Hon. W. A. J. Sparks, one of the eminent men of Illinois and an honored citizen of Carlyle, was born near New Albany, Ind., November 19, 1828, and is a descendant of good old Revolutionary stock. His ancestors, both paternal and maternal, were of English descent, and were among the very earliest settlers of Virginia. His parents, Baxter and Elizabeth (GWIN) Sparks, were both natives of the Old Dominion. During the War of 1812 the father was in the military service defending the pioneer settlers of the frontier against the hostile Indian tribes. About 1805-06 he came west, settling upon and improving a farm in Harrison County, Ind., about nine miles west of the present city of New Albany. There he continued to live (except a short time in New Albany) until 1836, when he again removed westward and settled on a farm in Macoupin County, Ill. There his life career was closed in 1840. Three and a-half years afterward the mother passed away.

In a family of ten children, the subject of this sketch was the youngest, and his boyhood years were mainly passed amid the primeval scenes of Illinois, his education being gained in the log "temple of learning" near the home of his father. At the death of his mother he was thrown upon his own resources, and securing employment upon a farm, was thus engaged for several years. He then began to teach school, and continued in that occupation until he had saved enough money to pay his tuition in college. In 1847 he entered McKendree College, at Lebanon, Ill., and there prosecuted his literary researches with diligence, graduating in 1850 with the degree of B. S.

His schooling finished, Mr. Sparks came to Carlyle, where after having taught school for three months he began the study of law with Chief Justice BREESE, afterward his neighbor and life-long friend. He continued his studies under the tutelage of Judge Breese until 1851, when he was admitted to the Bar, and at once began the practice of his profession in Carlyle. Two years later President Pierce conferred upon him the appointment of "Receiver of the United States land office" at Edwardsville, Ill., which position he held until all the lands were sold and the office closed.

His duties as Receiver terminated, Mr. Sparks returned to Carlyle and resumed his professional duties, continuing thus engaged until his retirement from the Bar about 1874. In 1856 he was chosen an elector on the Buchanan-Breckinridge ticket as a representative of the Eighth Congressional District, and at the same election he was chosen a member of the House of Representatives of the Illinois Legislature in the Twentieth General Assembly, representing the counties of Bond and Clinton. In 1863 he was elected to the State Senate to represent in the Twenty-third General Assembly the Fourth Senatorial District, composed of the counties of Clinton, Bond, Fayette, Perry, Washington and Marion. He was a prominent member of both branches, and took part in the principal debates, serving with credit to himself as well as to the satisfaction of his constituents. He was Chairman of the Committee on Internal Improvements, and also took a prominent part in furthering the present school law, which was enacted during his term of service in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Sparks has been an active and leading member of the State Conventions since 1851, and was a delegate to the National Democratic convention held at New York in 1868, and the convention at Chicago in 1884, in both of which he took an active part. He also served in Congress, representing the Sixteenth District of Illinois, which embraced the counties of Bond, Clinton, Fayette, Clay, Marion, Montgomery and Washington, and served his constituents with such faithfulness and efficiency that he was elected to succeed himself for three additional terms, making his entire period of service eight years, or from 1875 to 1883. He served as a member of the Committee on Appropriations, and was Chairman of the Committees on Military Affairs, Expenditures of the Interior Department, Indian Affairs and the Revision of the Laws. His service was marked by close attention to all matters of business before the House, and he was noted as a hard-working, able and influential Congressman.

During his entire life Mr. Sparks has been an active member of the Democratic party, and has taken a lively interest in all the campaigns, being regarded as one of the ablest stump speakers in the state. Doubtless no one in Illinois is better known as a public political speaker than he. Under the administration of President Cleveland he was appointed in 1885 "Commissioner of the general land office," at a time when that office was perhaps the most responsible as well as the most difficult to manage in the United States, for the public mind was filled with the idea that the Government lands were being absorbed by railroad companies, large corporations and syndicate combinations, as well as by numerous speculating schemes, land grabbing rings, and individual land speculators, in contravention of the laws.

