FLESHY, adj. 1. Full of flesh; plump; musculous. The sole of his foot is fleshy. Ray. 2. Fat; gross; corpulent; as a fleshy man.
On October 29, 1829, the seventy-one-year-old Webster and his wife celebrated their “great anniversary.” “Forty years ago today,” Rebecca wrote that afternoon to Eliza, then living in Greenfield, Massachusetts, “your father and I joined our hands in marriage, and I will venture to say, few have jogged on together more harmoniously.” To mark the occasion, Rebecca prepared a roast turkey and a host of desserts, including Webster’s favorite, custard. Harmony would continue to prevail in the Webster family, which eventually consisted of more than three dozen grandchildren, but it typically came at the expense of catering to the aging patriarch’s wishes. Webster made sure that the entire family continued to revolve around him. While his two sons-in-law, William Fowler and Chauncey Goodrich, along with his son, William, helped him manage his vast publishing empire, he never gave them any real authority. “We are treated like boys and girls,” Emily, his eldest, once complained to Harriet. And whenever someone in the family struck out on his own, Webster became uncomfortable. In April 1838, when it became clear that William Ellsworth was to be elected Connecticut’s governor, Webster joked with Emily, “We shall treat you just as we used to do, and we shall often mistake and call your husband Mr. Ellsworth.”
In 1837, Emily Webster (1790-1861) published a book of short stories, Wild Flowers. That year, her father wrote to her, “Only think. NW’s eldest daughter commenced authoress. It stands you in hand to write pretty well, because the public will expect it.”
Despite his phenomenal success, Webster was not a man at peace with either himself or the world. Though he was now less “peevish” than in middle age, he was often seething. He detested President Andrew Jackson as the second coming of Jefferson. In the 1832 election, he supported the third-party candidate William Wirt, as he no longer wanted anything to do with either of the major political parties. By 1836, as he confided to Fowler, he also looked down on his fellow Americans: “I would, if necessary, become a troglodyte, and live in a cave in winter rather than be under the tyranny of our degenerate rulers. But I have not long to witness the evils of the unchecked democracy, the worst of tyrannies. . . . We deserve all our public evils. We are a degenerate and wicked people.”
While Webster’s reactionary rants were now a source of embarrassment to his friends and family, he remained as forward-thinking as ever on matters of language. That same year, as the last of the twenty-five thousand copies of the first edition of his complete dictionary were sold, he began making plans to publish a revision. To Fowler, he explained, “I have improvements to make and these are necessary to sustain the reputation of the work, which must keep pace with the language.” In contrast to the various abridgements, the complete dictionary was not a big money-maker but a labor of love. Much to the consternation of the rest of the family, in 1838, the octogenarian would mortgage his Temple Street home to finance a second edition. The inveterate definer could not stop. As he was finishing this revised dictionary in 1841, he declared, “[Though] I desire . . . to be relieved from the toil of study and business . . . I am so accustomed to action that I presume inaction would be tedious and perhaps not salutary.”
Webster, who would never lose the spring in his step, remained remarkably fit. In April 1835, he proudly reported to Fowler that his physician’s bill the previous year had totaled just a dollar. “Except for a few days of rheumatism,” he added, “I have better health the winter past than I had from 20 years old to 65.” He attributed his vigor to his regular habits. His diet, which steered clear of “French dressings,” featured plenty of vegetables and just one small—defined as “about the size of three fingers”—piece of lean meat a day. Though he eventually had to give up gardening, he would continue to take brisk walks around New Haven to buy supplies for his family. In 1842, Webster, who still had a full head of silver hair, confided to his daughter Eliza, “I am more fleshy than ever before. Everybody is surprised to see me walk as straight as a flag-staff.”
Webster characterized “old age” as “an aristocracy resulting from God’s appointment.”
