Jared Sparks (1789-1866)

Historian, Writer, & Harvard President

Jared Sparks, historian, writer, and Harvard President, was born on May 10, 1789.

Sparks was born in Willington, Connecticut, the first of ten children. At 20 years old, he studied mathematics and Latin with a local minister in exchange for shingling the minister’s home. He continued working in carpentry until another local minister, Reverend Abiel Abbot, arranged a scholarship at Phillips Exeter Academy. Sparks entered Harvard in 1811 and received his B.A. in 1815. He worked as a science tutor from 1817-19 while studying at Harvard Divinity School and editing North American Review.

In 1819 Sparks worked as a pastor for the First Independent Church in Baltimore, embracing liberal Unitarian views. He resigned in 1823 and returned to Boston to focus on writing and editing. Sparks bought North American Review on credit from Edward Everett (Lot 17, Magnolia Avenue) and edited the journal for six years. While editing the journal, Sparks pursued his interest in the American Revolution and began traveling the country, collecting and copying related materials.

He visited Europe in 1828 and 1829 and gained access to European archives where he acquired custody of the papers of George Washington. Sparks transcribed, edited, and published these in The Life and Writings of George Washington, a 12-volume series. From 1823-38 Sparks authored and edited nearly 100 works and became a prominent figure in Boston’s literary culture.

After a prolific literary career, Sparks shifted his focus to education, and was appointed a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. In 1838 he became McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, and was the first professor whose focus was history and not exclusively ecclesiastical history. Sparks received an honorary LLD from Dartmouth in 1841, and the same degree from Harvard in 1843.

Sparks became President of Harvard University in 1849, using the opportunity to develop the Harvard Observatory before his resignation in 1852. He was a source of inspiration to writers and orators including George Bancroft, Charles Sumner (Lot 2447, Arethusa Path), and William Henry Trescot, and was elected to such scholarly societies as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1825), the Massachusetts Historical Society (1826), the American Antiquarian Society (1827), and the American Philosophical Society (1837).

Sparks married Frances Anne Allen in 1832 and brought her to live in Craigie House, now the Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic site, in Cambridge. Frances died in 1835 and sparks married Mary Crowninshield Silsbee in 1839. He died of pneumonia in Cambridge at the age of 76 and was buried on Garden Avenue with his second wife, children, and grandchildren.

Jared Sparks is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 3397 on Garden Avenue.


Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson, Laura M. Gosman, and Janet Heywood, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Jared Sparks, 2002.