Mr. Sparks made active war against these rings and combined corporate interests, in order that the public lands might be preserved, as had been contemplated, for their appropriation by honest settlers for homesteads. By his efforts he saved many millions of acres for the public good, and was regarded as one of the most faithful and able commissioners the general land office ever had. Many of the great leaders in the country, such as Judge Davis, E. B. Washburne, et al., and the metropolitan press generally, heartily endorsed his acts while he was fighting these rings. Mr. Washburne, General Grant's personal friend, in a public letter said as follows: "The general land office for the last fifteen or twenty years has been, according to my judgment, the most corrupt that ever existed in any Government on the face of the earth. For years and years the ‘land grabbers’ and ‘land jobbers’ seem to have had full sway there, and it is quite time that they were rooted out, and I am glad to see that an Illinois man like Mr. Sparks has had courage to attack these stupendous abuses. Mr. Sparks deserves to be commended for his action, and for one I wish to bear him my sincere thanks."

Judge Davis, in a letter addressed to Mr. Sparks concerning his official acts as Commissioner of the general land office, writes: "I congratulate you most sincerely on your success, and I congratulate the country too. The office is one of the most important and requires a high order of capacity, and what is more, it requires an honest man, which I know you to be." In another letter to Mr. Sparks, he says: "Millions of the public domain have been seized and stolen, and frauds have been perpetrated and are now continually coming to light, proving how vast and reckless this organized plunder has been. Do not be deterred in your grand work by malicious opposition or insidious injustice."

Judge Gresham, in a letter dated December 2, 1886, addressing Mr. Sparks as "Commissioner of the general land office," says: "It is hardly necessary to repeat what I said to you when you were in Chicago a few weeks ago, that I thought you were the right man in the right place, and that your valuable services were appreciated by all right-thinking people." Gen. John A. McClernand, in a letter dated June 6, 1885, to Mr. Sparks, writes: "I congratulate you, and especially the public, on your appointment to an office which in its immediate functions, more than any other, pre-eminently concerns the social and political welfare of the whole people. I refer to the superintendency and disposition of the public domain. * * * In conclusion, I hail your appointment for another reason, if you will permit me to say it. It gives assurance that the heroic spirit of the founders of Illinois and of the earliest agents of her growth and glory, has survived in one of her sons, fearlessly and worthily incarnating it."

On the 15th of November, 1887, Mr. Sparks resigned the office of Commissioner of the general land office, and President Cleveland, in accepting his resignation, in quite a lengthy autograph letter, uses this language: "I desire to heartily acknowledge the value of your services in the improved administration of the land department which has been reached, and to assure you of my appreciation of the rugged and unyielding integrity which has characterized your official conduct."

On June 21, 1888, in the House of Representatives in Congress, during a discussion regarding the public lands, Mr. Holman of Indiana, popularly known as the "Watch Dog" of the Treasury, and the "Father of the House," said, "The judgment of the country, Mr. Chairman, is, I think, that in the employment of its officers and agents, the administration has been, as a rule, singularly fortunate. Whatever else may be said about the administration of Grover Cleveland, I think that all men of both political parties throughout the country accord to his administration an honorable purpose and a desire to secure to the people the blessings of good Government, and I feel sure, sir, that the public judgment in reviewing the multitude of men who have held offices under this administration and the services rendered by each, if it selected one that rendered a service of special and enduring value to the people, reflecting special honor on the Government, whose integrity rose above all question, and who left the public service with the regrets of millions of people, that public judgment would without hesitation designate General Sparks of the state of Illinois (applause), so recently at the head of the great bureau of public lands. I need not stand here, sir, to defend General Sparks. If any man of this period has established himself in the confidence of the people of the country for rugged integrity and firmness of character, of exalted devotion to the public service, that man is the late Commissioner of the general land office (renewed applause).

