FOLLY, n. 1.Weakness of intellect; imbecility of mind; want of understanding. . . . 2. A weak or absurd act not highly criminal; an act which is inconsistent with the dictates of reason, or with the ordinary rules of prudence.
When Webster turned forty-nine in October 1807, he had found his true calling. His one-track mind was obsessed with creating the mother of all dictionaries, which would do more than just cement the linguistic identity of the nation he loved. His interest in Anglo-Saxon having piqued his curiosity about etymology, he now planned to cover “the origin and history not only of the English, but also of the Greek, Latin and other European languages” in a supplement. Webster’s estimate that he would need eight to ten years to finish this labor would undershoot the mark by more than a decade.
To complete his own daunting assignment, Webster was willing to pay any price, bear any burden. As he wrote at the end of the preface to his “compend”:
However arduous the task and however feeble my powers of body and mind, a thorough conviction of the necessity and importance of the undertaking, has overcome my fears and objections and determined me to make one effort to dissolve the charm of veneration for foreign authorities which fascinates the mind of men in this country and holds them in the chains of illusion. In the investigation of this subject, great labor is to be sustained, and numerous difficulties encountered; but with a humble dependence on divine favor, for the preservation of my life and health, I shall prosecute the work with diligence and execute it with a fidelity suited to its importance.
In contrast to Johnson, who once famously opined, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Webster wasn’t motivated by financial gain. For Webster, the payoff was in the daily compiling and arranging, which both mitigated his existential angst and gave him a sense of purpose. Like Martin Luther, reaffirming his faith at the Diet of Worms, he could do no other. Dictionary-making was now his raison d’être.
Though Webster claimed in his “Letter to Dr. Ramsay” that his “herculean undertaking . . . is of far less consequence to me than to my country,” the opposite was true. Its completion was a matter of life and death—but only to Webster. In contrast, few of his fellow citizens cared about its progress. Initially, Webster was confident that the public—or at least the literati—would soon come around. But as he moved ahead with his defining, he received hardly any encouragement. Particularly during the first few years, when he was also burdened with the responsibility of raising his brood of seven, he would be repeatedly immobilized by despair. The prospect of not having the means to go on terrified him. Webster would continue to face steep hurdles right up until the publication of the book’s first edition in 1828.
IN CONTRAST TO WEBSTER’S “compend,” the origin of The American Dictionary can be traced back to a precise moment in time.
The date was Tuesday, November 3, 1807. The Great Comet of 1807, that “illustrious stranger” which had intrigued Webster ever since its first appearance on September 25, was still visible in the sky. That morning, Webster walked up to his second floor study and put on the spectacles, which he had recently begun wearing. Opening an 8½-by-11-inch notebook, he picked up his quill pen—he would continue to use this eighteenth-century implement long after the birth of the fountain pen. After putting the date in the top right-hand corner of the first page, he moved on to the task at hand—defining A.6
To compose his complete dictionary, Webster would follow a strict routine. He liked to get up half an hour before dawn to make the most of the sunlight. He would stop at four in the afternoon, as candlelight didn’t appeal to him.
Webster worked at a large circular table, about two feet in diameter, upon which all his reference books were spread. Chief among them were Johnson’s dictionary, the Latin-English dictionary compiled by British author Robert Ainsworth and the third edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Other key sources were contemporary scientific texts such as Thomas Martyn’s The Language of Botany: Being a Dictionary of the Terms Made Use of in that Science and John Quincy’s Lexicon Physico-Medicum .
For Webster, dictionary-making involved as much physical as mental exertion. He wrote standing up and paced back and forth as he consulted a particular volume. Sitting at a desk, he once wrote, is “an indolent habit . . . which always weakens and sometimes disfigures the body.” The inveterate counter would keep track of his pulse. As he once noted, whenever he made an important philological discovery, it typically jumped up from its normal rate of sixty beats per minute to eighty or eighty-five. To make sure that he wouldn’t be disturbed by the children, he packed the walls of his second-floor study with sand.
Though Webster would borrow heavily from Johnson, Ainsworth’s Latin dictionary was his true starting point. By 1807, he aimed not just to update and Americanize Johnson, but also to do a more thorough job of connecting English to its roots than his predecessor. The Webster papers at the Morgan Library include cutout pages of Ainsworth pasted onto blank sheets, upon which Webster added definitions. Webster saw himself not so much revising Johnson as starting a new English dictionary from scratch.
Webster’s working definition of “adultery,” also from a manuscript fragment housed at the Morgan, provides a window into his modus operandi. Carefully consulting Ainsworth and Johnson, Webster added a host of new meanings and distinctions absent in both. Johnson listed just one generic definition (“the act of violating the bed of a married person”), and Ainsworth, under the related Latin word “adulterium,” listed three: “adultery,” “whoredom” and “falsifying.” In contrast, in his draft, Webster provided five, each of which carried his characteristic precision. In his first definition, “the incontinence of a married person,” Webster was careful to add a qualifier, gathered from his legal training: “The commerce of a married person with an unmarried is adultery in the former and fornication in the latter.” While Webster’s next three definitions came from other sources such as the Bible and the Encyclopedia Britannica, his last definition, though attributed to Pliny (“Among ancient naturalists, the grafting of trees”), was actually lifted from Ainsworth, who cited this passage in the original Latin.
