George Washington’s Cultural Attaché: The Definer of American Identity

AMERICAN, n. A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. The name American must always exalt the pride of patriotism. Washington.

The morning of Friday, May 20, 1785, was bright and sunny, though there was a slight chill in the air. In the early afternoon, just as the mercury hit 68 degrees, the brisk southerly wind began to calm down. But not so Noah Webster, Jr. He kept beating his horse with a cane as he traipsed across the rocky roads just south of Alexandria. A young man in a hurry, the gangly six-footer with the flaming red hair, square jaw and gray eyes was dashing off to keep an important appointment. The world-famous General, the man considered by most of America’s three million denizens to be “the greatest on earth,” had invited him—the son of a poor Hartford farmer—to the elegant four-thousand-acre estate known as Mount Vernon. Webster’s latest work, Sketches of American Policy, offered a series of proposals for the country’s malaise, and George Washington, who, upon retirement from the military at the end of the American Revolution, had become America’s “first farmer,” was eagerly awaiting his arrival.

The twenty-six-year-old writer with the remarkably erect bearing, who had burst onto the national stage two years earlier with the publication of his instant best seller, a spelling text for schoolchildren, had crossed Washington’s path once before. In June 1775, as a freshman member of the Yale militia, he had escorted the General out of New Haven as he was about to take up command of the Continental army in Cambridge. But this was to be the first time they would meet man to man. And it was a dinner Webster would never forget. Nearly sixty years later, Webster would record the details in a letter written in “a sturdy, awkward hand very fit for a lexicographer” (according to novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who later acquired the document for his personal collection of Colonial memorabilia).

After passing the white picket fence some three hundred yards to the back of Washington’s house, Webster dismounted. Washington’s secretary, Mr. Shaw, then ushered the visitor into the elegant central passage where Washington greeted Webster. Dressed in a white waistcoat and white silk stockings, the six-foot-two General had to look down ever so slightly to meet Webster’s gaze. Washington motioned toward the wood-paneled west parlor, where the two men soon sat down on mahogany chairs near the card table. Designed a generation earlier, the cozy room that Washington called “the best place in my house” still evinced a distinctly British sensibility. The carved overmantel was patterned after a plate in Abraham Swan’s British Architect and the Palladian detailing on the door frames was lifted from another popular British manual, Ancient Masonryby Batty Langley.

Washington was a stickler for routine—he liked to eat dinner promptly at three and go to bed at nine—and before long, it was time to eat. The table was set for four. Dining that afternoon were also the General’s wife, Martha, and another houseguest, Richard Boulton, a building contractor from Charles County, Maryland, recently hired to make additions to the mansion.

Sipping a glass of Madeira, Webster got a chance to explain the crucial fourth and final sketch of his pamphlet. The Articles of Confederation, passed in haste by the Second Continental Congress in the summer of 1777, had, according to Webster, failed to unite the thirteen colonies sufficiently. In this political tract, as in his speller, the first school-book to substitute the names of America’s cities and towns for their British counterparts, Webster urged Americans to celebrate their new national identity. Summarizing his main concern, he told Washington that since each state retained the power to defeat the will of the other twelve states, “our union is but a name and our confederation a cobweb.” Webster argued that it was time for the citizens of the new nation to redefine themselves: “We ought not to consider ourselves as inhabitants of a particular state only, but as Americans,as the common subjects of a great empire. We cannot and ought not wholly to divest ourselves of provincial views and attachments, but we should subordinate them to the general interests of the continent.” A stronger federal government, Webster emphasized, could improve the advantages of the American states, as provincial interest would become inseparable from national interest . Washington nodded his assent, promising Webster that he would ask his friend the Virginia legislator James Madison to read the entire work as soon as possible.

Over dessert, the conversation turned to less pressing matters, enabling Washington and Webster to cement their emerging bond. As the pancakes were passed around, Webster refused molasses, complaining that as a New Englander, he tended to eat more than his fair share. The typically dour Washington startled his dinner companions by emitting an uncharacteristically loud laugh, stating, “I didn’t know about your eating molasses in New England.” Then looking over at Boulton, the guest from Charles County, the General proceeded to tell the following anecdote: “During the Revolution, a hogshead of molasses was stove in at the town of Westchester by the oversetting of a wagon, and a body of Maryland troops being near, the soldiers ran hastily and saved all they could by filling their hats and cups with molasses.” After dinner, the Connecticut visitor and George and Martha Washington, whom Webster would later describe as “very social,” settled down to a game of whist. Summing up that overnight stay with the Washingtons, he gleefully recorded in his diary: “treated with great attention.”

