His Highness

By Lepore, Jill | The New Yorker, September 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

His Highness


Lepore, Jill, The New Yorker


Jared Sparks, thirty-seven, and known for his editorial eye, reached Mount Vernon by carriage just before sunset on March 14, 1827. He made no note of the grounds, the house, the stables, the slope of the hill. He sought only George Washington's papers. It had taken him years to get permission to see them, finally securing it from Washington's nephew and literary executor, the Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, by pledging discretion, and, no less important, agreeing to split the profits from publishing an edition of Washington's writings. A former chaplain of Congress, Sparks was the editor and owner of the United States' first literary magazine, the North American Review, which, under his direction, was distinguished for its judiciousness. A man better suited to the work of editing Washington's papers and writing his biography would have been hard to find, which makes it all the stranger that what Sparks did to those papers was, in his lifetime, called one of the most flagrant injuries ever inflicted by an editor upon a writer or by a biographer upon his subject--some swipe, even making allowances for hyperbole.

No one could have seen that coming when Sparks made his way from the carriage and into the house where he cloistered himself for more than a month. Diaries, notebooks, scraps, and some forty thousand letters: a biographer's harem. He wrote to a friend that he was in Paradise. No one bothered him. "I have been here entirely alone," he wrote in his journal, and you can almost hear his heart beating. In a garret, he pried open a chest: "Discovered some new and valuable papers to-day, particularly a small manuscript book containing an original journal of Washington, written in the year 1748, March and April, when he was barely sixteen years old." Everything was a find. "It is quite certain that no writer of Washington's biography has seen this book." Maybe, at long last, Washington's secrets would be revealed.

No biographer of George Washington has failed to remark on his inscrutability. In "Washington: A Life" (Penguin; $40), Ron Chernow calls Washington "the most famously elusive figure in American history." Sparks eventually published eleven volumes of Washington's writings, together with a one-volume biography. In 1893, Worthington C. Ford published the last installment of a fourteen-volume set. An edition of thirty-nine volumes was completed in 1940. Of the University of Virginia Press's magnificent "Papers of George Washington," begun in 1968, sixty-two volumes have been published so far. But, for all those papers, Washington rarely revealed himself on the page. Even his few surviving letters to his wife are formal and strained. Those diaries? Here is Washington's entire diary entry for October 24, 1774, a day that he was in Philadelphia, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, debating, among other things, a petition to be sent to the King: "Dined with Mr. Mease & Spent the Evening at the New Tavern." Here is how John Adams's diary entry for that same day begins:

In Congress, nibbling and quibbling, as usual.

There is no greater mortification than to sit with half a dozen Witts, deliberating upon a Petition, Address, or Memorial. These great Witts, these subtle Criticks, these refined Genius's, these learned Lawyers, these wise Statesmen, are so fond of shewing their Parts and Powers, as to make their Consultations very tedius.

Young Ned Rutledge is a perfect Bob o' Lincoln--a Swallow--a Sparrow--a Peacock--excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady--jejune, inane, and puerile.

Mr. Dickinson is very modest, delicate, and timid.

Aside from chucking Washington in favor of writing about Adams, what's a biographer to do?

Washington's contemporaries saw in him what they wanted to see. So have his biographers, of whom there have been many, including a delegate to the Continental Congress (David Ramsay), a U.S. senator (Henry Cabot Lodge), a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (John Marshall), and an American President (Woodrow Wilson). …

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