While Webster would mine Ainsworth’s Latin dictionary for its wealth of definitions and allusions, he wasn’t attempting to make the English language more Latinate. In fact, he was trying to do exactly the opposite. Ever the pragmatist, in his “Letter to Dr. Ramsay,” Webster asserted that “Language consists of words uttered by the tongue; or written in books for the purpose of being read.” He thus faulted Johnson for “inserting words that do not belong to the language” such as “adversable,” “advestierate,” “adjugate,” “agriculation” and “abstrude.” But Webster did add an occasional Latinate term when it described a new scientific development such as “adustion” (“the act of burning, scorching or heating to dryness”).
In his 1828 dictionary, Webster expanded on this working definition of “adultery.” Realizing that many Americans didn’t make the same fine distinctions he did, under the first sense Webster added: “In common usage, adultery means the unfaithfulness of any married person to the marriage bed.”
In these early pages, Webster was interested in tracing English back to its roots in other European languages. Thus, for example, in his copy of Johnson’s dictionary, next to “bread” he jotted down the French “pain,” the German “Brot,” as well as the cognate in a half-dozen other European languages including Danish, Icelandic, Finnish and Norwegian. But after finishing the Bs, he also began exploring the relation between English and numerous non-European languages including Arabic, Hebrew and Ethiopian. Enthralled by his own findings, Webster now aimed to set forth a comprehensive theory of language in his etymological supplement. To attend to this massive undertaking, Webster would put all further definitions on hold. C would have to wait another decade.
This change in direction was tied to a “change of heart,” which is how Webster would define “conversion” in his 1828 dictionary. In 1808, Webster became a devout Calvinist; from then on, all his literary efforts would be in the service of God.
THE NEW PASTOR of New Haven’s First Congregational Church, Moses Stuart, was the complete package. The salutatorian of the Yale class of 1799, he was tall, lean and muscular. Stuart also had an amazing capacity for study—mastering the four conjugations of Latin verbs took him just one night. Dubbing the eloquent Stuart “the man of the short sentence,” Connecticut’s governor Roger Griswold rarely missed a sermon. A noted Hebrew scholar, Stuart would later earn the sobriquet “the father of biblical literature” for his pioneering contributions to American theology.
Soon after his ordination in March 1806, Stuart began electrifying the entire town. While his predecessor brought five new members into the church each year, Stuart brought fifty. Holding services by candlelight—a practice once considered scandalous—he helped usher in the period of religious revival later dubbed the Second Great Awakening.
Though twenty years Webster’s junior, Stuart would also have a huge impact on the lexicographer’s heart and mind.
But it was Webster’s teenage daughters who were drawn to the pastor first. In the winter of 1807, under Stuart’s tutelage, Emily and Julia discovered the hand of God. Rebecca soon followed.
Fearful of “being misled by the passions,” Webster initially opposed this religious turn. Though a lifelong Congregationalist, Webster had never been particularly devout. In fact, upon settling in New Haven, he did not—in contrast to his wife—become a member of the Center Church. And in early 1808, he encouraged Rebecca and the girls to switch to Trinity Church, the local Episcopal church, where he applied for a pew. But the possibility of leading a separate religious existence from the rest of his family unnerved him. In deference to their fervor, he agreed to renew his study of the scriptures. Webster also had several conversations with Pastor Stuart about matters of faith. This soul-searching left him uncomfortable and barely able to concentrate: “I continued for some weeks, in this situation, unable to quiet my mind. . . . Instead of obtaining peace, my mind was more and more disturbed.” His existential dilemma also affected his body. To a close friend, he described his health as “very indifferent.”
But one morning that April, as he settled into his study, everything changed. He later recalled, “A sudden impulse upon my mind arrested me. . . . I instantly fell on my knees and confessed my sins to God, implored his pardon and made my vows to him that I would live in entire obedience to his commands.”
The day after his personal encounter with God, Webster called a family meeting. Trembling, he spoke of his new religious convictions, adding, “While I have aimed for the faithful discharge of parental duty, there is one sign and token of headship, which I have neglected—family prayer.” Bowing down, he then led his family in prayer—a practice he would engage in three times a day for the rest of his life.
While Webster’s conversion was part of a broad social movement—it would be common among New England intellectuals during the first half of the nineteenth century—it also had roots in his personal circumstances. As the dictionary, his retirement project, began to heighten rather than reduce his inner turmoil, Webster lapsed into a midlife crisis. Weighed down by financial worries and the frosty reception to his “compend,” he often felt confused about which way to turn. He was also shaken by the death of his infant son, Henry, in 1806. But whatever the underlying reasons behind his newfound religious faith, its calming effect on his nervous system was clear. “From that time,” he later observed, “I have had perfect tranquility of mind.” Webster also believed that his reconciliation to the “doctrines of scriptures” was responsible for permanently removing nagging bodily aches and pains.
Soon after his conversion, Webster ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. In the preliminary election in May, he received 212 votes, enough to emerge as a viable Federalist candidate. However, he lost in the fall. He would try again without success in 1810, 1812 and 1816. The highest political office this founding father would ever hold is state rep.
