FAMILY, n. The collective body of persons who live in one house and under one head or manager; a household, including parents, children and servants, and as the case may be, lodgers or boarders.
When will Squire Webster be returning home?”
That’s what Rebecca Webster, eight months pregnant with the couple’s sixth child (who would turn out to be Eliza), kept hearing from her Water Street neighbors throughout December 1803. Though she wasn’t sure herself, Rebecca would answer, “At Christmas.”
But Webster wouldn’t be back until after the beginning of the New Year.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Webster headed to Philadelphia to procure types for the revised version of his spelling book. During his two-month hiatus, New Haven was not quite the same. Without its leader, the choir at the Brick Meeting House ceased singing.
During his travels, Webster stayed in touch by mail. The letters from his two eldest daughters, Emily, then thirteen, and Julia, then ten, provide a unique glimpse into how the Webster children related to their paterfamilias.
Feeling put upon by all the activity in his bustling household, the socially awkward scholar demanded not only submission to parental authority but also cheerfulness. He was a topsy-turvy parent, tending to look to his children for affection and support rather than the other way around. His manner was intimidating, and his preferred mode of communication was the lecture. When writing from upstate New York that summer, he tried to turn his itinerary into a pedagogical exercise: “Such is my progress my dear girls and you must take your maps and trace it out. . . . It will help you to remember the geography of this country.” Quick to anger, Webster could get highly animated about matters of principle. And jokes with double entendres or coarse references of any sort could set off a tirade. While he mostly directed his outrage toward other adults (rather than family members), his children often felt fear in his presence. After witnessing a harsh rebuke toward a particular “culprit,” one of the girls once blurted out, “Papa makes me siver [shiver] like a top.” Webster also had a punitive streak. While on a trip years later, he wrote to Eliza, “If my name is a terror to evil doers at home, I hope there will be little occasion to use it. Tell Louisa there must be no evil doings at home & if I do not learn that she is a good girl, I shall not bring her pretty things when I return.”
In their letters that winter, both Emily and Julia tried their best to win their father’s favor. Unfortunately, this tack meant internalizing his critical temperament and burdening themselves with feelings of inadequacy. On November 24, 1803, an apologetic Emily had a hard time putting pen to paper, writing from her father’s study, “However, as it [this letter] is intended for my father’s perusal, and he well knows what an ignoramus his Emily is—I will scribble just what pops into my head first.” Identifying with Webster, Emily, too, lapsed into the third person to talk about herself; likewise, just as he often complained about family intrusions into his dictionary-making, the teenager expressed annoyance with her rambunctious younger siblings—namely, her sisters Harriet and Mary, and the two-year-old William: “Pardon, Dear Pappa, the many mistakes and blots I have made occasioned by frequent interruptions and the noise of the children in the next room.”
A couple of weeks later, Rebecca, Emily and Julia all passed on their thoughts in a joint update to Webster. Keenly missing her husband, Rebecca was upset that a time had not yet been set for his return: “It is now three long weeks since you left us.” She also complained of ill health, stressing, “Yet I am as well as I can reasonably expect to be.” In contrast, Emily’s tone was more lighthearted; she reported on how she and her siblings, no doubt patterning themselves after the eminent wordsmith, made fun of the baby’s pronunciation errors: “William grows fat and very funny. . . . Some times we speak a hard word on purpose to hear his little blunders for he repeats every word we say.” Up next, Julia hoped to impress her father with her industriousness and attention to detail, writing, “I go to school very steadily & pass 8 or 9 hours there every day, there are 68 scholars. . . . I have began [sic] ciphering [arithmetic] and have got to multiplication. & I have almost finished a little cap—for somebody.” After finishing her remarks, Julia signed off with “your most dutiful daughter,” omitting her name.
The day after Christmas, Emily shared some joyful news with her father: “The dear babe is plump and weighs 8 pounds; we wait for your consent to call it Elizabeth.” In that letter, Emily also added a poignant plea for his love: “We have just received your kind letter, but I am half angry to think that papa would say William needed beauty when he is so much handsomer than any of us so that is as much as to say we all [sic] ugly as witches, but it is a truth I always knew and tho wanting in beauty I hope I am not wanting in affection to my dear papa.”
