected documents and published them, without a thought of editing or interpreting them. If his great work had been more discreetly conducted, it might have weathered the storm of popular criticism. But Force was not discreet. In all the confusion around him he never relaxed an inch in his plan of making a complete and all-inclusive collection.
Force has had no successor, probably because his example raised up such a large school of local collectors and compilers that there has been no room for one vast treasure. The work he did not do has been carried on by many workers and has resulted in many restricted collections. Force played a large part in awakening the interest of this group; and in doing so he contributed much to the progress of American historical scholarship in the last fifty years, its latest and most fruitful period.
- ^ For a more extended treatment of the historians of the period, see the author’s Middle Group of American Historians (1917).
- ^ See also Book II, Chap. XV.
- ^ See also Book II, Chaps. I and III.
- ^ See also Book I, Chap. IX, and Book II, Chap. II.
- ^ After his death the book was continued in a fourth volume.
- ^ “The Belknap Papers,” Mass. Hist. Soc. Col., 5th Ser., vol. II, p. 12.
- ^ See also Book II, Chap. VII.
- ^ See Book I, Chap. II.