Lights and shadows

Thomas Sully’s portrait of Jared Sparks (1831).

HISTORY was, ironically, news in New York City during William A. Whitehead’s first years living there. His initiation into the New-York Historical Society’s holdings (a membership in that body would have to wait some years more) came just as it was awakening from a long period of slumber. But far from being the preserve of learned societies or the mere stuff of commemorations, history was also an instrument, and not uncommonly a blunt one.

It was the order of the day both to bend the narrative of long-ago events to more immediate ends and to attach overwhelming historical importance to the shifting politics of the moment. Thus the November 1838 elections, having stripped president Van Buren’s Democrats of many of their New York seats in Congress, prompted not only the usual fare of speeches, parades, banners and banquets, but dedication of a substantial stone tablet to the “glorious triumph” of the Whigs and their victorious gubernatorial candidate William H. Seward.1

Marking, the following year, the U.S. Constitution’s fiftieth anniversary and that of Washington’s first inauguration in the city, the Historical Society could not elude the partisan political constructions placed on its selection of a speaker, even though former president John Quincy Adams kept mainly to higher ground, permitting in his oration “no unnecessary allusion” to “recent events in our history.”2 Content to narrate the more distant past, he solemnly reminded Society members and their assembled guests that the nation’s founders had all been “gathered to their fathers,” and their children’s generation was “rapidly passing away in its turn.”3

If Adams’s hearers sensed any urgency in their mission, they could have met it with no greater success than that of their agreement with New England’s renowned Jared Sparks for a series of ten lectures in the late fall of 1841 on the American Revolution. Sparks, previously a Unitarian minister and editor of the North American Review, now an esteemed biographer and editor of historical papers, Harvard’s first professor of secular history and eventually its president, combined consummate knowledge of the sources, scholarly industry and accuracy with a plain speaking style enlivened with anecdotes and illustrations. One daily newspaper told New Yorkers to anticipate “an intellectual banquet,” “a feast of reason,”4 and they were not to be disappointed.

University of the City of New York (later New York University) on Washington Square.

An already rigorous schedule–lectures every Monday and Friday evening for five weeks–soon became doubly so for Sparks. The chapel of New York University, recently opened on Washington Square, was inadequate for the crowds eager to hear him. In response to “numerous and urgent solicitations from various quarters,” the Society arranged for a parallel course of his lectures (“a concurrent repetition”) on Thursdays and Saturdays about a mile to the south on Broadway, in a huge circular auditorium called the Tabernacle. Tickets to hear Sparks in this vast “omnium gatherum and hold-all of the city,” as diarist Philip Hone labeled it, were priced inexpensively at a dollar for the whole series, “in order to enable all who are disposed to hear so distinguished a lecturer on subjects of surpassing interest to every American citizen.”5

The downtown course comprised eight evenings rather than ten, but Sparks modified and supplemented his material so that it differed from his offerings at the University.6 He gave one lecture “without manuscript or notes” on Benedict Arnold and Major Andre that, “owing to the inconvenience of exhibiting the illustrations in the Chapel,” was delivered only at the Tabernacle. This proved so popular that he was prevailed upon to repeat it the following week. Sparks turned down invitations to speak elsewhere, in New York and other cities, but agreed to present a third series of lectures in Brooklyn. He gave himself no respite, telling his wife he felt constantly “obliged to study and write some parts anew, and to add new matter suited to the place and the occasion.” The two months in New York were such as he had “never before been thrown into.” “My time,” he wrote, “is filled up to the very brim.”7

Winter weather came to New York early that year. The evenings that Sparks lectured were “almost invariably stormy,” but with no appreciable effect on public interest.8 Almost nothing could keep New Yorkers away. Newspaper reporters and editors played a part in this, deciding that the attractiveness of the audience would interest their readers as much as the content of the lectures. Sparks’s crowds were regularly described as beautiful, brilliant and fashionable.9 His talk on the Continental Congress, it was noted, drew to the University chapel a crowd in which females predominated: “the most splendid and beautiful women in the country were among them.”10 At the next installment of the series, the atmosphere in the chapel was no less charged: “We never saw so many beautiful women present at a lecture before; … particularly those in the corner pews to the right and left of the lecturer.”11 The “fair” of New York, for their part, seem to have been equally impressed with the speaker, and were no less vocal.12

Interior of the Broadway Tabernacle.