“HAVE YOU COMPLETED your dictionary?” So asked Webster’s uncle, Eliphalet Steele, in a letter dated May 20, 1801, at which time the forty-two-year-old retired newspaper editor had hardly begun.
Webster would face this query time and time again over the next twenty-seven years, and he eventually gave up trying to respond. As he would write his brother-in-law Thomas Dawes several years later, “I am often asked what progress I have made in the compilation of my proposed dictionary; and when in all probability it will be completed. To these questions I am not able to give precise answers, as the field of inquiry enlarges with every step I take.”
On June 6, 1804, Webster placed an anonymous article in The Connecticut Courant, in which he updated the public about his literary activity. After announcing that his new American Spelling Book—about to become the valuable annuity that would support his family for the rest of his life—was to be published in a few weeks, he described the status of the next project on his assembly line:
In compliance with repeated solicitations from the friends of American literature in various parts of the country, who urge the utility of a complete system of books for the instruction of youth in our language by a single hand, the same author has prepared a Compendious Dictionary of our language, upon the latest edition of Entick improved—correcting the more palpable mistakes, and adding three or four thousand words with which the vast improvements in chemistry, natural science, have within half a century supplied the language.
Webster, an inveterate self-promoter, here attempted to gloss over the widespread abuse heaped on his initial announcement four years earlier. In fact, few people were clamoring for his name to appear on yet another pedagogical text; the impetus for his first dictionary came largely from within. A warm-up exercise to his complete dictionary, Webster’s Compendious Dictionary—compendious means concise—was a rewriting of the New Spelling Dictionary of the English Language by John Entick, which had been reissued numerous times since its initial publication in 1764. “This work,” Webster declared, “will be put to press in a short time, and an elegant edition may be expected in the course of the summer.” But Webster’s first foray into lexicography wouldn’t actually appear for another two years. Writing a dictionary, Webster would learn, typically takes longer than expected.
One reason for the delay was that Webster was also engaged in compiling another massive reference work, Elements of Useful Knowledge, an encyclopedia for children. The first two volumes, which concerned the history and geography of the United States, appeared in 1802 and 1804, respectively; the third volume, on Europe, Asia and Africa, came out in 1806; and the fourth volume, on animal history and classification, in 1812. He relished documenting the inherent order in the universe. “Nature, in all her works,” he wrote in the preface to volume, “proceeds according to established laws, and it is by following her order, distribution and arrangement, that the human mind is led to understand her laws, with their principles and connection.” Thus, at the same time as Webster was defining words for adults, he was also defining places, people and animals for children. According to his master plan, he would become the pedagogue for all Americans: “My views comprehend a whole system of education—from a spelling book through geography and various other subjects—to a complete dictionary—beginning with children and ending with men.”
Webster’s encyclopedia read like a dictionary. The text consisted of short paragraphs, given numbers in the last two volumes, each of which clarified a particular term. (He hoped that this format would enable children to commit his words to memory, but this fantasy was never realized.) Though Webster believed he was transmitting only hard facts, his personal prejudices were much in evidence. Consider, for example, paragraph 224 in volume 3, describing the “character and morals” of his least favorite nation, France: “Ancient authors all agree that the Gauls were a fickle, perfidious people, prompt to action, but impatient of toil, and ever studious of change. The present French are remarkable for their vivacity, gayety and politeness; fond of show and pleasure, but not cleanly in their houses. The sanguinary scenes of the late revolution manifested a ferociousness of character, rarely found among civilized men, and impress the mind with horror.”
The reclusive scholar was now obsessed with categorizing and describing everything in the external world, which he no longer had much interest in exploring in the flesh. He preferred to live among the thoughts percolating inside his own mind. Though teachers in Connecticut ordered this text, it didn’t have much of a market outside his home state.