About six months later, Webster, who spent the summer of 1785 running a singing school in Baltimore, traveled back down to Mount Vernon before heading on to Richmond to discuss his Sketches with Madison. On the evening of November 5, he once again gave the General a civics lesson. At dinner, Washington happened to mention that he was looking to hire a young man to tutor his two step-grandchildren—Nelly and Wash Custis, then living at Mount Vernon. He told Webster that he had asked a colleague in Scotland to offer recommendations. A stunned Webster shot back, “What would European nations think of this country if, after the exhibition of great talents and achievements in the war for independence, we should send to Europe for men to teach the first rudiments of learning?” Immediately grasping Webster’s point, a humbled Washington asked, “What shall I do?” But even before he had finished his question, the General himself knew the answer. Out of respect for the emerging new nation, he would restrict his job search to Americans. Washington initially considered Webster for the post, but Webster soon took himself out of the running. On December 18, 1785, Webster wrote that his desire to marry and start a family precluded his moving to Mount Vernon. In that same letter, Webster also confided to the man, who was quickly evolving into a surrogate father, his true aspirations: “I wish to enjoy life, but books and business will ever be my principal pleasure. I must write; it is a happiness I cannot sacrifice.”

Together, Noah Webster, Jr., the man of words, and George Washington, the man of action, would continue to work to unify America. Recognizing Webster’s remarkable knack for getting Americans to think of themselves as Americans, Washington relied time and time again on his trusted policy advisor. In May 1787, right after he was appointed the head of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington would knock at the door of Webster’s hotel room. Though bedridden with a headache, Webster—derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for “female weaver,” the family name is a synonym for “uniter”—was honored to offer strategic assistance. And in the fall of 1793, Washington, who during his first term as president had found the time to exchange missives with Webster about such mundane concerns as “the theory of vegetable manure,” would once again turn to this savvy wordsmith to combat divisions among the American people. At Washington’s behest, Webster would assume the helm of American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper. For the next several years, his incisive editorials would help quiet the furor of those Republicans eager to join the French in their rapidly expanding war against England. Washington’s heroic stewardship of the young nation would, in turn, have a lasting impact on Webster, whose dictionary would be replete with references to America’s first president. To illustrate the meaning of “surpass,” Webster would note, “Perhaps no man has ever surpassed Washington in genuine patriotism and integrity of life.”

Shortly after Washington’s death in December 1799, Webster petitioned for access to the family papers so that he could become America’s first presidential biographer. Only when he failed to land this plum assignment did the freelance writer begin work on what would eventually become his most illustrious monument to our national identity—his American Dictionary of the English Language. Beginning in the spring of 1800, Webster would throw caution to the wind and immerse himself in this massive undertaking, which would turn out to be nearly twice the heft of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. With his 1828 masterpiece, Webster, whom James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, would later describe as a “born definer of words,” would succeed in forever unifying the world’s most ethnically diverse nation with a common language. Webster’s insistence that his work, published at a time when America’s population totaled about 13 million, would “furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue . . . to the three hundred millions of people, who are destined . . . to adorn the vast territory within our jurisdiction” has proved remarkably prescient.

But Webster’s vast legacy extends far beyond lexicography. As the eminent American historian and former Yale president Howard Lamar recently put it at a 250th birthday celebration, “He was far more than the distinguished writer of the first dictionary of the American language. . . . [Webster was] a multiple American founding father.” This polymath wrote extensive treatises on epidemiology, which helped usher in both America’s first medical journal and the field of public health. The man whose nervous tic compelled him to conduct his own personal tally of all the houses in America’s major cities in the 1780s also helped give rise to America’s first census in 1790. A mover and shaker in the publishing world, Webster invented the modern book tour and drafted America’s first copyright laws. A progressive pedagogue who championed both female education and public schools, he helped found Amherst College. A political activist who served numerous terms in the state legislatures of both Connecticut and Massachusetts, Webster was an early champion of workman’s compensation and unemployment insurance. In short, Webster shaped American culture (or “civilization,” to use the term of his era) as a whole. When Americans were groping for a way to carve out their own identity vis-à-vis Great Britain, Webster proved an able guide. “America must be as independent in literature,” he observed at the beginning of his literary career, “as she is in politics—as famous for arts as for arms.”