In the fall of 1808, Webster informed his extended family about his conversion. His older brother, Abraham, expressed support, remarking, “It has given me great joy to hear that God is carrying on a glorious work in New Haven.” In contrast, his brother-in-law Thomas Dawes could barely digest the news. On October 25, 1808, the Boston lawyer wrote to him, asking “whether it be true that N.W. has lately received some impressions from above, not in the ordinary way of ratiocination.” In response, Webster fired back a long missive explaining how he could be a man of both faith and reason, “I had for almost fifty years exercised my talents such as they are, to obtain knowledge and to abide by its dictates, but without arriving at the truth, or what now appears to me to be the truth of the gospel. . . . I now look, my dear friend, with regret on the largest portion of life of man, spent ‘without hope, and without God in the world.’” Over the next year, Webster’s remarks to Dawes, published both in the Panoplist and as a separate tract, Peculiar Doctrines of the Gospel, Explained and Defended, circulated widely.
Webster’s pamphlet received plaudits from Trinitarian clergy, who urged him to turn his scholarly attention to theology—a suggestion which he declined. But his strict Calvinism, embracing both predestination and the inherent depravity of man, alienated leading Unitarians. At the time, New England was divided by a fierce religious rivalry that pitted the Trinitarians against the Unitarians, or Connecticut against Massachusetts. Boston clerics such as Joseph Stevens Buckminster—the son of Webster’s Yale tutor was then pastor at the Brattle Street Church—took a more optimistic view of human nature. The Bostonians ended up voicing their displeasure not in a direct critique of Webster’s theological tract but in a belated assault upon his first dictionary. Webster became the favorite whipping boy of the Anthology Club, the Boston literary society located in the new subscription library called the Boston Athenaeum. As was noted in the society’s proceedings on August 29, 1809, “The conversation of the evening was chiefly at the expense of Noah Webster, as long as the Secretary kept awake.” A few months later, the group’s periodical, The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, published a scathing review of his “compend:” “We have marked with candour the most prominent faults in this work; and if it be asked why so little is said in commendation of it, we shall desire every one to compare it to Johnson . . . so many dangerous novelties are inserted, that no man can safely consult it without comparisons with others.” As if that wasn’t enough, the following year this journal devoted forty pages spread across three issues to further attacks. Attempting to comfort Webster, Moses Stuart noted, “The Anthology is outrageous against you. . . . Be assured, the object of their vengeance is more against your religion than against you.”
Besides leading to more abuse for his “compend,” Webster’s conversion also brought about a permanent rift with Joel Barlow, who had been a steadfast champion of his work for more than thirty years. In 1803, after spending a decade and a half as a businessman and diplomat in Europe, Barlow returned to American soil. The former classmates then resumed a lively correspondence, sharing information about their respective literary projects. From his perch in the nation’s capital, Barlow expanded his 1787 epic, Visions of Columbus, which he republished as the Columbiad in 1807. Though initially supportive, on October, 13, 1808, Webster stunned Barlow by announcing that he would abandon his promised review because of the poem’s “atheistical principles.” Referring to his correspondent in the third person, Webster added, “No man on earth not allied to me by nature or by marriage had so large a share in my affections as Joel Barlow until you renounced the religion which you once preached. But with my views of the principles you have introduced into the Columbiad, I apprehend my silence will be most agreeable to you and most expedient for your old friend and obedient servant.” The self-righteous Webster had no idea of the emotional valence of this missive. Near the end of his life, on the back of his copy, he would note, “Mr. Barlow never wrote me a letter,” indicating his sense that he—not Barlow—was the aggrieved party. Webster had succeeded in antagonizing his most enthusiastic supporter. In fact, on the same day that Webster excommunicated Barlow, this financial contributor to the dictionary wrote him a letter, passing along heartfelt encouragement: “I am anxious that your philological researches should be the best that have yet appeared in any age or nation.”
AS A BORN-AGAIN CHRISTIAN, Webster felt a need to merge his scholarly pursuits with his religious beliefs. Convinced of the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, which declared that all human beings once spoke the same language, Webster began searching for the common “radical” words that linked all languages (a term he now used interchangeably with “dialects”). In 1809, he explained his new assumptions to Thomas Dawes: “That whatever differences of dialect might have been introduced at Babel, languages entirely different were not formed, as the radical words in the principal languages of Asia, Africa, and Europe are still the same.” Webster was now focusing not just on English words and their sources but on the “origin and structure of language” per se. The completion of both his dictionary and his etymological supplement, he conceded to Dawes, would take longer than he had initially predicted: “The labor requisite to accomplish the work upon my plan is certainly double to that [the nine years] which Dr. Johnson bestowed upon his dictionary.” With much work still to be done, Webster stepped up his fund-raising efforts.
Today the best-known work of Joel Barlow (1754-1812) is the mock-heroic poem “Hasty Pudding,” written in 1793.
But once again, hampered by a lack of tact, he came up empty-handed. Whatever networking skills he had formerly possessed were long gone. In early 1809, Webster wrote to James Madison, requesting that the president-elect send him to Europe on government business so that he could procure rare books there. Remarkably, in that same missive, he offered his damning opinion of Madison’s idol, the outgoing president, Thomas Jefferson: “If the next administration shall pursue,” Webster warned, “a system substantially the same, I must be opposed to it on principle.” Like his White House predecessor, Madison saw no reason to maintain a correspondence with the emotionally tone-deaf Federalist pedagogue. Observing Webster in a Salem lecture hall later that year, Simeon Colton, then a recent Yale graduate, also was taken aback by his arrogance: “I wish . . . he were not so confident in his own merit, but would be content to address the public as though there were some equal to himself.”
