The Walking Dictionary

ACHIEVEMENT, n. 1. The performance of an action. 2. A great or heroic deed; something accomplished by valor, or boldness. 3. An obtaining by exertion. 4. An escutcheon or ensigns armorial, granted for the performance of a great or honorable action. Encyc.

As the fifty-eight-year-old Webster returned to daily defining in 1817, he no longer felt weighed down by the exigencies of life. Not only were his financial woes behind him, so, too, were the bulk of his parental responsibilities; by the end of that year, only Eliza and Louisa were still living at home. And once his daughters, whom he dubbed his “angels,” got married and moved away, he began enjoying their company more than ever. He relished traveling around New England with his wife to spend time with them. As he remarked to his third daughter, Harriet, then living in Portland, Maine, with her new husband, Edward Cobb, “I wish we had wings occasionally that we might fly to our dear children.” However, these visits tended to be much more satisfying to him than to his offspring, whom he never learned how to treat as separate people with their own feelings and aspirations. Shortly after Harriet’s 1816 marriage to Cobb, whose father, Matthew, was a wealthy merchant from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he wrote to his daughter, then close to twenty, “I present my respects to the elder Mr. Cobb and his lady—tell them that if you are not a good girl, they must write to me.” While Webster was writing a generation before Seneca Falls and the birth of modern feminism, such obtuse remarks had more to do with him than with his times.

But as Webster made his way across the alphabet, he was leveled by a few family tragedies. In early 1818, Harriet and her husband traveled to the West Indies, where they both contracted yellow fever. Harriet would survive, but her husband did not. And upon her return to New England, Harriet discovered that her infant daughter, who had remained at home, had also died. In a letter dated February 25, 1818, Webster had trouble empathizing with his daughter’s grief: “Often, my dear Harriet, have I found in the course of my life, that frustrated hopes have been beneficial to me.” At Webster’s suggestion, Harriet would move back to Amherst. About a year later, Webster’s fourth daughter, Mary, who had met her husband, the widower Horatio Southgate, while visiting Harriet in Portland, died in childbirth. Webster was devastated. A poetry lover, Mary had been his favorite; as a teenager, she had helped him edit his essays and Fourth of July orations. The alluring fair-skinned Mary had blue eyes and light brown hair (in contrast to his other daughters, who were all brunettes). Though he prided himself on his emotional control, Webster couldn’t stop crying. On March 8, 1819, he wrote his daughter Emily and her husband, William Ellsworth: “Submit we must and I hope we shall all submit with the patience and humility of Christians. In theory, I indulge no desire to have my own condition regulated by my own wishes or supposed interests or pleasure. Yet the dissolution of the most tender ties in nature touches all the sensibilities of my heart. I must weep—it is a pleasure to weep. O what would I give for a portrait of my dear Mary!”

To cope with his despair, Webster took recourse in words: he published a long obituary in the Panoplist. While he had not been able to travel to Mary’s deathbed, he provided a detailed account of her final moments, surrounded by family and friends, “she fell asleep in Jesus without a struggle or a groan. . . . It seemed as if her soul drank at the fountain of bliss in that dark hour.” Mary’s infant daughter—also named Mary—survived, and Webster would raise her as his own. He didn’t trust Southgate, because the country lawyer was reported to be having an affair with a housekeeper.

IT RESEMBLED AN EPISODE out of the Old Testament. Like the Israelites, the townsfolk of Amherst were uniting to build a shrine to the Lord: a new institution of higher learning for seminary students.

At two in the afternoon on Wednesday, August 9, 1820, Amherst Academy’s board of trustees gathered at the three-story white-brick schoolhouse on Amity Street. Just a few minutes later, the fifteen-member board, of which Pastor Parsons was president and Webster vice president, voted to “proceed immediately to lay the corner-stone of the edifice for the charitable institution.” Descending back into the street, the board then joined a huge procession, which included academy students and preceptors, financial backers and workmen. Marching along the west side of the common, the throng headed to a hillside across from the First Church, where Webster was to make the ceremonial address.

Though Webster was eager to move ahead with the dictionary as fast as possible, he couldn’t help but embrace this “common cause.” Like his forefather Governor Webster, he would be bringing Connecticut Congregationalism to the Commonwealth. Equally important, this Yale man was also taking a stand against his enemies—namely, Harvard and Unitarianism. For Webster, these forces of darkness posed a threat not only to his dictionary-making—the harsh reviews of a decade earlier still stung—but to the moral fiber of New England. Amherst College, he observed, was needed “to check the progress of errors which are propagated from Cambridge. The influence of the University of Cambridge [Harvard], supported by great wealth and talents, seems to call on all the friends of truth to unite in circumscribing it.”

Two years earlier, when Webster first joined the board, Amherst Academy was already thriving. It had 152 students, evenly divided between masters and misses, which included his children Eliza and William (who would be “fitted for college” after he ran afoul of his Hartford employer). About half were locals, but a few came from as far away as Virginia and Canada. Its rigorous curriculum featured chemistry, astronomy, natural philosophy, Latin and French, all taught by top-notch instructors. Eager to promote this bastion of Christian education, Webster was a frequent presence, attending the declamations held on Wednesday afternoons and opening his house for school receptions.