After selling his papers, Webster stopped commenting on national politics. In occasional freelance articles, he explored his various avocations, such as tending to his fruit trees and making cider. In October 1804, he wrote a couple of columns for the Courant devoted to “the diffusion of agricultural knowledge”—the ultimate utilitarian, Webster never could do anything entirely for the fun of it. He prefaced both “Farmer’s Repository” pieces with an epigraph from Jonathan Swift that conveyed his disgust with the Jefferson administration: “Whoever can make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind and does more essential service than the whole race of politicians put together.” In the first one, dated October 24, he began by describing himself as a member of a small breed of “philosophical agriculturalists”: “I possess not a farm on which to indulge my inclination for experiments, my experience is limited to a small garden; but even this experience may have offered a few useful truths, to spread the knowledge of which this is the sole motive for this communication.” Webster went on to dispense some advice for coping with insects that preyed on Connecticut homes during winter: “I make it a practice to scrape off these lodgers to expose them to bad weather and destroy as many as possible.”
Another of Webster’s favorite pastimes was monitoring the weather with a mathematical precision. He tracked these observations in his diary, which, after his move to New Haven, contained information about little else. The odd meteorological patterns in the first half of 1805 piqued his intellectual curiosity. “The snow in January of 1805,” he wrote in his “diary of the weather”—to cite a phrase he himself embedded within the definition of “diary” in his 1828 dictionary—“was about 3 feet deep. This was the severest winter since 1780. But the snow left the earth in March in good season & spring was early. I cut asparagus on the 14th of April, 9 days earlier than last year.” That spring, in an article, “Meteorological,” published in The Connecticut Herald, Webster tried to “throw together a few facts” to put this stretch of turbulent weather in historical context. After rank-ordering the most severe winters in America’s two-hundred-year history, he offered a head-to-head comparison between 1805 and the record-breaking 1780: “The present winter did not begin so early as that of 1780 by three weeks—nor has the cold been so intense and continued. In January and February 1780, the mercury fell below 0 twelve days; and seven days to seven degrees under 0. . . . But in the present year, it has fallen only once to 16 degrees in the same place; and one other time to 9 degrees.” Noting that “winters of the utmost severity . . . do not exceed three, four or five in a century,” Webster encouraged his fellow citizens not to despair.
The harsh winter of 1805 also led Webster to expand his talk, “On the Supposed Change in the Temperature of Winter,” initially given before the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799. Webster had first taken a systematic look at climate change while researching his book on plagues. Ever since the Revolution, numerous writers had taken the position that American winters were becoming milder. These advocates for the eighteenth-century version of “global warming” included Thomas Jefferson, who had addressed the question in his Notes on Virginia; Benjamin Rush; and Samuel Williams, a Harvard historian. The man-made cause was allegedly the rapid deforestation of states such as Vermont. Webster challenged his predecessors on the basis of their lack of evidence. Noting Jefferson’s reliance on personal testimony rather than hard data, Webster wrote disparagingly, “Mr. Jefferson seems to have no authority for his opinions but the observations of elderly and middle-aged people.” Though Williams, in contrast, did engage in some statistical analysis, Webster convincingly argued that he had misconstrued the facts at hand. While Webster acknowledged that winter conditions had become more variable, he maintained that America’s climate had essentially remained stable: “there is, in modern times, [no] . . . actual diminution of the aggregate amount of cold in winter.” Webster completed this additional section in 1806, and he would eventually publish both papers, which one modern-day geographer has called “a tour de force,” in the Connecticut Academy’s flagship journal in 1810.