The self-absorbed scholar was an easy target for satirists. In 1810, a North Carolina paper ran an article by “Tom Tinker Esq” which humbly proposed a new dictionary to none other than Noah Webster, Jr., himself. To remedy a “defect in English literature,” Tinker claimed to have compiled his own glossary “intended as a supplement to a large and more solemn dictionary.” The faux lexicographer observed, “It is easy to foresee that the idle and illiterate will complain that I have encreased [sic] their labours by endeavouring to diminish them.” Among the entries included in his specimen were “tit for tat” (“adequate retaliation”) and “shilly-shally” (“hesitation and irresolution”). Mocking Webster, “Tinker” also offered the prediction that “the whole . . . will appear sometime within the ensuing twenty years.”
By 1811, Webster felt “cast upon the world,” just as he had upon graduation from Yale in 1778. Once again, he was depressed and isolated and lacked the funds to continue his literary career. But on this occasion, the crisis was entirely of Webster’s own making. Now a nationally recognized writer with the power to shape his own destiny, he had gone out of his way to alienate just about everyone he had ever known.
Surprisingly, Webster turned to Barlow as a confidant, as if nothing had ever come between them. On April 1, 1811, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, he wrote his Yale classmate, “My prospects depress my spirits and impair my health—while there is danger that some of my family who have less fortitude will sink under the pressure of anxiety. Still I have hope and while life and health remain, I shall prosecute my studies.” Webster also complained about the “measures of government, which have deranged business,” even though as he well knew, Barlow himself had just joined the Madison administration as the new ambassador to France. In another startling act of brazenness, Webster asked the departing Barlow to buy some reference works for him, for which he offered no compensation but copies of his dictionary. Summing up his predicament, he added in his last letter to Barlow, who would die suddenly a few months later in Europe, “I wish to have all the help that books can furnish—for I have no aid from man.”
Amidst his despair about running out of money, Webster also experienced moments of deep intellectual satisfaction. In a letter in early 1811 to Josiah Quincy—the future president of Harvard, who was then a Federalist congressman from Massachusetts—Webster captured the divided nature of his existence:
I am engaged in a work which gives me great pleasure; & the tracing of language through more than twenty different dialects has opened a new and before unexplored field. I have within two years past, made discoveries which if ever published must interest the literati of all Europe, & render it necessary to revise all the lexicons, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, now used as classical books. But what can I do? My own resources are almost exhausted and in a few days I shall sell my house to get bread for my children. . . . Yours in low spirits.
Quincy, too, didn’t respond to Webster’s request for a handout. Unable to find donors, Webster formulated a new plan: He would downsize.
But selling the Arnold House was not easy. With the economy in freefall on account of the ongoing conflict with Britain, which would soon escalate into war, there were few takers. The waiting heightened his anxiety. On June 29, 1812, he wrote another Yale classmate, Oliver Wolcott, “If I can find persons to take my property here at anything resembling a reasonable price, I may yet proceed with my studies. At present, I am compelled to throw aside my pen—the agitations of my mind disqualifying me for business.” A few days later, a resigned Webster agreed to settle for about a third less than he had paid fourteen years earlier. On July 13, he bought a half-finished double house in the Massachusetts wilderness. Though the price was steep—$2,700—and he had to take out a mortgage, the cost of living would be much less. “The principal motive of this change of residence,” he later wrote, “was to enable me to subsist my family at less expense.”
IN THE FIRST WEEK of the cold but dry September of 1812, Webster stepped into a carriage with his wife, seven children and all their belongings, including the all-important circular table upon which he would continue to toil on the dictionary.
Their destination was Amherst, Massachusetts, then a tiny farm town with two hundred houses and a population of just fifteen hundred, still more than a decade away from sporting its first piano. Webster was heading back to the land of his ancestors. In 1659, in response to a relaxing of church rules by the pastor at the First Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut’s governor John Webster had made a similar trek up the Connecticut River Valley. Webster’s great-grandfather was buried in nearby Hadley, the town he founded, which had originally included Amherst.
Webster had also learned about the inviting hills of western Massachusetts from Timothy Dwight, who often rhapsodized about his hometown, Northampton, just eight miles from Amherst. Of Hampshire County, whose county seat remains Northampton, Dwight once wrote, “No county in the state has uniformly discovered so firm an adherence to order and good government, or a higher regard to learning, morals and religion.” Amherst would remind Webster of his native Hartford.
But despite Amherst’s appeal, the move was still a sacrifice born out of economic necessity, which some family members resented. Just as his father had once forced him out of his boyhood home, Webster was now displacing his wife and children from the beloved Arnold House. Emily and Julia were particularly upset because they were also leaving behind their beaus. The twenty-two-year-old Emily was already betrothed to William Ellsworth, the son of jurist Oliver Ellsworth, at whose house Webster had boarded in 1779. Like Ellsworth, Chauncey Goodrich, whom Julia, then nineteen, would wed in 1816, was both a member of the Yale class of 1810 and connected to Webster’s past; his grandfather, the Reverend Elizur Goodrich, had first suggested the idea of the dictionary three decades before. Rebecca was also sad to be moving. Webster’s wife would miss her tight-knit circle of New Haven friends with whom she experienced “the pleasures of religious converse without restraint.”
The first night, the Websters stopped at a small hotel in Hartford, the halfway point of the eighty-mile journey. Along with his two eldest daughters, Webster met with Nathan Strong, pastor of the same First Congregational Church that a century and a half earlier had driven away John Webster. The venerable clergyman gave his visitors a tour of its recently constructed building.
