Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jared Sparks - Washington's foremost
image makeover specialist

by Ray Soller

One of Jared Sparks many accomplishments (see Jonathan's previous post) was producing a twelve volume edition that contained the writings of George Washington. While in the process, he decided to cull less auspicious items from Washington's private papers by distributing segments to souvenir collectors. Paul F. Boller tells of one particularly sad episode in his book, Not so!: popular myths about America from Columbus to Clinton -1975:
The Humphrey's-Washington draft [of Washington's first inaugural speech] exists only in part today. What happened to it chills the blood of present-day historians and biographers. In 1827, years after Jared Sparks, Unitarian minister and editor of the North American Review, who was preparing to publish a collection of Washington's writings, came across the speech in Washington's handwriting and decided to suppress it, partly because he thought some passages in it were a bit strange and partly because he knew it had eventually been discarded. On May 22, Sparks asked the aging James Madison, who had thirty-eight years before, told him: "I concur without hesitation in your remarks on the speech of seventy-three pages and the expediency of not including it among the papers selected for the press. Nothing but extreme delicacy towards the author of the draft, who was no doubt Colonel Humphreys, can account for the respect shown to so strange a production." Sparks then blithely cut the manuscript into pieces and handed out parts of it to autograph collectors anxious to own something in Washington's own handwriting. Years later scholars attempted to reassemble the fragment, but succeeded in recovering only a third to one-half of the original. The anfractuosities of what survives are probably Sparks's doing, not Washington or Humphrey's.

Another serious problem with Sparks's man-handling of Washington's personal writings was that as he transcribed various passages in Washington documents he refined Washington's language to be more consistent with Washington's immortalized image. Daniel Boorstin describes Sparks' handiwork in his book The Americans: The National Experience, Part Seven - Search for Symbols, 1975, pgs. 347-48. As you can see, Boorstin points out how Sparks conducted an "ingenious whitewash" of Washington's religiosity:
Sparks followed the style of his day. His biography, which prefaced the writings, was pious, pallid, and reverential. The Hero was of commanding figure, symmetrical features, indomitable courage, pure character, and perfect judgment; "his moral qualities were in perfect harmony with those of his intellect." Sparks's appendix, "Religious Opinions and Habits," was an ingenious whitewash in which Washington's failure to attend communion became an argument for his religiosity. "He may have believed it improper publicly to partake of an ordinance, which, according to the ideas he entertained of it, imposed severe restrictions on outward conduct, and a sacred pledge to perform duties impracticable in his situation. Such an impression would be natural to a serious mind . . . a man of a delicate conscience and habitual reverence for religion." There was no passage in Washington's writings, Sparks noted, which expressed doubt of the Christian revelation. In a man of such Christian demeanor, what more conclusive proof that he was a true and tolerant Christian?

The writings were edited in a similar spirit. In selecting a mere eleven from what might have filled four times that many volumes, Sparks had ample freedom to ennoble his subject. While Sparks did not actually add passages of his own, he omitted passages at will without warning the reader and he improved the language when it seemed unworthy of the Hero. He explained all this in his introduction: "It would be an act of unpardonable injustice to any author, after his death, to bring forth compositions, and particularly letters, written with no design for their publication, and commit them to press without previously subjecting them to careful revision." Challenged later on his editorial methods, Sparks argued with charming naiveté that he was really being true to his subject because Washington himself in his old age revised his early letters. Wherever Sparks had a choice he preferred Washington's own later (again without warning the reader) in place of what had actually been written in the heat of the vents. And Sparks made changes of his own. Where, for example, Washington had written of the "rascally crews" of New England privateersmen, Sparks emended the text to read simply the "crews." Washington's reference to the "dirty mercenary spirit" of the Connecticut troops became the "mercenary spirit," and their "scandalous conduct" was softened to their "conduct." "Old Put." became the more dignified "General Putnam." When Washington referred contemptuously to a small sum of money as "but a fleabite at present," Sparks improved it to read "Totally inadequate to our demands at this time." Sparks again and again and again changed the words to make them worthy of his Hero.

Washington Irving used Sparks' sanitized work on Washington as his primary source for his biography of George Washington. Irving, as did many of his contemporaries, praised Sparks for his excellent work. In a May 23, 1853 correspondence written to Robert C Winthrop, he commented, "I doubt whether the world will ever get a more full and correct idea of Washington than is furnished by Sparks's collection of his letters, with the accompanying notes and illustrations, and the preliminary biography." Irving's appraisal of Sparks's work proved providential, because it allowed him to leave Washington D.C. and return to Sunnyside, his home along the Hudson, instead of endlessly searching through the musty archives of the Capitol. One thing is still absolutely certain, Irving did not use Sparks as his source for claiming that Washington added "So help me God" to his presidential oath.

In spite of the trend first established by Parson Weems, and carried on by Jared Sparks to embellish Washington's religious character, when it came time for Washington Irving to furnish a description of Washington's inauguration he still lacked an authentic source for his having added a religious codicil to Washington's oath. That didn't stop Irving. When it came to Jared Sparks, he knew when to stop.

1 comment:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for this. I'm more interested in the fragment. So what you have uncovered is that it wasn't GW who wrote the fragment, but Col. Humphrey's? And that it was discarded by GW and subsequently torn up by Sparks because he and Madison concluded it was an "odd" speech, not typical of what Washington would normally use?

This is important to me because there is a line in that fragment which talks about the Bible being the revealed Word of God and discusses man's depravity. It's one of the few places that GW ever explicates his views on revelation and makes him sound more pious than I think he was.

Your information gives us skeptics all the more reason to doubt the importance of the GW's religious opinions in the fragment.