In the wake of the private school’s meteoric rise, by 1818 its board had also set its sights on a new goal—a college. The prime mover was Colonel Rufus Graves, a devout chemistry instructor who had formerly taught at the Dartmouth Medical School. In establishing this institution, Graves turned the federal blueprint upside down; first came the constitution and then came the convention. In May 1818, Graves finished the fourteen-article founding document, which he showed to Webster’s cousin Daniel to make sure that it was legally sound. Convinced that “the education of pious young men of the first talents in community, is the most sure method of . . . civilizing and evangelizing the world,” Graves sought to raise fifty thousand dollars. A few months later, he organized a convention of sixty-nine clergymen from Hampshire and three surrounding counties, at which Noah Webster presented the new constitution. Webster was also appointed to head a committee to persuade Williams College, then languishing in desolate Williamstown, to merge with the new college and move to Amherst. By July 1819, enough subscribers had been found to meet the fund-raising goal, but the corporation of Williams College refused to go along with the plan. Undaunted, in May 1820, Graves, Webster and the other trustees secured a site in Amherst and began designing the first building, which was to be exactly one hundred feet in length and called South College.

As the crowd walked up the hill to hear Webster’s speech that August afternoon, pride was the predominating emotion. With the charitable fund of fifty thousand dollars earmarked solely for students and faculty, the building committee had asked area residents to donate materials and labor. And the response from Amherst as well as from neighboring towns such as Hadley and Pelham—then best known as the birthplace of the rebel leader Daniel Shays—had been nothing short of miraculous. In just three months, thanks to contributions from a bevy of volunteers, a remarkable transformation had taken place. Working nonstop, those camping out at the site had finished preparing the ground and had dug the trenches. The Virginia fence—so-called because it was crooked—and the horse shed were gone. In their stead now stood a bounty of evidence testifying to the community’s generosity—granite, lime, sand and lumber, flanked by pickaxes, hoes and shovels. The new temple was ready to be constructed.

All eyes were suddenly on Webster, who, stepping onto the ceremonial cornerstone laid down by Pastor Parsons, launched into his prepared remarks: “The object of this institution, that of educating for the gospel ministry young men in indigent circumstances, but of hopeful piety and promising talents, is one of the noblest which can occupy the attention and claim the contributions of the Christian public.” Thinking of the new college as an extension of Yale, Webster harked back to the 1776 valedictory speech of Timothy Dwight. Webster applied Dwight’s words—“The period, in which your lot is cast, is possibly the happiest in the roll of time”—to the conditions Americans faced a half century later: “Blessed be our lot! We live to see a new era in the history of man—an era when reason and religion begin to resume their sway, and to impress the heavenly truth, that the appropriate business of men is to imitate the Savior; to serve their God; and bless their fellow men.” After Webster finished, he made a call for contributions. One man came forward whom no one recognized; he put down a silver dollar and declared, “Here is my beam, God bless it.”

At the trustees’ meeting the next day, Pastor Parsons resigned as president and Webster was elected to replace him. His charge was to step up fund-raising. But just as his repeated efforts to gain more subscribers for his dictionary flopped, so, too, did his outreach to potential donors. But once again, the fierce community spirit saved the day. Volunteers continued to make unexpected contributions. Esq. Fowler, for example, both lent his own horses and provided laborers, whom he boarded in his home. Webster later recalled, “And such were the exertions of the Board, the committee and the friends of the Institution that on the ninetieth day from the laying of the corner-stone, the roof timbers were erected on the building.” In the words of Heman Humphrey, a future president of the college, “It seemed more like magic than the work of the craftsmen.” After a year, the building was completed, with Webster, as board president, racking up only thirteen hundred dollars in unpaid bills.

On Sunday, September 18, 1821, at the parish church, Webster presided over the induction ceremony of the college’s first president, Zephaniah S. Moore, whom he had recruited from Williams, and its first two professors. “So it is peculiarly proper,” Webster declared, “that at an undertaking having for its special object the promotion of the religion of Christ should be commended to the favor and protection of the great Head of the Church.”

The following day, the college was up and running. A total of forty-seven students enrolled, fifteen of whom, like the president, were Williams transplants; they would all reside in the four-story South College, which also contained the seven-hundred-volume library, the dining hall and the classrooms. That same day, Dr. Moore replaced Webster as president of the board. “The business of founding this Institution,” Webster later wrote in his diary, “has been very laborious and perplexing. . . . As soon as I was satisfied the Institution was well established by the Induction of Officers, I resigned my seat in the Board of Trustees.”