AS THE EXHAUSTED compiler recovered from the strain of finishing up his “great book,” the marketing genius sprang back into action. By the end of 1829, Webster published two abridged editions of The American Dictionary, a thousand-page octavo for the home and a five-hundred-page duodecimo—a small square book, like the “compend”—for schools and offices. On account of the modest price—the octavo was six dollars, as opposed to twenty dollars for the two-volume quarto—the abridgements would fly off the shelves and be reprinted dozens of times. For the octavo, Webster hired an editor, Joseph Worcester, to do the legwork under the supervision of his son-in-law and neighbor, Chauncey Goodrich. In 1829, Webster also came out with a new edition of his American Spelling Book, whose copyright wasn’t due to expire until 1832. As amended by Daniel Barnes and Aaron Ely, Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book used the same orthography as his three new dictionaries. Webster then branded these four volumes as “Noah Webster’s Series of books for the instruction in the English language.” While he publicly downplayed his own financial motives—“But the great object is the permanent improvement of the language and . . . the literature of this country”—securing his financial future was now a paramount concern. In 1829, Webster also finalized a deal with E. H. Barker of Norfolk, England, to reprint his quarto under the title A Dictionary of the English Language in Britain. Appreciating his precise definitions, the British snapped up all three thousand copies within a couple of years, but they never took to the idea of letting an American dictate the future of their brand of English.
Having published a flurry of new works, Webster turned his attention to protecting his valuable assets. After returning from England, he had begun enlisting the help of his cousin Daniel, who had jumped from the House to the Senate in 1827, in his campaign to extend the term of copyright from fourteen to twenty-eight years, as was already the case in Britain. He also sought a provision that would grant an author’s widow and children copyright protection in the event of an author’s death. While these political goals weren’t unreasonable, Webster had trouble distinguishing between his own personal needs and those of his country. To Senator Webster he observed, “I have a great interest in this question, and I think the interest of science and literature in this question, are by no means, inconsiderable.” When William Ellsworth was elected to Congress in 1829, Webster stepped up his lobbying. But with Ellsworth unable to bring a bill before the House in his first year on Capitol Hill, Webster decided to take the matter into his own hands.
His ten-week sojourn in Washington would succeed beyond his wildest expectations; he would be feted as a national treasure.
IN LATE 1830, right after spending Thanksgiving next door at the Goodriches, Webster accompanied his daughter Emily and Ellsworth, as they headed south for the opening of the second session of the Twenty-first Congress.
The trio first stopped off in Manhattan. Though his room measured only ten feet by ten feet, the author of The American Dictionary felt at home at the elegant American Hotel at 229 Broadway, on the corner of Barclay Street, opposite City Hall Park (where the Woolworth building stands today). Noting that his bed was just three feet from a warm fire fueled by coal, he reported to Rebecca on November 30, “O how comfortable it is.” But Webster was irked by what he perceived as Emily’s extravagant lifestyle. Reflecting on her large trunk, which included a couple of French caps, he added, “It seems to be necessary in this vain world to make a display.”
On December 13, Webster and his traveling companions arrived in Washington, where they settled into Noah Fletcher’s three-story double-brick home on 6th Street, a boarding house frequented by members of Congress. Suffering from a nasty cold, Webster hardly went out for the first ten days. With his eyes bothering him so much that he couldn’t read, he spent many hours daydreaming by the fire. “The catarrh in my head,” he complained to Rebecca on the seventeenth, “makes it feel like a cooking turnip.”
Webster spent Christmas at the home of his brother-in-law William Cranch, the D.C. circuit court judge, “where we had a tribe of the Greenleaf descendants and were very happy.” Webster was reunited with his onetime patron, James Greenleaf, who by then was back in the family fold. Since his release from prison a generation earlier, Greenleaf had climbed back up the social ladder and settled in a mansion at First and C streets with his second wife, the wealthy and beautiful Ann Penn, daughter of James Allen, the founder of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
On December 28, thanks to Senator Felix Grundy of Tennessee, who was also staying at the Fletcher house, Webster received an invitation to dine at the White House. As an outsider at this event attended by thirty congressmen, Webster sat directly to the right of the man who was perhaps his least favorite person in America, President Andrew Jackson. With his military bearing, the tall and gaunt “Old Hickory” bore a close physical resemblance to Webster. (In fact, during the president’s visit to New Haven two years later, some people waiting to see him accidentally took Webster by the hand, supposing him to be Jackson; this mix-up prompted several bystanders to exclaim that they had shaken the hand of a better man.) Sitting down to eat at about six, Webster soon became incensed with Jackson for preferring European cuisine. Spread out on the table were various French and Italian dishes, whose names Webster didn’t know or care to learn. But the fierce patriot kept his pique to himself. “As to dining at the president’s table,” the lexicographer confided to Harriet the following day, “in the true sense of the word, there is no such thing.”
