But Sparks had serious faults. In 1833 he sent Judge Story a specimen volume of his work accompanied by manuscript copies of the letters in it. Story could thus see in what respects liberties had been taken with the texts. He said in reply:
There is not an instance in which you have failed to give the identical sense with more accuracy and clearness [than in the original]. You have done exactly what I think Washington would have desired you to do, if he were living. I cannot, therefore, in any manner object to it on my own account.But he added that he feared the critics would take objections to the changes of literary form. Had the hint been taken, Sparks's reputation as an editor would be higher. The editor's Nemesis at length overtook him. In 1847 appeared the Life and correspondence of Joseph Reed, containing many letters from Washington to Reed, his secretary. The editor had printed them as they were sent by the author. The public now had two copies of certain letters, one published by Sparks and one by Reed. Sharp eyes soon discovered discrepancies, and Sparks was charged in the press with correcting, embellishing, and altering to suit his own purposes letters which should have been reproduced literally. In 1851 Lord Mahon's History of England reached its sixth volume, in which an appendix repeated the charges. Then followed a long controversy in which Sparks was put to his mettle to defend himself. It is known that Washington in his old age corrected many of his letters which he had kept in letter books. Sparks sought excuse in saying that this indicated that Washington wished all his letters revised, and that he had merely done what Washington himself would have done. Needless to say, this excuse did not satisfy the critics. The controversy probably served a good turn to scholarship. Coming in connection with the first great work of editing in the field of American history, it attracted wide attention, and fixed in the minds of scholars the necessity of accurate reproduction of documents. It should be said for Sparks that many others of his time thought that an editor ought to correct the letters he reproduced. Exact reproduction, however, had become the rule with the best editors.