A couple of days later, as the stagecoach reached the woods of South Hadley, the heartsick Emily and Julia burst into tears. As Eliza, then just nine, later wrote, “They realized the great change coming.” In contrast, Eliza and eleven-year-old William were excited by the rustic surroundings and eagerly grabbed the boughs that hovered above their heads as the horses sped along. Eliza also noted, “It was all new to us.”
Amherst had just two streets, one running north-south and the other east-west, which intersected near the large common at its center. Webster’s new residence was located at the northeast corner of this pasture where the town’s cows grazed. Though not as sumptuous as the Arnold House, it contained eight large rooms in addition to the kitchen. (After they moved away in 1822, “the Mansion house” was converted into a hotel; in 1838, it was destroyed in a fire.) From his study window on the second floor, Webster could glimpse the stone steps of the First Congregational Church located on the hills to the south. Through a series of transactions, Webster soon amassed ten acres of adjacent farmland, where he built a barn and chaise house and planted an exquisite garden. The orchard, known as the “best in town,” featured pear, peach and apple trees as well as a vine of large, sweet white grapes, imported from his father’s farm.
Rebecca Greenleaf Webster (1766-1847) was deeply religious, even more so than her husband. During his trip to Washington in the winter of 1831, Webster felt compelled to remind her, “I caution you against venturing to evening meetings in this severe season. I sincerely hope your zeal will be kept under the control of prudence.”
The Websters soon formed close bonds with their neighbors, who included Samuel Fowler Dickinson, the town clerk dubbed “Esq. Fowler” by the locals; Hezekiah Wright Strong, the owner of a general store; and David Parsons, pastor of the First Congregational Church. (Dickinson’s house is now the site of the Emily Dickinson Museum; his granddaughter, the famous poet, was born there in 1830.) Parsons, who had served as pastor since 1782, lived in a gambrel-roofed house on the other side of the green, where he and his wife, Harriet, raised their eleven children. To amuse themselves on cold winter evenings, the Webster girls would team up with the Parsons’ six daughters to perform the simple religious plays of the eighteenth-century British writer Hannah More. A Harvard man, Parsons had turned down a professorship in divinity at Yale to serve the community he loved. Like Webster, the pastor also had pedagogy in his bones; he would educate wayward Harvard students in his home. In 1812, Parsons donated the land for Amherst Academy, a new private school, which, thanks to the fund-raising efforts of his neighbors Webster, Dickinson and Strong, opened in 1814.
Upon settling in Amherst, Webster, in contrast to the rest of his family, felt neither sadness nor excitement but relief. From his perspective, the change in venue meant only one thing—that he could stay in business, the business of dictionary-making.
But Amherst would grow on him. Shortly after his arrival, Webster discovered that he couldn’t just work nonstop on his dictionary. He became a gentleman farmer who baled his own hay and milked his cows, Gentle, Comfort and Crick. In a series of articles for the Hampshire Gazette on agriculture, which he called “the first, the best and the noblest temporal business of man,” he freely dispensed various trade secrets, such as how to kill worms and how to increase the quantity of manure per acre. As in New Haven, Webster also took time out for civic affairs. In February 1814, he was appointed a justice of the peace. That same year, he was also elected to the first of three one-year terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In April 1820, the pedagogue became chairman of the board of managers of the town’s first Sunday school. And that summer, he helped to found Amherst College. Of his decade in Amherst, Webster would later write, “The interruption of his sedentary labors was probably favorable to his health.” In the quiet of Amherst, where he immersed himself in both his dream job as well as his favorite avocations, Webster attained a level of well-being that he had never before enjoyed.
For Webster, purposeful activity was a cure-all for both mental and social ills. If he spotted boys loitering near his garden, he would ask, “Are you needed at home?” If the lad happened to be idling, Webster was likely to suggest, “Pick the stones up from the road in front of my house.” For this temporary employment, he paid the generous wage of twelve and a half cents an hour.
BY THE TIME HE REINSTALLED his circular table in his roomy study in Amherst, Webster had already developed a systematic protocol for working on his etymology, entitled Synopsis of Words in Twenty Languages. Having put aside his manuscript of A and B, as well as most of the reference books that he had initially consulted back in 1807, Webster would spend his workdays perusing a couple dozen foreign language dictionaries, which he had arranged in an orderly fashion. Working from right to left, he would fix upon a word and trace it through each of the twenty languages.
While Webster had initially been inspired by his religious conversion, his interest in uniting all languages was also in synch with the intellectual ferment of the day; with the birth of modern linguistics came the uncovering of heretofore hidden links between languages. In 1786, the Welsh orientalist Sir William Jones had observed that the Hindu language, Sanskrit, bore an affinity to both Latin and Greek, which he characterized as “so strong . . . that no philologer could examine all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source.” This insight was the basis of the famous Indo-European hypothesis, which maintained that a common ancestor language was the origin of Latin, Greek, Persian, German, the Romance languages and Celtic. But Webster distanced himself from Jones, whom he disparaged: “it is obvious that Sir William Jones had given little attention to the subject [etymology], and that some of its most common and obvious principles had escaped his observation.” He also flat out ignored his contemporaries, such as the Germans Friedrich Schlegel and Franz Bopp, who expanded on Jones’ work in Sanskrit and comparative philology.