The published version of that December 29, 1830, letter to Harriet, in which Webster described his White House visit, leaves out his update on his son: “William is here, but leaves us today. He has a comfortable living at Mr. Stuart’s in Fairfax County, Virginia. He wishes to have a permanent living and is somewhat low-spirited. How his wishes are to be accomplished, I cannot see.” Ever since his return from England, William’s unsettled future had been a major source of family tension. He failed at one teaching job after another, and he accumulated many debts. While his children urged Webster to cut William loose, the aggrieved father kept trying to rescue his only son. In the latest plan, Webster had helped set up William as a private tutor at Chantilly, the Virginia estate of Charles Calvert Stuart, whose late mother Eleanor Calvert Custis had been Martha Washington’s daughter-in-law. (Eleanor’s first marriage to John Custis had produced “Wash” and “Nelly,” the two boys George Washington had once asked Webster to tutor.)
During his brief stay in Washington, William had some big news to report: He had fallen in love with his employer’s younger sister, Rosalie Stuart, whom he planned to marry. Concerned about Webster’s reaction, William mentioned his engagement only to his sister Emily, who eventually relayed it to her father. From Washington, a wary Webster confided his fears to Rebecca:
How this connection is to affect William’s future life can be known only to him who sees the future as well as the present. William has no property and has not a facility of planning for a subsistence. Rosalie had some lands, cultivated, I suppose, as all Virginia lands are, most miserably. In the hands of a New England [sic] industrious and experienced farmer, these lands would be productive; but William knows nothing of husbandry. She has now a small income from her lands, but not sufficient for family. The lady has been educated probably as all southern ladies are; having a slave to do everything for her.
The wedding took place on May 4, 1831, in Virginia. For the next decade, the couple would zigzag across the country, living in New Haven; Cincinnati; Lafayette, Indiana; New Haven (again); and Brooklyn. Though Webster would grow fond of Rosalie, the marriage would prove as rocky as William’s career as a salesman and editor of his father’s books. William would also wage a lifelong struggle against depression. As he later confided to Webster, “I am subject to protestation of spirits.” And after the death of both their sons during the Civil War,7 William and Rosalie would divorce.
At seven o’clock in the evening on Monday, January 3, 1831, Webster gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives on the origin, history and present state of the English language. Avoiding any direct mention of “his series of instructional books,” Webster stressed the importance of passing the copyright bill. He also highlighted the
After his father’s death, William Webster (1801-1869) helped edit various editions of the dictionary. In 1864, he obtained a divorce from Rosalie Stuart, whom he called “unamiable and rebellious” on account of her support for the South during the Civil War. Two years later, he married Sara Appleton.
need to standardize American English. His remarks went over well. A Philadelphia paper reported, “the worthy lexicographer shows his wisdom in commencing the remedy at the very seat of disease” (thus alluding to the frequent abuse of language in the halls of Congress). A few days later, the House passed the bill, which Daniel Webster then shepherded through the Senate; a month later, it became the law of the land. But the seventy-two-year-old Webster wasn’t done. He intended to give another lecture, at the end of which he would call for a vote on a proposition “to encourage the use of my books as standards of spelling.” But since the snowy weather made a second gathering difficult to arrange, he drew up a paper “recommending the American Dictionary as a standard, to prevent the formation of dialects in this extensive country.” By mid-February, more than a hundred members of Congress signed on. Even more gratifying, he wrote Eliza, were the affectionate personal greetings:
The most agreeable circumstance that attends me, wherever I go, is the expressions of kindness and respect I receive from gentlemen who have learned how to read in my books. I suppose four fifths of the members of Congress are of this number. Wherever these men meet me, they take me by the hand and express for me most cordial good feelings, whether they are from New England or from Georgia, Kentucky or Virginia. So warm and sincere are these good feelings that the gentlemen are disposed to do anything reasonable for me, to reward me for my labors in literature.