Noah Webster remains a formidable presence on the Amherst College campus. Today, a massive bronze and granite statue of a likeness—sporting a toga and sandals like a Roman statesman—sits behind the main library. A gift from alumnus Richard Billings, it was erected about a century after Webster’s famous speech at South College. Webster’s combination of moral and intellectual rigor reminded Billings of his father, the industrialist Fredric Billings. A forgotten founder of the University of California, the elder Billings had first suggested that the northern Californian school be named after the Irish philosopher, Bishop Berkeley. Said Richard Billings, “The thing I had always wished some one would do for my father, I determined to do for Noah Webster.”


In his memoir, Webster wrote, “The principal event which took place while NW resided in Amherst, and in which he was concerned as an actor, was the establishment of a college in that town.”

ON NOVEMBER 7, 1821, just as Webster was turning his attention from the college’s financial future back to his own, he heard from his onetime Federalist Party colleague John Jay. In a brief letter, Jay, who had retired to his Westchester farm after stepping down as governor of New York two decades earlier, asked about the progress of the “great work.” He also enclosed a hundred-dollar donation for two additional subscriptions for his two sons; the former chief justice had ordered one for himself back in 1813.

Webster was very moved that Jay had offered to help “without solicitation.” He wrote back right away and supplied a brief overview of his Synopsis, of which he boasted, “the discoveries, proceeding from this investigation will be quite important and as new in Europe as in America.” Noting that he was “engaged in the letter H,” Webster also updated Jay on the new financial obstacles to completing the dictionary: “I cannot revise and complete the work without the help of men and books, which I cannot have in the country, and my income will not maintain my family in one of our large towns.”

Amherst was no longer suiting Webster’s purposes. Fifteen years into his magnum opus, he lacked access both to rare books and to fellow scholars to examine his manuscript. In addition, under a new state law, the stock that he owned in the Hartford Bank, upon which he was already paying Connecticut taxes, was now also subject to taxes in Massachusetts. By early 1822, Webster was convinced that he had to move to “give the work the correctness and perfection desired.” And for the Webster family, the needs of the dictionary would continue to reign supreme.

That summer, the Websters headed back to New Haven. With the waterfront now a business district, Webster chose to live near the Yale campus. Temporarily renting a small house at the corner of Wall and College streets, he commissioned the well-known Connecticut architect David Hoadley to build a permanent home on Temple Street. Webster himself supervised the building of this commodious neoclassical structure. (In 1938, Henry Ford had this slice of Americana transported to his museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where it still stands.) The downstairs featured a formal drawing room and a parlor, for Rebecca to do her needlework and the children to play the piano. To prevent distractions, Webster had double walls installed in his second-floor study, where he would both conduct his literary activity and sleep on a narrow mattress. Just a few houses down on Temple Street lived his daughter Julia and her husband, Chauncey Goodrich, then a professor of rhetoric at Yale. In 1822, the Webster household included fourteen-year-old Louisa and three-year-old Mary Southgate (who would call Webster and his wife “father” and “mother”) as well as eighteen-year-old Eliza and twenty-five-year-old Harriet, who were both about to start families of their own. In 1825, Eliza would move to New Britain with her new husband, Henry Jones, a pastor. That same year, the widowed Harriet married William Fowler, who would soon land a teaching job at Middlebury College. Prone to drinking bouts, William Webster continued to flounder. In the fall of 1820, he enrolled at Yale, but he never graduated. Though William was an able classicist and a talented flutist, he lacked the very quality that defined his father—perseverance. Webster would repeatedly strategize about how to set up his son in a profession.

By the end of 1823, when Webster had reached R, the end of the dictionary was in sight. On December 12, he wrote his longtime friend Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill, “In order to give my work all the completeness of which it is susceptible, I purpose to go to England the next summer, if life and health permit, and there finish and publish it. I want some aid in books and knowledge, which I cannot obtain in this country.” To cover his travel expenses, Webster hoped to raise two thousand dollars from a few wealthy donors. But he was unwilling to promise to repay the advance. After a decade of rejection, Webster had lost his characteristic self-confidence. As he also told Mitchill, “I am apprehensive that any applications I might make for this object would be unsuccessful . . . and if I fail, I shall be left in reduced circumstances.” The benefactors never materialized. Webster instead relied on a thousand-dollar loan from his daughter Harriet (which he wouldn’t be able to pay back for six years) and the sale of some books in his private library. The following spring, he added Paris to his itinerary; he also planned to visit the acclaimed Royal Library, then the world’s largest with some one million books and eighty thousand manuscripts.

As Webster prepared to set sail for Europe, he was a celebrity in his home country, but not a celebrated lexicographer. While his speller was about to reach the unheard-of five million mark in total sales, his proposed complete dictionary was still an object of ridicule. On April 14, 1824, The New London Gazette carried this brief item: “It is said that Noah Webster is about to proceed to England to publish there his large Dictionary, promised to the public eighteen years ago in the preface to his small one. If he executes this plan, (says the statesman) he will succeed in one sense at least, in making an English Dictionary.” In fact, as papers across New England reported two months later, Webster himself had already reversed course. He no longer intended to publish an expanded version of his small American dictionary. Instead of trying to unite Americans through a distinct American language, he now planned to unite Americans with their English brethren through a new international form of English. Retitled The Universal Dictionary, his book would, like Johnson’s dictionary, now emanate from London and shape language use on both sides of the Atlantic.