According to Webster’s working hypothesis, until the construction of the Tower of Babel, human beings all spoke the same ur-language, which he labeled Chaldee. To trace all twenty languages back to this ur-language, he created classes of words based on “primary elements”—namely, consonant pairs such as “bn,” “br,” “dl” and “sd.” For each class, he listed numerous words in all twenty languages. Thus, under “bn,” for example, he included the English “bone,” “bin” and “ebony”; the German “Bein,” “Bahn” and “eben”; the French “bon,” “bien” and “abonne”; and the Latin “bene,” “bini” and “ubinam.” (For the purposes of his etymological research, he considered vowels irrelevant.) Whenever he found words in the same class that meant the same thing, he would see this as “proof” that they were etymologically linked. While these connections were true in a few instances—the French bon is indeed related to the Latin bene—as a rule, similarities in consonant structure don’t typically translate into similarities in meaning. But that didn’t stop Webster from reaching his desired conclusion; he would just devise some far-fetched explanation. He would then “discover” links between these words in European languages—“bone,” “ebony,” “bene,” “bini” and the like—and the Semitic words containing “bn,” which he had numbered and placed at the beginning of the class.
Webster’s methodology was riddled with a fatal flaw: He was attempting to back up one speculative hypothesis with nothing more than a string of additional speculative hypotheses. Of this glaring problem with the Synopsis, the Oxford English Dictionary’s James Murray would later write, “Etymology is simply Word-history, and Word-history, like all other history, is a record of facts, which did happen, not a fabric of conjectures as to what may have happened.” And even if Webster had relied solely on verifiable facts, he wouldn’t have gotten very far. His governing assumption turned out to be a fiction, too. Since Webster’s day, linguists have discovered that Semitic languages are not based on the same root words as European languages. The two language families bear no etymological relationship to each other.
Webster’s grandiosity had gotten the better of him. The task that he had assigned himself—of grounding all words in the putative language of his biblical namesake—was impossible. He also lacked the tools to do anything more than grope in the dark. While he tried to convey the impression that he had mastered all twenty languages by 1813, that claim was a myth later spread by the family. He was thoroughly familiar with only a handful of languages—those he had learned as a college student: Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French. For the rest, as with Anglo-Saxon, he had only a dictionary knowledge—not a reading knowledge. In his last letter to Barlow, he described exactly how he learned Oriental languages such as Arabic, Chaldee, Persian and Ethiopian: “I . . . made myself acquainted with the characters and travelled through [them] . . . a labor of ten months or two years.” Language acquisition gets harder as one gets older, and at the age of fifty, Webster wasn’t able to gain much more than a cursory understanding of these additional languages.
In the final analysis, Webster’s Synopsis, begun while he was in the throes of an existential crisis, reveals infinitely more about the mind of its creator than about the origin of language. Paradoxically, the search for truth would lead this brilliant polymath to build an alternative universe entirely out of gibberish. Though some scholars have minimized its wrongheadedness—one early biographer alluded to its “worthy results”—the candid assessment of a pair of University of Chicago English professors appears closer to the mark: “The basis of his etymologizing was simple fantasy.” The Synopsis was indeed Webster’s private dream world, one over which he exercised complete control. Within its dozens of thin notebooks, each of which contained about ten sheets of paper stitched down the middle and folded neatly in two, he was always right; no matter what bogus claim he came up with—say, that the Hebrew root meaning “pure, clean, shining” is related to the Latin, English and Anglo-Saxon words meaning “rub, scour, open”—no one could challenge him. The isolated scholar had created his desideratum—a monument to harmony, which united all human beings throughout history in a common tongue.
Webster finished the Synopsis in 1817. He envisioned it as a third quarto volume to his dictionary, but his publisher would pass. Today this musty text resides in the manuscript archives of the New York Public Library.
In direct contrast to the dictionary, this gargantuan labor that had also entailed hardships for the entire family never had any meaning or use for anyone except Webster; but to him, its value was considerable. This opportunity to let his imagination run wild had grounded the loner during a stressful decade when he faced the daunting challenge of raising seven children. And even though Webster couldn’t get anyone else too interested in the book’s contents, he still felt an enormous sense of accomplishment upon its completion, which would translate into renewed vigor. While a colossal failure as literature, the Synopsis succeeded as therapy, helping Webster to both control and exorcise some of his inner demons.
IN EARLY OCTOBER 1814, Webster jumped on his horse Rolla (a name given by his daughter Mary, who had been reading a play about the conquest of Mexico) and headed back to the Purchase Street mansion of Thomas Dawes, where he stayed during his visits to Boston. Webster hadn’t expected to be back in the state capital so soon, as the two-month legislative session typically ended in late June. But these were no ordinary times. In September, Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong had called a special session to address the havoc caused by “Mr. Madison’s War” (the War of 1812).
New England’s once-robust economy was in shambles. With the loss of its favorite trading partner, Great Britain, its manufacturers had difficulty shopping their wares. Even more alarming, British forces had recently wrested control of a town in Maine, then still part of Massachusetts. To add insult to injury, the president refused to foot the $1 million tab for the Bay State’s militia unless its soldiers would submit to the authority of the U.S. Army rather than their own commanding officers.