Though Webster was now being hailed by Americans from across the land, during his last few weeks in the capital, he still “avoided parties . . . except those which are given by N. England people.”
Having personally lobbied the executive and legislative branches of government, Webster did not neglect the judiciary. He was hoping to get the Supreme Court to unite behind a certificate in support of his dictionary. Though Webster once remarked to Justice Story, who had blurbed his “great book” a few years earlier, that he “was not a friend of obtaining recommendations of books,” he had been avidly gathering celebrity endorsements for nearly half a century. On January 14, Chief Justice John Marshall turned down his request, arguing that the justices could engage in such actions only as individuals—not as a group. But the letter, which the chief justice sent over to Webster’s room at the Noah Fletcher house, did not fail to render a positive verdict: “There are few if any of us who do not possess your large dictionary and who do not entertain a just opinion of its merits.”
AS AN IMPATIENT WEBSTER slowly made his way back to New England—the steamboats from Baltimore, where he lectured on February 25, were shut down by ice—chaos was breaking out at 58 Temple Street.
In early March, Rebecca’s thoughts typically turned to the thorough reordering of the house that she conducted every spring. “Her purifications for the season,” as she called them, involved “regulating” drawers and tidying up closets. But this year, on account of the family turmoil, she would get a late start.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 1, the nearly twenty-three-year-old Louisa was seated in the parlor near the bust of Washington. With an expression of horror on her face, she suddenly stood up. Walking over to Rebecca and looking directly into her black eyes, Louisa declared, “Mother, hell is a dreadful place!”
Dropping her needlework, Rebecca got up out of her sewing chair by the window and tried her best to stay calm.
Rebecca had noticed that ever since the recent conversion of Lucy Griffin, the family’s black servant, Louisa had become extremely anxious. Lucy, whose jams and preserves placated Webster’s sweet tooth, was an integral part of the family; and Louisa and Lucy, who sometimes slept in the same room, were particularly close. According to her mother, Louisa’s status as the only nonbeliever in the household was wearing on her. Louisa’s “serious impressions,” Rebecca later wrote to her older sister Eliza, had begun on February 27 and had “increased to such a degree that her flesh trembled and the terrors of hell were never out of her mind.”
Wracking her brain, Rebecca desperately sought a cure for what ailed Louisa. Reaching for her Bible, she found passages of scripture that she considered ideally suited to the matter at hand. But over the next few days, as she read numerous hymns out loud, Louisa hardly responded. Anxiety now gripped Rebecca, too, as she fretted over the state of her daughter’s burdened soul.
But by March 7, when Rebecca sent off her update to Eliza, she felt more hopeful:
She was in this distressing state til yesterday—her mind is now tranquil except when unbelieving fear comes over her and then she has lots of terror. Dr. T [Nathaniel Taylor, Stuart’s successor at the First Church], Mr G. [Chauncey Goodrich] and Mr. Fowler have all visited her and have no doubt the Holy Spirit is operating again on her heart. . . . We must wait awhile before we can decide in a case so difficult . . . her situation has excited great interest among all our friends . . . many prayers have been offered up in her behalf.
Nine months later, on December 25, 1831, Webster and his wife arranged for Louisa to be admitted into the First Church of Christ along with the rest of the family. But Louisa’s conversion would not mean the end of her mental suffering.
Ever since her infancy, something had been terribly wrong with the Websters’ seventh child; her central characteristics, as Rebecca once put it, were “her queer speeches and simplicity.” Webster and his wife never expected their last child to build a life of her own like her siblings. She wasn’t able to attend school, nor was she able to maintain normal interactions with her peers. While Louisa has often been described as “mentally retarded,” severe autism is a more likely diagnosis. Repetitive behaviors seemed to soothe her. In a letter to her sister, Eliza, composed two decades after her conversion, she alluded to “rocking back and forth in my chair [for] twenty-four hours at least.” Though Louisa’s thinking could be odd, even delusional, she was no simpleton. In that same January 8, 1854, letter to Eliza, written from the Goodrich house, where she lived after her parents’ death, Louisa made a few subtle jokes at the expense of Chauncey Goodrich, who was then teaching theology—as opposed to classics—at Yale: “You will see at a glance from the formation of my sentences, that I dwell under the roof of a man once professor of rhetoric. Hearing so much criticism gives me great consternation and sometimes the ablative comes in most uproariously.” Louisa signed off by sharing a grandiose fantasy with her sister, “your letters . . . will be printed with the rest of my correspondence when I die because . . . my letters would be very touching and prolific to the people, besides making money.”