The sixty-six-year-old wordsmith now felt less connected to America than to Europe, which as a young man he had derided as “grown old in folly, corruption and tyranny.”

AT ELEVEN O’CLOCK on the morning of Tuesday, June 15, 1824, the Edward Quesnel, buoyed by a fair northwest wind, set off from New York. The spanking new ship was bound for Le Havre.

On board were twenty-one passengers, hailing mostly from Europe, attended to by a crew of twenty. In addition to the ten French travelers were an English couple with their son and female servant, plus a German, a Swede and a Canadian. Webster and his son, William, whom he brought along as his transcriber, were among the four Americans. The company, Webster wrote to Rebecca, was actually a mix of bipeds and quadrupeds, as it also included geese, fowl, turkeys, pigs and sheep. However, the animals were less of a presence the closer the ship got to Europe; most were consumed during the sumptuous three o’clock dinners.

Just three days into the trip, a severe gale rattled the passengers. With the howling winds causing the ocean to foam and roar, few ventured on deck. That first Friday aboard the ship, William stepped out of his berth just once. Observing all the tossing and tumbling, he blurted out, “I had no idea of this,” before rushing back below. William was particularly apprehensive because the Edward Quesnel was on its maiden voyage and “unused to the perils of the deep.” The one notable exception was Webster, whose stomach “was not in the least disturbed.” Struck by the stark contrast between his constitution and his father’s, William observed in his diary, “It is rather singular that while poor I am suffering what would at once have released the Israelites from captivity had the curse of seasickness been Pharaoh’s first plague, my father remains perfectly well. During the most tremendous swell of the sea, he is not in the least possible degree affected. A fact that astonishes even himself.” Webster’s nervous system didn’t work quite the same way as anybody else’s. While everyday social encounters could make him anxious, the prospect of imminent danger didn’t faze him at all.

Throughout the monthlong journey, Webster was in an uncharacteristically placid state of mind. While even the slightest noise from the children would upset him at home, on the high seas he was unflappable. To Rebecca, he wrote, “Indeed we have a great variety of music & discords. The squealing of the pigs, the bleating of the sheep and goats, the crowing of the cocks, and the squalling of the Englishman’s child, alternately or jointly salute our ears. These with the jabbering of the Frenchmen and with their humming and whistling give us no little amusement.” However, Webster was annoyed that there was “no appearance of religion among the passengers,” who failed to distinguish between Sundays and other days, playing whist on both.

At Webster’s insistence, those aboard the ship celebrated Independence Day on Monday, July 5, rather than on the Sabbath. As the Americans were a distinct minority, the morning was ushered in without the firing of a single gun or the ringing of a solitary bell—just the animating cry, “Ho heave yoe,” of the seamen. At three, a splendid repast was served. Afterward, the accomplished July Fourth orator requested to give a brief address. With Webster now intending to erase the divisions between American and British English, his remarks had a surprising new twist; he dwelled chiefly on the advantages that had accrued to both England and France since America’s separation from the old country. He then led his fellow passengers in nine toasts. While the first four covered familiar ground—saluting the day, the United States, its Constitution and its president—number six was one this veteran of the American Revolution had never before uttered: “Great Britain, Great and free in herself, may her power be exerted to defend the freedom of other nations.”

A second round of thirteen additional toasts would follow, each one given by a different member of the dining party. Captain Hawkins hailed “the ladies and gentlemen on board the Edward Quesnel.” Going around the table, a Monsieur Sournalet of France added, “The sage of Monticello,” leading Webster to grimace. When it came William’s turn, he exclaimed, “Washington and Lafayette, strangers in birth, but brothers by affection.” (Upon their arrival in Le Havre a week later, Webster and his son, who had his boots cleaned for the occasion, were supposed to spend an evening with the Marquis, but they just missed “Washington’s brother,” who had already set off on his voyage back to America.) Webster himself raised a glass for the thirteenth and final toast, “Our families and the friends we love.”

“So tanned that I look like a Spaniard,” wrote Webster, still in good spirits as the ship arrived in Le Havre on Saturday, July 10. The following Saturday at ten in the evening, father and son reached Paris. The tall, slender Webster, wearing his typical outfit of black trousers, a black coat and black silk stockings, stood out. Spotting him in a hotel lobby the following week, a fellow New Englander, Samuel Goodrich, who later achieved fame as an author of children’s books, described the lexicographer as “a curious quaint, Connecticut looking apparition strangely in contrast to the prevailing forms and aspects in this gay metropolis.” While Webster complained about the seventy dollars a month that he had to pay for the rooms at Madame Rivière’s at No. 19 Rue Bergère, the Royal Library left him nearly speechless. He reported to Rebecca, “I cannot give you a description of my feelings. To have an adequate idea of this collection of books, you must imagine rows of shelves 30 feet high from the corner of my house to the Green, or public square.” But the rhythms of Parisian life alienated him. After two weeks, his calm had turned to agitation: “Little regard is had to the Sabbath. . . . The theaters are open every night, & one of the greatest inconveniences I experience is the noise of carriages at the breaking up of plays, about 12 at night. I must submit to be thus annoyed at present in every way imaginable, but I think these things may shorten my stay in France.” Indeed, he would be gone by mid-September, a month earlier than originally planned.