With Webster leading the charge, Massachusetts residents had been clamoring for peace since the beginning of the year. After attending a meeting of civic leaders in Northampton on January 19, Webster helped draft a circular letter to the Massachusetts General Court, calling for a convention among northern states to consider various measures to contest “the multiplied evils . . . of the late and present Administration.” That spring, Webster turned anger against the federal government into the centerpiece of his successful campaign for a House seat. And in his Independence Day oration in Amherst, he again vented his frustration with a decade and a half of Virginians in the White House: “The union of all the states, it was once supposed, would repress the ambition, or restrain the power of the large states and preserve the just rights of each. A few years experience has shown the fallacy of this opinion.” The patriot who had fervently preached American unity for the past thirty years had completed an abrupt about-face. Webster now openly talked about dividing America into three parts—North, South and West.
As the legislators convened, outrage against the Madison administration was widespread. On the first day of this extra session, October 5, a Mr. Low of Lyman suggested that a committee from the New England states personally inform the president “that he must either resign his office or remove those of his ministers . . . who have by their nefarious plans ruined the nation.” Though Mr. Low withdrew his impetuous proposal the following day, legislators were itching to take some definitive action soon.
On October 13, Webster got his chance to stake out his position in a speech at the Massachusetts State House. “Mr. Speaker,” he began, as he looked over at Timothy Bigelow, the House speaker, “The resolution under consideration proposes an extraordinary measure to meet an extraordinary crisis.”
Webster stood in front of about three hundred of his fellow delegates, who sat transfixed in rows of tiered seats in the House chamber (where the state Senate meets today). Webster was staring into the midafternoon sun streaming in from the windows overlooking Beacon Street and the Boston Common. Painted on the wall behind him was the state’s motto, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem” [By the sword we seek peace but only under liberty]. And above him was architect Charles Bullfinch’s celebrated dome.
Sounding just like the western Massachusetts farmers whom he had excoriated a generation earlier for lining up behind Daniel Shays, the new delegate insisted that the Commonwealth had to do whatever was necessary to protect its interests. The solution, he believed, required nothing less than a radical shake-up of the national political landscape. Arguing that America’s founding document was no longer working, Webster was making the case for a new constitutional convention in Hartford.
Turning his eyes away from the House Speaker and toward his fellow delegates, Webster defined the crisis:
The Constitution expressly declares that the United States shall guarantee to each state a republican government; and shall protect each of them from invasion. . . . Vast bodies of militia are summoned from their farms and their shops to defend our shores from a foe that threatens to destroy every town within his reach—a frightful mass of debt is daily accumulating—all confidence in the administration of the national government is at an end—we are surrounded by danger without and weakened by dissolution within.
According to Webster, just as the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was needed to strengthen the federal government, the Hartford Convention was needed to weaken it. He thus exhorted his colleagues, “And our necessities are even more urgent than in 1785; the present constitution has failed to produce the effects intended; it neither protects us, nor promotes the common welfare—indeed for some years past, it has produced nothing but calamity.” Despite—or perhaps because of—its hyperbolic rhetoric, Webster’s speech, soon reprinted in its entirety in numerous papers across New England, swayed his colleagues. On October 16, by a vote of 260 yeas to 90 nays, the Massachusetts House voted to authorize the Hartford Convention.
In the months leading up to the convention, Webster’s pique at the president continued to mount. On November 23, he reported to friends that he had come up with a new definition for the Madison administration—“the madmen of the south.” “I say madmen for on political and commercialsubjects,” he emphasized, “I can not give them a better name. . . . the men in power for years past . . . usually have produced effects contrary to what was proposed—an infallible mark of the want of wisdom.”
On December 15, twenty-six delegates from five New England states met in Hartford in closed-door sessions. The convention, which ultimately rejected secession from the Union, lasted three weeks. Webster was not present because Massachusetts required all twelve of its delegates to be native sons. He did, however, help draft its eleven proposed constitutional amendments, such as the one which would have precluded electing a president from the same state two times in a row. And when the Massachusetts legislature reconvened that May, Webster headed the committee charged with distributing five thousand copies of the convention’s resolutions.
Despite all the fanfare, the convention would have little impact. A key reason was that the war with Britain ended before it did. As New Englanders debated among themselves, U.S. and British officials were putting the finishing touches on the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814. Though news of this diplomatic settlement didn’t reach American shores until February, on January 8, 1815, General Andrew Jackson effectively ended the war with his stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleans. With peace now a certainty, the sense of urgency that had galvanized New Englanders was gone.
In the run-up to the Hartford Convention, New Englanders of all stripes had championed secession. Thomas Dawes wrote Webster in February 1814, “By the tyrant I mean, not merely Madison, but the Southern Policy. . . . As to a separation, I think of it as old Sam Adams thought of independence . . .. said he, ‘the time has come when we ought to part, for we can live together no longer.’ ” But in hindsight, this position seemed extreme. The convention would deal a body blow to Federalism, which became tainted by charges of disloyalty and treason. The party officially disintegrated in 1816, after the failed presidential run of Webster’s old friend, the former New York senator, Rufus King. In a curious turnaround, Southerners, who were the original targets of the Hartford Convention, picked up its threads a couple of decades later when they began championing states’ rights. In response, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster repeatedly denounced the convention in the halls of Congress, referring to it as “pollution.”
In 1834, Noah Webster wrote to his cousin Daniel to protest the latter’s critical assessment. “I knew most of the members of the Convention . . . and I can affirm with confidence,” he observed to the unmoved senator, “that no body of men . . . ever convened in this country have combined more talents, purer integrity, sounder patriotism, and republican principles or more firm attachment to the Constitution of the United States.”