Webster’s reputation was at its height in the decades immediately following his death in 1843. In 1878, renowned historian Charles Lester maintained that Webster stood side by side with Columbus and Washington himself in America’s “Trinity of Fame.” However, as his speller, which would sell a staggering hundred million copies by the end of the nineteenth century, fell out of favor, this pure-bred New Englander, whom his distant cousin, the eloquent Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster, once called the vera effigies [true likeness] of the Webster clan, suddenly lost his prominent place in the history books. When remembered at all, Noah Webster was often ridiculed. In the early twentieth century, he made a cameo in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary; the satirist stuck the phlegmatic lexicographer under the definition for “hell,” which was presumed to be his eternal resting place. H. L. Mencken was one notable exception. “[Webster’s] American Dictionary,” the sage of Baltimore raved in his 1919 classic, The American Language, “was not only thoroughly American: it was superior to any of the current dictionaries of the English, so much so that for a good many years it remained ‘a sort of mine for British lexicography to exploit.’” Still, by 1942, when Saturday Review dubbed this Connecticut Yankee “the United States’ least-known, best-known man,” most Americans were convinced that his cousin Daniel had written the dictionary.

America’s amnesia about Noah Webster can be traced back to doubts about his character rather than his achievement. His arrogance was hard to miss. After hearing him lecture, one contemporary remarked, “The capital defect is the sheer unbounded vanity of the man . . . which is so great as to excite ridicule.” His political opponents went further, with one rival newspaper editor calling him “an incurable lunatic” and another “a spiteful viper.” We might prefer not to have among our Founding Fathers such a self-aggrandizing man who was prone to lash out—not only at ideological adversaries, but also at friends and family. In a profile written a generation ago, award-winning biographer Joseph Ellis described Webster as “an irascible and stubborn fellow,” who is “not the stuff of American mythology.” Likewise, in a recent discussion of Webster’s obnoxious personality, New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore launched into an extended aside about a murderous dictator before catching herself: “Noah Webster is, of course, no Joseph Stalin. He was an unlikable man, not a dangerous one.” Only a handful of full-length biographies exist, and most whitewash Webster’s glaring faults, painting him as a selfless patriot. But by skipping over his essence, such hagiography turns him into a lifeless statue.

A full appreciation of what Aristotle might have labeled Webster’s “tragic flaw” actually makes him a more sympathetic figure. A close examination of the diaries and letters, including those long suppressed by the family, reveals that his willfulness was not something over which he ever exercised any control. Like his predecessor, Samuel Johnson, who, it is now widely believed, suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, the lexicographer battled an intractable form of mental illness. Webster’s was what contemporary psychiatrists call obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Saddled with nearly crippling interpersonal anxiety from childhood, he had difficulty connecting with other people. “I suspect,” he wrote to Rebecca Greenleaf, then his fiancée, in 1788, “I am not formed for society; and I wait only to be convinced that people wish to get rid of my company, and I would instantly leave them for better companions: the reflections of my own mind.” While Webster and Greenleaf would stay married for more than half a century and raise seven children, words would always be his best friends. For this order lover, who came close to a complete breakdown on several occasions, defining became his ruling obsession. The thirty-year quest to complete the dictionary was inextricably linked to the fight to maintain his own sanity. If the personal stakes hadn’t been so high, he would surely have given up. Thus, in contrast to Achilles, whose hubris resulted in his downfall, Webster’s pathology was instrumental to his success.

Remarkably, the man who did so much to help America establish its cultural identity lacked a stable sense of self. As an old man, Webster heartily agreed with the sentiment that the eighty-year-old Benjamin Franklin, upon whom he modeled his career, once expressed to him: “I have been all my life changing my opinions.” The tempestuous polemicist was often at war with himself. Webster’s body housed a host of contradictory identities: revolutionary, reactionary, fighter, peacemaker, intellectual, commonsense philosopher, ladies’ man, prig, slick networker, and loner. In the attempt to give voice to all these distinct selves, this fragmented man felt compelled to write and to keep on writing. In the end, he would publish more words than any other member of the founding generation. While Webster was never quite able to render himself whole, nearly two centuries after his death his words still unite the nation that he loved.

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