ABOUT TWO WEEKS before the publication of his Compendious Dictionary, Webster launched his own publicity campaign. On January 21, 1806, under the pen name “Americus,” Webster placed a front-page essay, “American Literature,” in The Connecticut Herald. To garner enthusiasm for his idea that America was ready for a language of its own, Webster challenged the conventional wisdom that harped on “the inferiority of the writings of our citizens.” Though America, he acknowledged, had yet to produce writers of the stature of Milton, Johnson and Pope, Britain, he stressed, had benefited from a four-century head start: “The comparison, to be just, should be instituted between the great body of respectable writers in the two countries; and in such a comparison, the writings of American citizens will not appear to a disadvantage.” Looking back over the last thirty years, Webster concluded that Americans in every genre—from political theory to poetry—matched up well against their British counterparts. Webster lauded a number of American writers such as his Connecticut chums Dwight, Trumbull and Barlow, as well as Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He also wrote favorably of Alexander Hamilton; now that his bitter rival was dead, Webster didn’t mind praising the “style, argument, arrangement and accurate knowledge” of the author of The Federalist. Webster did, however, acknowledge one major roadblock to American literary greatness: the existence of “only three or four tolerable libraries.” The net result, he asserted, was that “no American undertakes . . . any work of great magnitude. We shall never have authors of great celebrity in the literary world, till our citizens execute works on a large scale, which will be interesting to foreign literati.”
Webster would be the exception. Having just finished what he called his “compend,” his “convenient manual,” he was now dedicating his life to his complete dictionary, which would indeed force foreigners to stop and take notice of American literary achievement.
On February 11, 1806, Americans first learned about “Webster’s Dictionary.”
The now-familiar phrase appeared as the headline of the advertisement that Webster placed in The Connecticut Herald on publication day. The Compendious Dictionary, with its 432 large duodecimo pages, cost a dollar fifty. The book contained roughly forty thousand words. While Webster added five thousand new scientific terms from diverse fields including chemistry, mineralogy and botany, he eliminated many vulgar words found in Johnson (and Johnson Jr.) such as the irksome “foutra.” The text resembled a contemporary thesaurus because most entries consisted of just one or two quick definitions. For example, he defined “author” as “one who makes or causes, a writer.” As this announcement mentioned, in the back of the book Webster appended seventeen tables “for the merchant, the seaman, the classical student and the traveler.” While Entick’s Spelling Dictionary had featured a few addenda such as alphabetical lists of “Heathen Gods and Goddesses,” “Heroes and Heroines” and the most common Christian names of men and women, this hefty supplement was largely a Websterian touch. The tables covered such diverse topics as currencies, weights and measures, demographic data, the location of post offices, historical events and inventions. The statistician, the census taker and the encyclopedist were thus all merged into the lexicographer. “These tables,” Webster noted proudly, “are all new, and compiled with great labor and minute attention to correctness.”
In his “compend,” Webster first made his famous tweaks to British English. “In omitting u in honor and a few words of that class,” he wrote in the introduction, “I have pursued a common practice in this country, authorized by the principle of uniformity and by etymology.”
In his twenty-four-page, single-spaced preface, which went way over the head of most readers, Webster explained his method for revising “our present dictionaries” to arrive at “a correct knowledge of the language.” Since Webster had already begun planning the sequel, this conceptual overview actually referred as much to the massive book he was about to write as to the small book he had just written. The future of the English language, Webster insisted, was to be found in its past; a generation after the Revolution, he was talking up a different version of American linguistic identity. Americans, he now believed, should be at least as British as the British—if not more so. For this reason, Webster argued, all Americans should start sounding like New Englanders: “It is . . . to be remarked that the common unadulterated pronunciation of the New England gentlemen [sic] is uniformly the pronunciation which prevailed in England anterior to Sheridan’s time5 and which I am assured by English gentlemen is still the pronunciation of the body of the English nation.” Likewise, for spelling, Webster insisted that Americans should go still further back in time—to Anglo-Saxon (a language of which Johnson had known little). Thus Webster turned the charge of “innovation” upon its head; according to his new analysis, he was rescuing his fellow Americans from the corruptions wrought by Johnson and his contemporaries.
Webster was quite right to pounce on Johnson for ignoring the history of words. In contrast to Webster, Johnson had little patience for etymology, which he considered the path not to the truth, but to the ludicrous. But Webster’s own grasp of Anglo-Saxon was shaky. Though he began studying it after returning to New Haven, he never proceeded very far. (In contrast, Thomas Jefferson, then residing in the White House, who had first encountered Anglo-Saxon as a teenage law student in 1762, happened to be the country’s reigning expert.) As one scholar who examined the marginalia of Webster’s Anglo-Saxon book collection a half century ago concluded, “to assume that Webster was more than a mediocre student of Anglo-Saxon is to accept his professions too credulously.” In the preface to his “compend,” Webster noted that anyone with “the smallest acquaintance” of Anglo-Saxon could track down Johnson’s errors; and the sum total of his knowledge may not have been much greater than that.