Webster would forever carry a torch for the Hartford Convention. A month before he died, he published an essay on its origins, in which he declared, “All the reports which have been circulated respecting the evil designs of that convention, I know to be the foulest misrepresentations.”
Literary labor well rewarded—It is stated in the New-Haven Journal, that Noah Webster junr. Esq. has sold to George Goodwin and Sons, of Hartford, the copy right of his spelling book for forty thousand dollars.
THUS READ A NOTICE which ran in The New York Evening Post and numerous other newspapers across the country in June 1817. Though the press got some of the details wrong, Webster was about to become a rich man. He had indeed landed the first blockbuster book deal in the history of American publishing. Forty thousand dollars then was the equivalent of more than a million dollars today.
The facts were these: In April 1816, Noah Webster—after his father’s death in 1813, he insisted that “Junior” be stricken from his name—signed an agreement with Hudson and Company, not Goodwin and Sons. Under its terms, he would receive forty-two thousand dollars for granting his new publisher the sole right to print his speller for fourteen years, beginning in March 1818. Webster was pleased to find a national distributor; he now would be relieved of the burdensome task of keeping track of the various state editions, which had sold some 286,000 copies the previous year. As part of the contract, Hudson and Company also agreed to hire his son, William. The teenager was to work as an apprentice in the firm’s Hartford office until age twenty-one, at which time he would become a partner.
Both sides later agreed to revise the terms of the deal. In July 1817, a financially strapped Webster received a three-thousand-dollar advance from Hudson and Company. The following April, he accepted a lump-sum payment of twenty thousand dollars (in lieu of thirteen additional three-thousand-dollar annual payments), meaning that his speller brought in a total of twenty-three thousand dollars.
Buoyed by his new financial security, Webster burrowed into his dictionary.
As he was finishing up the Synopsis, a surprisingly even-tempered Webster dashed off a sixty-four-page manifesto on the American language. Nearing sixty, he now vowed to debate rather than demolish his opponents: “In controversy with my fellow citizens, on any subject, I will not be engaged. The following remarks . . . are not intended to provoke one; it is my sincere desire that my observations and statements may be marked by . . . candor and moderation.” Though the lexicographer wouldn’t keep this promise for long, the “Letter to the Honorable John Pickering,” published in 1817, lacked his characteristic polemical fury.
Webster was responding to Pickering’s 1816 treatise, A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to Be Peculiar to the United States of America. A prominent philologist, Pickering had learned how to read from Webster’s speller, which had delighted his father, the former secretary of state Timothy Pickering; however, John Pickering now felt betrayed by America’s foremost pedagogue, whose first dictionary, while not a best seller, was still making its mark. Many of Webster’s ideas about word use and orthography were starting to catch on. For example, about a decade after the publication of his “compend,” an anonymous writer for the Wilmington Watchman observed in an article, “To the Last of the Vowels”: “I have not heard from U lately so often as I used to, before U was dismissed from many of your employments by Noah Webster. Though u are not in favor at present, with your superiors or your neighbors, yet u are always in security, and have still a respectable share in the public purse, without any thing to do with labor—by which it would seem that u must be concerned in a sinecure.” Scholars such as Pickering had taken notice. For him, Webster embodied the new direction in American lexicography, which he wanted to stop in its tracks.
Pickering was reviving the old argument that Webster was an innovator guilty of corrupting the King’s English. As he charged, Webster was attempting to “unsettle the whole of our admirable language.” Pickering’s three-hundred-page volume contained a long list of American words, each of which was followed by his objections. For “Americanize,” after citing Webster’s definition, “to render American,” Pickering, a well-respected lawyer who lived in Salem, countered, “I have never met with this verb in any American work, nor in conversation.” Likewise, he protested against “boating” because he did not find the term in the reigning English dictionaries. According to Pickering, who had served as a European diplomat in the Adams administration, Americans should use the same words as their brethren across the ocean.
In his pamphlet, Webster laid out a compelling case for his complete American dictionary. Though his politics kept waxing more and more reactionary, his approach to lexicography remained firmly democratic. In the realm of words, the autocratic and judgmental Webster, who found evidence of human folly nearly everywhere, continued to place his trust in the good sense of the American people. He argued that he was just trying to keep pace with the innovation that was characteristic of his country:
In most instances, the use of new terms is dictated by necessity or utility; sometimes to express shades of difference, in signification, for which the language did not supply a suitable term; sometimes to express an idea with more force; and sometimes to express a combination of ideas, by a single word, which otherwise would require a circumlocution. These benefits, which are often perceived as it were instinctively by a nation, recommend such words in common use. . . . New words will be formed, if found necessary or convenient, without a license from Englishmen.
While the Webster of the Synopsis was muddled, here he was making fine distinctions in clear, persuasive and even witty prose. While Webster chose not to “animadvert upon” all the words in Pickering’s collection, he provided ingenious defenses for a select few: “For Americanize I can cite no authority—but it seems to be as necessary as Latinize and Anglicize . Every nation must have its isms and its izes, to express what is peculiar to it.” Webster closed by repeating a sentiment that he had first used to market the speller a generation earlier: “But I trust the time will come, when the English will be convinced . . . that we can contend with them in LETTERS, with as much success, as upon the OCEAN.”
Having regained his stride after a lost decade, Webster was now poised to make his indelible markup upon the English language.