"Mr. Chairman, the sun in his course round the globe has not shone upon a man of purer heart, more sterling integrity, or of a higher sense of duty than General Sparks of Illinois. It is not necessary, I repeat, to vindicate General Sparks. He is vindicated by all men who esteem high qualities and honorable and valuable public services. The only charge that ever has or can be made against General Sparks as an officer of the Government, was that he was too strongly devoted to his duties and too intensely abhorred injustice and fraud. Mr. Chairman, men from both sides of the Chamber, something unknown in our past experience in this body, and perhaps the past history of Congress, Democrat and Republican as well, impressed with the high value of the services General Sparks has rendered to his country, urged that his resignation should not be accepted.

"Notwithstanding the embarrassment which they realize arose from General Sparks’ conflict of opinion on questions of the administration of the land laws with the head of the Interior department, public interests demanded that the people should have the benefit of his services. Let another instance be found in the history of our body where its members in the appreciation of the services of a man who had served on this floor with distinguished honor and credit, both to his state and himself, impressed with the value of his labor under the administration, had appealed, without regard to political differences, for his remaining in office, notwithstanding the embarrassment of the public service by a conflict of opinion between the head of a great bureau and the chief of the department. The condition of that, the greatest of the bureaus of the Government, the general land office, charged with the interests of our public domain, the existence of countless organized schemes of wealth and corporate power to rob the people and obtain by fraud the lands which should be their future homes, demanded the presence of such a man as General Sparks."

General Sparks left the service of the United States with the regrets of the whole people, who love honor and purity in public office, and with the regrets of the Chief Magistrate of the country. All coming generations will appreciate the value of his labors and hold him in high esteem. General Weaver, late Populist candidate for the Presidency, then in Congress, on the same occasion said: "I hope the committee will make ample appropriation to enable the Interior department to protect the residue of the public domain from fraudulent entries. I want to say one other thing in defense of the late Commissioner of the land office, General Sparks of Illinois. A more conscientious and able public servant never occupied that position. Very few have ever occupied any position in this Government who were abler than he. Not only that, but I want to say here that if this administration has made a mistake, it was in allowing General Sparks to retire from that bureau. With his magnificent courage and his incorruptible honesty, he was fighting a continent of thieves almost unsupported, single-handed and alone" (applause).

Mr. McAdoo, of New Jersey, now Assistant Secretary of the Navy, then in Congress, on the same occasion said: "Mr. Chairman, in the brief time allowed me, I want to say a few words in answer to the eloquence which has been poured out here in opposition to what is called the ‘spy’ system, inaugurated under General Sparks. General Sparks himself needs no vindication. If there ever was an aggressively honest man in a public office, if there ever was an upright, fearless, unselfish man, determined to do his whole duty to the people of the United States against monstrous combinations of capitalists and railroads, against land ‘sharks,’ land ‘thieves' and land ‘grabbers,’ cattle rings and alien free-booters, that man was William Andrew Jackson Sparks, an honest man and a sterling Democrat." Ex-Speaker Samuel J. Randall, of Pennsylvania, Hon. William M. Springer, R. W. Townshend, of Illinois, and others, spoke to the same effect.

For over forty-three years General Sparks has substantially been a resident of his present home, Carlyle, and is one of the oldest settlers of the place. He is now retired from all active duties and is spending his declining years in his pleasant home, which is one of the finest residences of the town. As in former years, he is deeply interested in political and public affairs. His name has frequently been mentioned as candidate of his party for Governor, and doubtless he could have secured the nomination had he put forth the energy and ability that he possesses; but as he himself says, he is well satisfied to fill the position of a private citizen.

General Sparks has been happily wedded for thirty-nine years, his marriage to Miss Julia PARKER, of Edwardsville, Ill., having occurred April 16, 1855. They have had no children of their own, but have reared and educated a nephew and several nieces, one of whom, Miss Sadie NORTON, now resides with them. Mrs. M. J. ALEXANDER, widow of the late Col. G. C. Alexander, a sister of Mrs. Sparks, has made her home with them for nearly a score of years. General Sparks is not a member of the church, but his wife and other members of his family are devout members of the Catholic Church.

Source: Portrait and Biographical Record of Clinton, Washington, Marion and Jefferson Counties, Illinois, 1894, Chapman Publishing Co., Chicago, IL

Submitted by: Connie Albers

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