Despite the deficiencies in Webster’s Anglo-Saxon, the new course he charted for orthography was, with a few notable exceptions, eminently reasonable. He advocated a middle ground between extremes. While he described English spelling as “extremely irregular,” he now critiqued the development of a new phonetic alphabet—the position that he had taken in 1790—as “impractical” and “not at all necessary.” But Webster also opposed no reform at all, arguing that “gradual changes to accommodate the written to the spoken language when they occasion none of these evils, and especially when they purify words from corruptions . . . illustrate etymology [and] are not only proper, but indispensable.” This was the theoretical justification for Webster’s most famous tweaks to British English such as eliminating the “u” in “favour” and the “k” in “musick.” “The practice,” he wrote, “in . . . [Johnson’s] time of closing all words with k after c . . . was a Norman innovation,” thus suggesting that he was also liberating Americans from the unscrupulous practices of the French. Grounding all his changes in such historical investigations, Webster also identified a few other classes “of outlaws in orthography,” including, for example, words ending in “re” (“theatre” thus became “theater”) and those ending in “ce” (“defence” thus became “defense”).
But the study of Anglo-Saxon also led Webster to make the case for other spellings that we now consider eccentric. He repeatedly removed the final “e” in words such as “doctrine,” “determine” and “discipline.” His other idiosyncratic preferences included “tung” (“tongue”), “wimmen” (“women”), “ake” (“ache”) and “wether” (“weather”). In these instances, where he knew that he would be facing fierce opposition, he listed what he considered the etymologically correct spelling merely as an alternative. He eventually gave in to the majority opinion, albeit grudgingly. In his 1828 dictionary, under the definition “women,” he still felt compelled to add, “But it is supposed the word we pronounce is from Sax . . . and therefore should be written wimen [sic].”
Webster concluded the preface by stepping up his attacks on Johnson. While praising his predecessor as “one of the brightest luminaries of English literature,” Webster stressed that “no original work of high reputation in our language . . . contains so many errors and imperfections.” He then launched into an aside on biography: “To assign the causes of these defects is by no means difficult. We are told in the accounts given of Johnson’s life that he was almost always depressed by disease and poverty; that he was naturally indolent and seldom wrote until he was urged by want. . . . Hence it happened, that he often received the money for his writings before his manuscripts were prepared. Then, when called upon for copy, he was compelled to prepare his manuscripts in haste.”
Webster was keenly aware of how he stacked up against his rival. As he aptly noted, he was the more methodical and industrious, a difference in temperament which was indeed an asset. However, Webster’s allusion to Johnson’s book advances was gratuitous. Johnson’s manic intensity was an essential part of his character; it was not dependent on the timing of his payments. Webster was teeming with envy because he had no patron, not even an unappreciative Lord Chesterfield. In contrast to Johnson, he would have to bear most of the financial risk himself. As Webster knew, in his case, the dictionary could well mean not an escape from but a descent into poverty.
The reaction to the publication of Webster’s first dictionary was mostly indifference. No review appeared for three months; and the first one, published in May 1806, in the Panoplist, a new Christian periodical founded by his friend Jedidiah Morse, was brief and not particularly glowing. Expressing concern about some “errors in the execution,” the Panoplist offered only a tepid endorsement: “On the whole, we are highly gratified in seeing a literary work which bears such strong marks of deep research. . . . we wish it may find a place not only on the toilette [then a synonym for cloth covering], but in the printing office and counting house. We hope also it will be introduced into our schools.”
But sales of the seven thousand copies never did take off. A year later, Webster printed only four thousand copies of a school dictionary, for which he reduced the price to a dollar. At the last minute, he tried to expand the market for this abridgement to the yeomanry as well as to students by removing the scientific terms. As the ads stated, “It contains a selection of more than thirty thousand words, comprehending all which are necessary or useful for farmers and mechanics.” But while his school dictionary, unlike his “compend,” would eventually go into a second printing, this wouldn’t happen until 1817.
