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It is a peculiar fact in the literature of America that while deficient in poetical genius, she boasts three historians not unworthy to be matched with the greatest of their contemporaries. This is no new opinion, for it has been remarked by an eminent authority in England that Bancroft, Prescott, and Jared Sparks, are among the first writers of the age. We have endeavored to justify this assertion in our review of Prescott's works. We now proceed to a consideration of the historical claims of the author of “The Life of Washington,” and in our next shall devote part of our space to Mr. Bancroft's writings. We must not forget that the latter has had advantages not extended to his brother historians.
As we have in a previous part of this volume explained somewhat our theory of the manner in which History should be written, we shall at once proceed to the consideration of Mr. Sparks's labors. Biography and history differ materially in one respect, viz. the spirit in which they should be written. The biographer should have a certain love for his hero, a kind of household feeling ;- but the historian should sit like Jove on Olympus, out of the turmoil of the conflict, and above the disturbing influence of those clouds which distort and interrupt " the vision, and the faculty divine" of truly judging of events. It is of course understood, that while we expect the biographer to take a personal interest in the subject of his memoir, we do not wish him to become either the apologist of his errors or the propagator of his opinions ; we only require a generous sympathy with the great objects of his life, and a forbearing judgment when he goes astray. There are certain grand elements in our nature which are far removed from the sphere of political and religious bigotries, and these are so broadly marked as to render an offence against them palpable to all. This is the only basis on which one man can condemn another. The elements we mean are those comprehended in the pure humanity of man. A man has a perfect right to be a republican or a monarchist; to be of any religion his conscience dictates. He is lord and master of his creed and opinion. If he acts consistently with these rules of faith, none dare blame him; but when he violates truth, honor, humanity, purity, then he comes under the just condemnation of his fellow man ; he puts himself out of the human family when he becomes cruel, unjust, false, or even ungenerous.
In history the narrator should regard the great law of progress. This should be the compass by which he steers his course. He should look at an event not so much by itself as in conjunction with others. In the most successful campaign all is not victory; many a step backward, apparently, may be the forerunner of a permanent advance; the sum total must be regarded, and not isolated items “in the great account.” Now
Mr. Sparks has, in his writings, combined the excellences of both systems, and while he has written of his hero with a deep feeling of appreciation, he has likewise taken into consideration his historical value. In his life of the great founder of this republic, he has avoided the common error of considering George Washington as a Fourth of July Orator, and treated him as a lover of human freedom, not an actor surrounded with drums, trumpets, and penny crackers, but a lofty-minded man, armed with the noblest attributes of the patriot hero. Sparks is one of the few writers who have presented Washington in that pure simplicity of character which renders him one of the greatest men that have ever been known to their fellow creatures. We always apply involuntarily to him these lines of Wordsworth on Milton:
“ His soul was like a star, and dwelt apart !
It is somewhat out of time here, but we have thought that the picture presented by Washington retiring from the arduous struggle of having achieved his country's freedom, and then returning to his farm, resuming all his old labors, is one of the finest in the human gallery, infinitely distancing the hacknied example of Cincinnatus to which it has been so often compared. When the difference of times and manners is taken into account, there is little comparison between them.
There is also another light in which Mr. Sparks may claim
distinguished notice, and that is the selection of his subjects. In this particular he is infinitely more national than either Bancroft or Prescott. He is truly the American biographical historian ; as we said before, he combines the two systems. His Life of Washington is a great historical picture, where the national events of the chief actor's life are so admirably grouped that he seems, in his natural position, just as in a drama, where the history moves around the man, as in the Wallenstein of Schiller, and the Richard the Third of Shakspeare.
It perhaps requires a more philosophical mind to write history properly, and a more dramatic one for biography. In the former so much more must be considered, so many more persons sketched, their relative positions examined, their importance weighed, with no undue influence given to any. The comprehensiveness and nicety of this great labor can scarcely be overestimated; it requires the possession of a very rare mind, for how seldom is it possible to weigh a ton and an ounce in the same scales, and yet the bistorian should be able to estimate the nation and the man !
In the Life of Franklin we have another proof of Mr. Sparks's fitness for the work he has chosen. While in that of Washington we had a picture of the harmonious union of the patriot, warrior, and statesman, formed upon the only sure basis of the Christian gentleman, we have, in the biography of the great printer, as admirable a likeness of the patriot philosopher combined with the legislator. What one did from loftiness of soul the other did from a love of utility. One looked at his work with the serene principle of duty, the other with the dis
passionate eye of practical philosophy. Both had the good of their country as their leading motive; but one acted more from the heart, and the other from the head. Washington's actions sprang from impulse, the other's from reflection. Both were equally inflexible; one from the integrity of his heart, the other from the soundness of his head. In drawing this parallel let it not for an instant be understood that we deny a head to Washington or a heart to Franklin. We only point out this distinction as the governing principle of their conduct. One said, I feel I ought to do it; the other said, I think I will.
It is in this identity with his subject that Mr. Sparks is the unrivalled head of American biography; indeed, we do not know of any who is superior to him in the literature of England. Some biographers, when they write the life of a hero, forget Columbus was the grandest of discoverers, by the most magnificent enthusiasm that ever stirred the human imagination, and in like manner transmogrify Mahomet into a tame adventurer. The truth is, these wonderful men were the embodiments and exponents of the leading feature of the age they lived in, and só far from creating the storm, they merely rode upon it as the chief objects. Some lean to the belief that the man makes the epoch ; others that the epoch makes the man. Possibly the truth may lie between in this, as in many other things, and the fact prove they were made for each other. Doubtless, when a vague idea is floating in the imaginations of men, some one more charged with the spirit of that particular thought may grasp it, and become the conductor of that electric shock which is to shatter the tottering superstitions of the world.
It no doubt sometimes occurs that men who have carried out