Not particularly eager to explore the city—“I came here not for the gratification of curiosity”—Webster buried himself in his work. He got up at six, and wrote for a couple of hours before breakfast. He spent two days a week at the library, where he pored over the first edition of The Dictionary of the French Academy, published in 1694. In contrast to England, continental Europe had always seen dictionary-making as a group enterprise—Florence’s Accademia della Crusca produced the first modern dictionary in 1612—and Webster sought to familiarize himself with this tradition. To hunt for scientific terms missing in Johnson, Webster also consulted the work of the French encyclopedists as well as the recent Dictionary of Natural History by Georges Cuvier. In his occasional outings around town, Webster tended to be unimpressed by what he saw. “But the Palais Royal,” he wrote to his daughter Emily, “and the palace of the Tuilleries where the King now resides, are so tarnished by time & weather that they are the color of an old barn.” Unlike his father, William, who studied French with the help of a native tutor and would do some sightseeing on his own, he took a liking to what he called “the land of the frogs.” On September 13, their final day in Paris, Webster’s son wrote, “If man were not an accountable being, I know of no spot under Heaven where one could pass an earthly existence with more delight.”

Sailing from Dieppe, the Websters made brief stopovers in Brighton and London before heading to Cambridge. On September 22, they settled into a suite of rooms at the university, courtesy of Dr. Samuel Lee, a professor of Arabic. With his letter of introduction to Lee, Webster also gained access to the books at Trinity College’s Wren Library. Webster was eager to turn his attention to “business.” On September 24, he wrote Rebecca, “I want certainly the comfort & happiness of the presence of my dear consort & children. This thought sometimes chills me for a moment, but I am not distressed or unhappy. . . . And it is a pleasant thing to get among people that look & dress & eat & talk like our own people.” A few months later, he tried to set in motion his grand scheme of uniting America and England in a common tongue. On December 20, he wrote to Dr. Lee, proposing a summit on the future of the English language. The three parties—members of the Oxford and Cambridge faculty, along with him representing American literati—would attempt to bring about agreement on “unsettled points in pronunciation and grammatical construction.” The expert salesman clearly intended to turn the resolutions of these academics into publicity for his new book. However, in his letter to Lee, Webster claimed that his motives were purely scholarly: “But the gentlemen would disavow any intention of imposing their opinions on the public as authoritative; they would offer simply their opinions, and the public would still be at liberty to receive or reject them.” While Dr. Lee and his Cambridge colleagues were intrigued, Oxford never responded. But Webster continued defining, and in late January 1825, with his right thumb “almost exhausted” from overuse, he finished his manuscript. It was a moment Webster would never forget. He later recalled, “When I had come to the last word, I was seized with trembling which made it somewhat difficult to hold my pen steady for the writing. . . . But I summoned strength to finish the last word, and then walking about the room a few minutes I recovered.” Webster attributed the intense anxiety to the thought that he might not live to finish the work. But he was perhaps more worried about what was to happen next. After all, for nearly thirty years, finishing the dictionary had been the organizing force of his life.

Though his proposed academic conference never got off the ground, Webster still pressed ahead with his plan to publish his dictionary of a unified English. Leaving Cambridge in February, he moved to London to shop the idea. He sent part of the manuscript to John Murray, but the distinguished publisher of Jane Austen and Lord Byron turned him down. In his memoir, Webster offered the following account of this episode: “The booksellers declined publishing The American Dictionary; the great publishers being engaged in a new edition of Todd’s Johnson, and in the works of Richardson.” While the competition posed by the lexicographers Henry John Todd, who was about to release a revised edition of Johnson’s dictionary, and Charles Richardson, then composing his New Dictionary of the English Language, did drown out interest in Webster’s complete dictionary, Webster’s explanation did involve some revisionist history. That’s because in 1825, Webster was not trying to sell The American Dictionary; distinguishing American English from British English was then the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, while in Cambridge, Webster wrote to his cousin Daniel, requesting that the Massachusetts representative push through Congress a bill enabling him to import his forthcoming British book, A Dictionary of the English Language, to America duty-free. But with the negotiations in London going nowhere, this legislation, which was passed on March 3, 1825, never did him any good. By April, a dejected Webster was eager to be reunited with his family. On April 14, “Weby”—as William was known to his peers—confided to his friend Artemas Thompson, then a student at Amherst College:

My father feels that the state of his health makes it a duty for him to return immediately. His mind is a good deal broken down by the most intense application to study and the infirmities incident to advanced age make it desirable that he should relax himself and return to the bosom of his family. . . . He has given up the intention of publishing his work in England. The superintendence of the publication would require more exertion and confinement than would be prudent for him—indeed it might prove fatal. . . . What I have written respecting my father’s health, I wish you not to mention, as it might give our friends in New Haven unnecessary anxiety and alarm, should it reach them.