“DARKNESS AT NOON!”
“The Great Eclipse of the Sun!”
So exclaimed the headlines of America’s leading newspapers in the weeks leading up to Monday, June 16, 1806.
Webster the amateur meteorologist was caught up in the national excitement about this once-in-a-lifetime event. He began giving daily lectures to his wife and children about the meaning of this remarkable phenomenon, thoughts which later worked their way into his 1828 definition of eclipse: “Literally, a defect or failure; hence in astronomy, an interception or obscuration of the light of the sun, moon or other luminous body.”
On the morning of the sixteenth, Webster equipped each of his three girls—Julia, Harriet and Mary—with a piece of smoked glass as they headed off to school. (Emily, the eldest, then sixteen, had completed her education and was visiting her uncle Thomas Dawes in Boston.) He wanted to make sure that they could keep peering into the sky as the moon began to cover the sun that afternoon.
Webster’s girls attended the Union School on Crown Street, which their father had been instrumental in launching in 1801. Pedagogy was Webster’s passion, and when he found out that New Haven lacked an adequate school for ladies, he organized the town’s parents. Within just a couple of years, nearly seventy girls had signed up. At the Union School, the girls learned the three Rs as well as sewing. As chairman of the trustees, Webster himself signed the hundred shares that had been sold to raise money for its founding.
As noon approached, Webster’s daughters were eager with anticipation. But suddenly, much to their surprise and consternation, their teacher, Miss Eunice Hall, took away their optical safeguards. Picking up a piece of smoked glass, she held it to her eye and declared, “Oh, I would not have you see it for the world.” Wedded to superstition, Miss Hall had no interest in science instruction. Closing the windows and shutters, the teacher transformed the classroom into a den of darkness. Though study was nearly impossible, Miss Hall did not dismiss the students early. By the time Webster’s daughters arrived back at the Arnold House, it was too late to see even a glimpse of what one paper called “one of the most sublime spectacles this age has produced.” During the eclipse, the particular cast of light shrouded America in a deathlike gloom.
Until that day, Eunice Hall had been highly regarded in and around New Haven. A month earlier, the Connecticut Journal praised her “genius and industry” during the school’s two-day annual exhibition held in the assembly room of the state house. Rebecca, who had attended to watch her girls, was also impressed by Miss Hall’s pedagogical skills. As a result of the teacher’s direction, Rebecca reported to a traveling Webster, “The young ladies performed extremely well.”
But Webster was aghast by Miss Hall’s actions on the afternoon of the sixteenth. “A teacher who shows herself so ignorant and tyrannical,” he told his family, “is not fit to instruct children.”
Webster’s second eldest, Julia, the school’s reigning wit, was equally outraged. Indulging her taste for doggerel, she wrote a poem about a cauldron of comestibles to which each student contributed something. The last line featured the person who had ruined her day:
Julia Webster, put in a lobster,
Eunice Hall, ate it all.
According to the family’s account contained in the biography by his granddaughter, Webster immediately withdrew his daughters from the school. But in fact, it was Miss Hall who ended up having to change venues. A month later, the teacher put the following notice in the Connecticut Journal,“Miss Hall . . . shall discontinue keeping the Union School for young ladies and misses. . . . she intends opening a similar school in New Haven on her own account, where she hopes by an assiduous attention to her school, to merit the approbation of the public and her employers.”
But Miss Hall soon left Connecticut and opened a school and boarding house in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. A disgruntled Webster, her onetime employer, had run her out of town.
LATER THAT SUMMER, the “compend” finally got some of the attention Webster had been craving. But nearly all the feedback was negative. The coverage in the popular press was brutal, and even some family members expressed uneasiness. Webster’s brother-in-law Thomas Dawes, though reluctant to make a judgment in a field outside his expertise, quipped, “I ain’t quite ripe for your orthography.”