In the judgment of journalists, Sparks’s courses merited the attention of an even wider audience.  While some confined their accounts to “a brief outline of the prominent points,”13 “the pith and marrow of the Lecturer reported in a condensed form,”14 others expended great amounts of “time, money, patience, labor and health,”15 undoubtedly by the use of stenographers, to record and report the lectures verbatim, at least at first. Editors debated in their columns whether it was fair to the lecturer, even one so well-paid as Sparks, to commit the full fruits of his labors to print.16

The value of Sparks’s lectures was heightened by use of maps and other illustrations17–it’s unclear what technique enabled his sharing them with large audiences–and by references to materials he had been able to locate and study among the state papers and diplomatic correspondence in the archives of England and France.18 These findings were already known to his fellow historians, as by and large they were previously published. But their inclusion in his lectures allowed Sparks to impress on a wider audience something of the allure of research and discovery.

A decade earlier, painter Thomas Sully had portrayed Sparks as something of a romantic hero. The throngs turning out for his lectures proved and perpetuated his stardom. The opening talk evinced his belief in the narrative–then being forged–of an American destiny, born from the Revolutionary generation’s espousal of “an idea–a principle,” to rule over a continent.19 But the lectures as a whole demonstrated a far subtler understanding, and as they drew to their appointed end they had to be seen as other than simply performative. The historical enterprise could no longer be reduced to a mere exercise in oratory or mythmaking. It had become a serious scientific pursuit. The New York Tribune laid before Sparks this parting tribute:

The Lecturer was not one who gleaned just knowledge enough of his subject to serve the occasion, and whose ambition was to display finely turned sentences or rhetorical flourishes; he has given to the topic the best portion of his life; the archives not only of our own, but of foreign nations have been diligently searched and no study or labor has been spared which promised to throw light upon the varied and most thrilling scenes of the American Revolution.20

However austere the material or its presentation may have been thought by some, “the attendance upon these lectures,” boasted the New York Express, was “kept up with unabated interest to the last.”21

Where, in all this, was Whitehead?

The University chapel stood only a short distance from his Greenwich Village home. Inclement weather alone would not have kept him away. The season, however, was bleak in an altogether different sense. On 21 November, the eve of Sparks’s fifth lecture, Whitehead’s son James died, two months short of his third birthday. He was buried in Perth Amboy on the 23rd. (James’s infant brother Charles followed him to the grave in January.) While there’s every reason to think Whitehead would have wished to attend every one of the Sparks lectures, without proof that he did so we can assume, at best, that he fully apprised himself of their contents.

For such an assumption, ample grounds may be seen in Whitehead’s dedication, already quite evident and of long standing, to the hard work of the historian. While never aspiring to the celebrity of a Jared Sparks, he was engrossed by many of the same challenges, especially the identification, preservation and interpretation of historic documents. The first of these concerns–identification–had emboldened him to introduce himself and his researches on early New Jersey history in a letter sent to Sparks the previous May. Broaching a problem he would contend with for much of his life, Whitehead wrote, “I have been struck with the paucity of the original materials existing among us,” and he asked for information about any colonial New Jersey records the renowned historian may have happened to notice while overseas.22

Sparks the academic, professional scholar and Whitehead the amateur had very different origins and trajectories. Their careers are hardly comparable. But the two had in common a profound commitment to the intellectual labor of history, which while often rewarding is never easy. If he did not hear them in person, Whitehead assuredly read and was affirmed by the words with which Sparks characterized that labor, in the fourth of his lectures on the Revolution:

The traveller who undertakes a long journey, must expect to pass over rough roads as well as smooth–go up hill, as well as down–if he would see the whole country, and at last attain his journey’s end. So in history–who ever would study it with profit to himself, or even entertainment, must go patiently through with what may be called the hard as well as the easier parts. He must search for causes, and connect them with effects, keeping this connection in his own mind as he goes on, and then his investigation will be completed, both as regards the persons, motives, and designs of the actors, and the importance and consequences of their acts. The history of any particular period is only a picture of human life within that period. To understand this picture–its lights and shadows–the proportions of its parts, and the symmetry of the whole, must be studied with a searching and discriminating eye.23

Whitehead’s priority and passion were, as they had long been, to illuminate those causes and effects, acts and consequences on the local level: “Local histories and narrations are the wells whence the general historian must draw his facts.” But “the paucity of the original materials” rendered the task more difficult: “where,” he pleaded, “are we to look for them among us?”24

A leader of the nation’s oldest historical society, that of Massachusetts, Sparks was brought to New York in 1841 by the second oldest. Fifteen other states had by then acquired historical societies, but none was yet to be found in New Jersey. Whitehead stated the case the year before, in the plainest language: “New Jersey wants a Historical Society;–a society interested in the preservation of the fleeting memorials of our early history, and which, by fostering a spirit of research, would yet be enabled, through the agency of its members and friends, to make discoveries in the dark unknown of the past.”25

For the Newark Daily Advertiser Whitehead began a review of colonial papers, recently edited and published by the New-York Historical Society, with these words: “When shall we have it in our power to announce a volume equal in interest to this as emanating from a Historical Society of New Jersey? We fear not in our day and generation.”26

Through his efforts and by his example, in Whitehead’s day and in his generation this would come to pass.


Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] The hefty stone – almost 4 inches thick – was laid at the base of a 157-foot flagpole raised for the occasion on Canal Street. Celebrants also placed a box containing “copies of all the newspapers of the city of the day, coins, medals, official returns of the late election, a map of the city, list of the Common Council, Comptroller’s report for 1838, &c. &c.” “Liberty Pole,” New-York (N.Y.) commercial advertiser 21 December 1838 2:4; cf. “Whig celebrations,” ibid. 1:5. The tablet is preserved today at the New-York Historical Society as Inv. 15053.

[2] Adams did make one pointed allusion to “the modern doctrine of nullification and secession” which, he said, was effectively refuted by the framers of the Constitution. John Quincy Adams, The jubilee of the Constitution. A discourse delivered at the request of the New York Historical Society, in the city of New York, on Tuesday, the 30th of April 1839; being the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday, the 30th of April, 1789 (New York 1839) 63.

[3] Adams 47. For a description of the event by one of its organizers, see Bayard Tuckerman, ed. The diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851 (2 vols. New York 1889) (entry of 30 April 1839) 1:355-359. Hone’s estimation of Adams’s speech as “broad, old-fashioned, federal doctrine, strongly laid down and stoutly supported,” made it for him “one of the most able political papers known in this country.”

[4] “Let us have a well-spent winter,” New York (N.Y.) daily express 6 November 1841 2:2.

[5] Diary of Philip Hone (entry of 5 November 1841) 2:97. “Repetition of Dr. Sparks’s lectures,” New-York (N.Y.) tribune 18 November 1841 3:2; cf. New-York commercial advertiser 15 November 1841 2:4; “Repetition of Dr. Sparks’ lectures,” The evening post (New York, N.Y.) 16 November 1841 2:1; also ibid. 2:6.

[6] Herbert B. Adams, The life and writings of Jared Sparks comprising selections from his journals and correspondence (2 vols. Boston and New York 1893) 2:420.

[7] Adams, Life and writings 2:421-422.

[8] Adams, Life and writings 2:423. New York daily express 30 November 1841 2:2. Cf. The weekly herald (New York, N.Y.) 20 November 1841 68:6; 27 November 1841 75:4; 4 December 1841 85:4; New York daily express 4 December 1841 2:2; New-York (N.Y.) tribune 18 December 1841 1:1.