As he sailed back to New York with William aboard the Hudson in May, Webster reverted to his original plan, which was to publish his American Dictionary in America. If Webster’s year-long trip to Europe had ended successfully, Americans and Britons might today be speaking the same version of English.

GIVEN A HERO’S WELCOME in New Haven—both by the Yale faculty and Rebecca and the children—Webster soon regained his stamina. Several months later, he found an American publisher, Sherman Converse, then also the editor of the New Haven paper, The Connecticut Journal. Converse prepared a specimen of a few pages, which he circulated among prominent people in the hope of accumulating endorsements for the dictionary. One of the first came from Webster’s old friend John Trumbull, who noted, “I do not hesitate to recommend it to all who wish to acquire a correct knowledge of the English language, as a valuable addition to the science of philology and an honor to the literature of our country.” Converse also reached out to two former presidents. On February 20, 1826, Thomas Jefferson politely declined: “Sir, I have duly recieved [sic] your favor the 6th asking my examination and opinion of the plan of Mr. Webster’s dictionary, of which you inclosed me a sample, but worn down with age, infirmity and pain, my mind is no longer in a tone for such services. I can only therefore express my respect and best wishes for its success.” Jefferson may not have wanted to help his onetime Federalist critic; however, he was indeed frail and would die just a few months later. But James Madison, whom Webster had also once vilified, did come through. “The plan embraces so many commendable objects,” wrote Jefferson’s successor in the White House to Converse from his retirement home in Montpelier, Virginia, “beyond the ordinary scope of such works that its successful execution must be a substantial improvement on them.” By May, Converse had racked up a total of fourteen recommendations, including one from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story and one from the philologist John Pickering, who had criticized the first dictionary so harshly a decade earlier.

While Converse worked out an arrangement with Hezekiah Howe of New Haven to print the book, Webster began preparing his manuscript for publication. This last round of editing would take two years. The conscientious Webster did whatever he could to remove errors from his definitions. On March 3, 1826, he wrote the French linguist Peter Du Ponceau, who worked as an attorney in Philadelphia, “I have inserted in my vocabulary the word phonology from some of your writings. I believe I understand it, but for fear I may not, I will thank you to give me your meaning in a brief definition.” Webster asked the Yale professors Benjamin Silliman and Denison Olmsted to review the scientific terms. And in January 1827, he hired Dr. James Gates Percival, a Yale-educated physician and celebrated poet fluent in ten languages and able to write verse in thirteen, to proofread his entries. But Webster’s temperamental employee, who had given up medicine after seeing his first patient, would abandon his assignment two months before the dictionary went to press.

While Percival had the ideal qualifications for the job, he was even more eccentric than Webster. The stubborn and volatile bachelor also preferred books to people; though condemned to a life of poverty, he would eventually amass a library of ten thousand volumes. The closest Percival ever came to embracing a woman was grazing the hand of a pupil whom he tutored in her home; this momentary contact filled him with so much emotion that he immediately left the room, never to return. The signature poem of the humorless Percival was “The Suicide,” which featured dozens of chilling verses such as the following:

He once could love, but Oh! That time was o’er, 

His heart was now the seat of hate alone, 

As peaceful—is the wintry tempest’s roar 

As cheerful—torture’s agonizing groan.

By 1821, when the twenty-six-year-old poet published his highly regarded first collection, he had already attempted suicide twice. The tall and blond Percival, neatly clad in the brown camlet coat which he wore day after day, had large blue eyes with dilated pupils that were fixed in a permanent stare. While Webster occasionally flirted with madness, Percival incarnated the thing in itself. Percival was the man Webster might have become had he not stumbled upon his reliable sources of comfort—his loving wife, his religious faith, his sealed-off second-story hideaways and his dictionary.