In July, Webster’s foe, William Coleman, wrote a series of six vicious articles in The New York Evening Post. Noting that the English nation “felt an interest and a pride” upon the publication of Johnson’s dictionary, Coleman gleefully reported, “Webster’s Dictionary has now been several months in print . . . excepting a meager article in the Panoplist, none of our numerous writers have condescended to bestow a word upon it.”
In his comprehensive review, Coleman lashed out at Webster from every possible angle. Chief among his complaints was that Webster had unfairly slammed Johnson: “The appearance of attempting to depreciate the labours of others to exalt our own ought always to be shunned as most invidious.” But Webster had been taking heat from Coleman ever since the birth of the Evening Post, and he wasn’t expecting anything enlightened. On July 30, he aired his reaction to his friend Jedidiah Morse, “You will see his [Coleman’s] criticisms are . . . misrepresentations from beginning to end . . . indeed it requires the exercise of great charity to believe him honest in his statements.”
Webster tried to take his case to the public by submitting a long letter to the Evening Post. Though Coleman printed Webster’s response, he made sure that he got the last word; throughout Webster’s prose, the editor interspersed his own running commentary, which he set in a larger type. Webster stressed that Coleman’s aim was “to destroy the reputation of the book.” Despite Coleman’s protestations to the contrary (“I certainly believe that I have dealt very gently by him”), Webster was correct in asserting that he had not gotten a fair hearing.
That month, a writer identified only as “C” published another negative review in the Albany Centinel. Webster found his piece more troubling than Coleman’s because he had more respect for the source, telling Morse in that same July 30 letter, “The Albany Centinel is a paper better written than Coleman’s.” “C” rehashed the argument that his dictionary would cause linguistic chaos. While acknowledging Webster’s “rare erudition,” “C” wished his book would simply disappear: “Such is Mr. Webster’s disposition to revolutionize and disorganize the English language . . . that sober and judicious men who are disposed to . . . preserve the uniformity and stability of the English tongue will lament that learning and talents so respectable should be the auxiliaries of a taste so false and a judgement so perverse. Is it not madness to endeavour to establish . . . an American or United States dialect . . . ?”
In his response to “C,” published in the Connecticut Herald in August, Webster countered that the growth of the English language was inevitable: “But the question is whether new words, and new application of words, introduced by new ideas, arising from objects natural and moral, which are peculiar and appropriate to our country and state of society, shall all be condemned and proscribed as ‘corruptions and perversions’ of the language.” On the future course of the English language, Webster would repeatedly demonstrate remarkable prescience.
The attacks on his “compend” kept pouring in. In November 1806, the second president’s son, John Quincy Adams, a newly appointed U.S. senator from Massachusetts, issued a polite but pointed rebuke. Adams was a family friend—Dawes had personally passed on a copy—who served as a trustee at Harvard. Siding with the reviewer in the Albany Centinel, Adams wrote to Webster: “Where we have invented new words or adopted new senses to old words, it appears but reasonable that our dictionaries should contain them. Yet there are always a multitude of words current within particular neighborhoods, or during short periods of time, which ought never to be admitted into the legitimate vocabulary of a language. A very large proportion of words of American origin are of this description, and I prefer to see them systematically excluded.” Adams added that he suspected that Harvard’s president, Samuel Webber, was unlikely to support “your system of spelling, pronunciation or of departure from the English language.”
Undaunted, Webster hatched a new plan to drum up support for his dictionary. In February 1807, he drafted a circular asking for financial contributors, which he addressed to “the Friends of Literature in the United States.” To counteract the rejection from Harvard, he appended recommendations by academics at several of America’s other leading colleges, including Yale, the College of New Jersey, Dartmouth, Williams and Middlebury. But he ended up enlisting only a dozen donors, most of whom were old friends such as Timothy Dwight and Oliver Wolcott. His net proceeds were about a thousand dollars, and he was hoping to raise a full third of the fifteen thousand he estimated the book would cost (the actual figure turned out to be twice that amount). In August of 1807, he sent around a second circular asking for just ten dollars per subscriber, but that didn’t generate much of a response, either. Armed with a specimen of his dictionary, Webster then traveled to New York, Philadelphia, Newburyport, Boston and Salem in the hope of soliciting a large number of ten-dollar contributions in person. This direct appeal also failed. That summer, he met with more frustration when David Ramsay of South Carolina, who two decades earlier had championed his pamphlet on the Constitution, reported that “prejudices against any American attempts to improve Dr. Johnson are very strong” in Charleston.