[9] New York daily express 16 November 1841 2:2; The weekly herald 20 November 1841 67:3; 27 November 1841 75:4-6, 76:1.

[10] The weekly herald 13 November 1841 59:4. Cf. The New York (N.Y.) herald 19 November 1841 2:4; New York daily express 4 December 1841 2:2.

[11] The weekly herald 20 November 1841 67:3.

[12] At Sparks’s mention of the British surrender at Saratoga, the Weekly Herald reporter noted “continued and loud applause, particularly from the ladies.” At the Americans’ destruction of a Tory printing establishment and the melting of “the offending types” into bullets, “there was considerable laughter and applause, particularly among the ladies, some of whom literally roared again.” The weekly herald 13 November 1841 59:4; 20 November 1841 69:2.

[13] New York daily express 16 November 1841 2:3.

[14] New-York tribune 4 December 1841 3:3.

[15] New York daily express 3 December 1841 2:1.

[16] “Reporting lectures,” New York daily express 2 December 1841 2:2; New-York tribune 4 December 1841 3:3.

[17] On 9 December Sparks reprised his lecture on Arnold and Andre with “a new drawing, on a much larger scale than the one used on the former occasion.” New-York commercial advertiser 7 December 1841 2:6; The evening post 7 December 1841 2:5. In an earlier talk he displayed a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence: The weekly herald 20 November 1841 67:4.

[18] In his lectures Sparks cited few such papers directly, but made several adversions to foreign repositories, particularly as their contents helped vindicate the conduct of the French during the Revolutionary War. See especially New York daily express 30 November 1841 2:3, 1 December 1841 1:3, 7 December 1841 2:3, 14 December 1841 1:3. Other revelations from Sparks’s visits to foreign archives are mentioned in the reports of The weekly herald 20 November 1841 67:4, 27 November 1841 76:1.

[19] In a newspaper report of the lecture that begins verbatim but ends summatim, Sparks acclaims “the free institutions that now overspread the New World–extending, as they do, from pole to pole, and under whose influence, whether for good or ill, the destiny of this great continent is fixed for all coming time!” Both his inclusion of all the Americas and his intimation that such influence might not be “for good” are noteworthy. “Dr. Sparks’ First Lecture on the American Revolution,” The weekly herald 13 November 1841 59:2.

[20] “Mr. Sparks’s Closing Lecture,” New-York tribune 20 December 1841 4:1. At the start of the series the Tribune described the popularity of the lectures, “based upon no fascination in the author’s manner or delivery,” as “creditable to the taste of our city.” New-York tribune 16 November 1841 3:4. Sparks himself felt that “more oratorical display, picture-drawing, and deep philosophy” were expected of him in New York than he was able or willing to deliver: Adams, Life and writings 2:423.

[21] New York daily express 11 December 1841 2:2; New York evening express 11 December 1841 2:5.

[22] W. A. Whitehead to Jared Sparks, 7 May 1841, Jared Sparks Letterbooks, MS Sparks 153, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Sparks’s reply dated 12 June 1841 is in Manuscript Group 25, Miscellaneous Manuscripts, New Jersey Historical Society.

[23] “Jared Sparks’ Fourth Lecture–The ‘Continental Money,’” The weekly herald 20 November 1841 68:6.

[24] G.P., “Grahame and Bancroft, On the early history of East Jersey, No. I,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 12 March 1840 2:4.

[25] “Grahame and Bancroft, On the early history of East Jersey, No. I.”

[26] “Collections of the New York Historical Society. Second series, vol. 1st 1841,” Newark daily advertiser 23 September 1841 2:1.

Images: 1) Thomas Sully, Jared Sparks, via Wikimedia Commons. 2) University of the City of New York, Washington Square: New York Public Library Digital Collections. 3) The Broadway Tabernacle: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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