Percival was initially thrilled to be working with Webster. Sharing a passion for defining, he also loved tracing words back to their roots. In fact, he was a step ahead of his boss, as he kept abreast of the latest German scholarship on etymology. When once asked by a friend if his tasks were dry, Percival responded, “I took more pleasure in editing Webster’s Dictionary than in anything else I have done.” Percival was supposed to proof the printed pages, but the printing proceeded so slowly that he had to read the manuscript as well. He didn’t get started until May 1827, and he soon felt oppressed by the grueling fourteen-hour workdays. On December 4, 1827, he confided to his friend Dr. George Hayward, “My situation is one of disgust and toil. . . . I regret that I have ever engaged in the thing. It will be one of the miseries of my life to think of it.” Later that month, Webster left Percival a note about his alleged untidiness: “I have to request you not to write on the MSS, as many of your remarks are illegible and they injure the writing, which is already bad enough. You will oblige me to write all your remarks, as Prof. Olmsted does, on a separate piece of paper.” An enraged Percival shot back, “If you have confidence in me, my articles had better remain as they are. If you have not, it is idle for me to have any further connection with the dictionary.” Though the two men soon reconciled, Percival then started challenging Webster’s etymologies. When Webster insisted that his assistant focus solely on proofreading, Percival began sneaking in some changes on his own. To express his now unspeakable pique, Percival lapsed into Latin in his January 9, 1828, update to Hayward, “Multa absurda removi” [Many absurd things I have removed]. By September, Percival, whose name would not appear in the dictionary, had moved on.

In the months immediately preceding the publication of “his great book,” Webster was highly agitated. Henry Howe, the son of his publisher, who at the age of eleven delivered page proofs from his father to Webster, later recalled, “I do not remember to have seen him smile. He was a too-much pre-occupied man for frivolity, bearing, as he did, the entire weight of the English tongue upon his shoulders.” On September 15, Webster informed Harriet, “I remain troubled with head ache and can but little business. To write this letter is for me great effort.” On Wednesday morning, November 26, 1828, the last pages of An American Dictionary of the English Language came off Howe’s printing press. The following day, in honor of “the great event,” Rebecca invited dozens of guests over to Temple Street for “a solid Thanksgiving supper.”

Webster soon would have even more to celebrate. Having languished as a persona non grata in his own country for nearly a quarter of a century, he had staged a remarkable comeback. On January 31, 1829, The Connecticut Mirror compared Webster to the Roman poet Horace, who had famously created a literary “monument more lasting than steel,” observing, “We are aware of no other publication in this country or in Europe, upon which equal research and labor has ever been expended by a single individual.” A week later, Webster wrote to his son-in-law William Fowler: “My great book seems to command a good deal of attention. Mr. Quincy, now president of Harvard, spent an hour with me on Thursday. He assures me the book will be well reviewed. Chancellor Kent writes me that the best judges of New York speak of it with the highest respect, and he has no doubt it will supersede Johnson. It is considered as a national work.” The timing was much better than for the “compend.” Americans had gotten used to the idea that Johnson’s day had come and gone. The public was also prepared to accept that Webster was not a wild innovator, as his critics had once charged. In April 1829, James L. Kingsley, a Yale Latin professor, wrote a fifty-page review in the North American Review, in which he concluded, “The proper effect of the author’s labors in the cause of the language of his country will not fail, sooner or later to be produced. . . . it will be seen in the more correct use of words, in the check which will be put on useful innovations. . . . in the increased respect . . . with which the author will be viewed.” However, this review by Kingsley—a Temple Street neighbor who had provided a blurb three years earlier—left a drained Webster, whose headaches still hadn’t gone away, disappointed. Right after reading it, he complained to Fowler, “This will probably satisfy my friends, but there are some differences between us and in some points the reviewer is certainly wrong. I believe however that I shall let it pass unnoticed.” As more positive feedback came in, Webster could afford to lie low. On May 29, 1829, he reported to Fowler from New York, “From the observations of many literary gentlemen and all I have seen, I find that public sentiment is pretty fully settled as to the substantial merits of my great book.”

The comprehensiveness of Webster’s American Dictionary was breathtaking. It contained seventy thousand words, some twelve thousand more than the 1818 version of Johnson edited by Henry John Todd. Webster succeeded in forever expanding the scope of the dictionary. After Webster, all English lexicographers felt duty-bound to capture the language not just of literature, but also of everyday life. According to Webster’s estimate, he added at least four thousand new scientific terms, including, for example, “phosphorescent” and “planetarium.” He also inserted hundreds of commonly used words—“savings-bank,” “eulogist,” “retaliatory,” “dyspeptic,” “electioneer” and “re-organize” all became official. However, his inclusiveness occasionally made readers squirm. Of “co-bishop,” one reviewer wrote, “We consider such a word . . . too vilely formed ever to be tolerated.” In perhaps his greatest contribution, Webster transformed definitions from little more than lists of synonymous terms to tightly knit mini-essays, which highlighted fine distinctions. Compare, for example, Webster and his predecessor on “ability”:

Johnson: The power to do any thing, depending on skill, riches or strength; capacity, qualification and power.

Webster: Physical power, whether bodily or mental; natural or acquired; force of understanding; skill in arts or science. Ability is active power, or power to perform, as opposed to capacity, or power to receive.

Webster was also the first lexicographer to turn his own examples into a central component of definitions. To explain morality, he noted, “We often admire the politeness of men whose morality we question.”