Though Webster was no longer surprised by all the hostility, he was still upset. To cope with his disappointment, he did what he often did—he put pen to paper. The result was a twenty-eight-page pamphlet, “A Letter to Dr. Ramsay . . . Respecting the Errors in Johnson’s Dictionary,” published that October, in which he attempted to justify the need for his complete dictionary. Comparing himself to Galileo, who was imprisoned for disseminating information about the Copernican revolution, the grandiose Webster argued that he, too, was being persecuted for uttering new scientific truths. Webster identified seven principal errors in Johnson’s dictionary. While most were familiar objections which he had raised earlier such as Johnson’s penchant for including vulgar words and his lack of attention to etymology, Webster did cover some new ground.
Webster vilified Johnson for his reliance on “authors who did not write the language with purity” as authorities on word usage. This charge, however, reflected little more than Webster’s own prejudices. The authority Johnson most often cited was Shakespeare, and ever since his Yale days—when attending plays was frowned upon—Webster hadn’t thought much of the Bard of Avon: “Shakespeare was a man of little learning; and altho, when he wrote the popular language of his day, his use of words was tolerably correct, yet whenever he attempted a style beyond that, he often fell into the grossest improprieties. . . . Whatever admiration the world may bestow on the Genius of Shakespeare, his language is full of errors, and ought not to be offered as a model for imitation.”
Webster just didn’t get it. Concerned only with putting the English language in order, he had no interest in literary elegance. In fact, he considered the “low language” of Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights toxic. “I . . . shall proceed,” he wrote to Thomas Dawes in 1809, “as far as propriety requires in cleansing the Augean stable.” And he was true to his word. As his copy of Johnson’s 1799 dictionary, held in the New York Public Library, reveals, he put little black marks next to most Shakespeare quotations. And in his 1828 dictionary, Webster would rarely cite the immortal bard’s actual words. Instead he would insert the occasional “Shak.”—typically in definitions of derogatory terms such as “bastard,” “bastardize,” “characterless,” “drunken,” “drunkenly,” “strumpet” (the rarely seen adjective defined as “false”), “stubborn,” “unrightful” (“not just”) and “whoreson” (“bastard”).
But Webster’s “Letter to Dr. Ramsay” wasn’t just an angry rant. Buried within the contemptuous prose was a compelling reason to revise Johnson. In a particularly perspicacious observation, Webster alluded to Johnson’s “want of just discrimination in his definitions.” To illustrate this objection, Webster complained about Johnson’s characterization of “mutiny” as “insurrection, sedition,” countering that “it is neither one nor the other, except among soldiers or mariners.” This was Webster’s brilliant analytic mind at its best, and here he was identifying a key contribution that he could make to English lexicography. His definitions would indeed possess a precision missing in Johnson. In the case of “mutiny,” his 1828 dictionary would fix the problem by redefining the word as “an insurrection of soldiers or seamen against the authority of their commanders.” If his pamphlet had focused solely on the added rigor he was bringing to the table, it might well have inspired his countrymen to rally around him. Instead, his sweeping denunciations—“not a single page of Johnson’s Dictionary is correct—every page requires amendment or admits of material improvement”—alienated many potential supporters.
Webster’s salvo against Johnson did little to help his cause. Calling Webster “a man of ordinary talents and attainments” who was trying to “palm himself on the public as a nonpareil . . . and destroy the well earned and long established celebrity of his predecessors,” an anonymous reviewer in the Norfolk Register expressed the widely held sentiment, “There is a time to write and a time to cease from writing; and fortunate would it be for authors did they know when to terminate their labours.”
Never one to doubt his ability or to back down from a fight, Webster decided that it was just the right time to begin.