While Webster improved upon Johnson, he also borrowed liberally from his rival. Based upon an examination of both Webster’s copy of Johnson’s 1799 dictionary and the 1828 dictionary, scholar Joseph Reed concludes that about one-third of Webster’s definitions demonstrate the influence of Johnson. This figure includes a few direct transcriptions—sometimes without attribution—as well as numerous cases where Webster made slight alterations. Citing Reed’s research, critics have occasionally tried to downplay Webster’s achievement. But such attacks, which tend to be mounted by Johnsonians, are unwarranted. After all, as Reed concedes, “Borrowing—even plagiarism—is no sin to lexicographers.” Particularly in the days before committees assembled dictionaries, compilers often recycled the work of one another. Johnson, for example, borrowed heavily from his direct predecessor, Nathan Bailey, author of An Universal Etymological Dictionary, originally published in 1721. Moreover, Reed himself is also struck by the remarkable breadth and originality of Webster’s work, adding, “Webster did more than perhaps any other lexicographer to initiate the encyclopedic dictionary.”

Since his return from Europe, Webster had also reworked his dictionary to give it a purely American flavor. To broadcast his intentions, he slapped on a highly patriotic preface. While he still hoped to market the book in Britain—and was no longer the anti-English rebel of the speller—he wholeheartedly embraced the goal that had first motivated him nearly thirty years earlier: “It is not only important, but in a degree necessary, that the people of this country, should have an American Dictionary of the English Language; for although the body of the language is the same as in England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist. Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.”

Citing Johnson’s famous phrase, “The chief glory of a nation arises from its authors,” Webster sought to celebrate America’s founders—Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jay, Madison, Hamilton and Marshall—as “pure models of genuine English.” He also felt it necessary to clarify the key terms of American politics. “The judges of the supreme court of United States,” read one of his examples, “have the power of determining the constitutionality of laws.” As in his speller a half century earlier, he also stuck in countless references to American locales. In the entry for the verb “view,” which he defined as “to survey,” he alluded to a favorite spot in western Massachusetts: “We ascended Mount Holyoke and viewed the charming landscape below.”

Webster’s “great book,” like that of his idol, was also part autobiography. Just as Samuel Johnson had expressed his feelings toward Lord Chesterfield by defining “patron” as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery,” Webster also repeatedly dragged in incidents from his own life. In the definition for “embalm,” he alluded to his own devastating loss: “The memory of my beloved daughter is embalmed in my heart. N. W.” And under “when,” he recalled his near-meeting with Washington’s adopted son: “We were present when General Lafayette embarked at Havre for New York.” Likewise, to illustrate the familiar meaning of “absent”—“not at home”—Webster mentioned an excuse that he himself often resorted to: “The master of the house is absent. In other words, he does not wish to be disturbed by company.” While Webster didn’t prescribe the right way to use language, he did prescribe the right way to live. The definitions frequently had a didactic tone that reflected Webster’s values, particularly his Christian faith. Under “seducer,” Webster opined, “The seducer of a female is a little less criminal than the murderer”; and under “seduction,” he volunteered some homespun advice: “the best safeguard is principle, the love of purity and holiness, the fear of God and reverence for his commands.”

While Webster’s Synopsis was not appended to the dictionary as he had hoped, his dubious etymological ideas made an occasional appearance. As in his “compend,” he insisted on some archaic Anglo-Saxon spellings, such as “bridegoom” for “bridegroom.” Though the former term is closer to the Anglo-Saxon “brideguma,” this entry struck most readers as ridiculous. Citing this example, Britain’s Westminster Review, which considered Webster’s work “one of a very important character,” accused him of having “a few words in which he is very adventurous in his orthography.” In a handful of entries, Webster also left in incomprehensible references to the unpublished Synopsis. Under the verb “heat,” in a long paragraph of fanciful etymology which came before the definition, Webster noted, “See Class Gd. No 39, and others. It may be further added that in W[elsh] cas is hatred, a castle, from the sense of separating; casau, to hate; and if this is of the same family, it unites castle with the foregoing words.” Such “choice sentences” led another British periodical, The Quarterly Review, to issue one of the few pans, “There is everywhere a great parade of erudition and a great lack of real knowledge.” But most Americans were forgiving of the lexicographer’s odd notions. In 1829, the Norwich Courier observed, “Noah Webster, thinking that molasses ‘by any other name would taste as sweet,’ has in his new Dictionary spelt it Melasses. Notwithstanding this high authority, it is extremely questionable whether any Yankee can be made to swallow such a word with hasty pudding.”

Webster suddenly commanded respect from America’s literati, who had long abused him. Both financial security and lionization were soon to follow. In a speech at Yale, his old friend James Kent, the former chief justice of the New York State Supreme Court, compared his dictionary to the Parthenon and the pyramids of Egypt. Webster will, Kent declared, “transmit his name to the latest posterity. It will dwell on the tongues of infants as soon as they have learned to lisp their earliest lessons. . . . This Dictionary and the language which it embodies, will also perish; but it will . . . only go with the solemn temples and the great globe itsel f.” In a letter to Harriet, Webster dismissed Kent’s remarks on his “great book” as “flights of imagination,” but he savored every drop of praise.

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