Louisa, who was then living off a small annuity contained in her father’s will, would eventually lose her mind. In 1855, when Webster’s last child was forty-seven, the Goodriches and the Ellsworths filed a petition with the probate court for the District of New Haven asking for the appointment of a conservator to intervene in her daily life. Dated May 14, 1855, the document began, “That Louisa Webster . . . of New Haven is by reason of mental incompetency incapable of taking care of herself or of managing her affairs and has been in this condition from her infancy to this time . . . that she . . . has personal estate which needs to be taken care of and managed.” Exactly what specific incidents or developments prompted the family to take this drastic action remains unclear. However, Louisa’s life didn’t seem to change much afterward; she remained with the Goodriches and kept to her usual routine, rarely venturing out of the house except to attend church with the family.
LOUISA WASN’T WEBSTER’S only child to suffer from a disabling illness. In early 1836, not long after the birth of her fourth child, a son named Webster, Harriet suddenly became bedridden. The family feared the worst—tuberculosis. Her father arranged for Harriet to be examined by Dr. Eli Ives and Dr. Jonathan Knight, two professors at Yale’s new medical school. On July 8, 1836, Webster reported to Harriet’s husband, William Fowler, “Their opinion is that her case is a dangerous one, but not incurable. They think her lungs not ulcerated, but recommend riding & have prescribed two or three medicines. She is cheerful and seems to be better.” However, she continued to suffer from an array of debilitating symptoms—pain, lethargy and stomachaches—for which she often took morphine. Two years later, the lexicographer wrote to Fowler, “Your account of Harriet’s illness gives us no little pain. It seems her complaint is what is called neuralgy; pain of the nerves, if we can judge its symptoms. It is movable from the stomach to the lungs.” That diagnosis didn’t quite fit either, and Harriet would never recover. After her death at the age of forty-six in 1844, Rebecca observed, “I have no doubt that her sufferings, the last eight years of her life, have been far more severe than we apprehended. Nervous affections rendered her irritable. And sometimes unreasonable and unjust.”
Harriet’s mysterious illness brought Webster closer to her first child, Emily Ellsworth Fowler, born in 1826. While Webster was often cold and judgmental with his children, he could be a doting grandparent, and Emily Fowler emerged as his unabashed favorite. “Little Em,” he wrote her father in 1832, “is a book worm, it seems, and she is fairly entitled to be such by hereditary right. Tell her I love her very much, and hope to hear good things of her.” In Emily’s company, Webster’s playful side came out. In June 1834, he mentioned to Harriet, “Emily shall examine my head to see whether I am a good lexicographer. I am no phrenologist myself. I learn what bumps people have by their own conduct.” Webster kept pressing Harriet to have his granddaughter write to him in Latin, which for him was the language of love, and Emily obliged by the age of twelve. With her mother frail, Emily came to live in New Haven for a year, and Webster showered her with affection and caresses. His granddaughter later recalled, “I have never lived with anyone who entered so entirely into my wishes and necessities.” On February 27, 1839, Webster reported to William Fowler, “Your hopping, dancing, waltzing, chattering daughter is quite well; she uses a knife and fork with great dexterity; and says that she has grown this winter an inch, I mean upward, not sidewise.” Two months later, Webster noted, “She often animates us with her vivacity and music and we shall feel a want of her company to enliven the dullness of old age.”
After leaving New Haven, Emily Fowler headed off to Amherst, where her father had just taken a position as a professor of rhetoric at Amherst College. Inspired by Webster’s tutelage, Emily Fowler would grow up to become a significant figure in nineteenth-century American literature. In 1842, Webster’s beloved Emily began studying classics with the eleven-year-old Emily Dickinson at Amherst Academy. The two Emilys participated in the school’s Shakespeare club and discussed the poetry of New England notables such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Dickinson looked up to Fowler, who was four years older, as a fountain of wisdom. In 1849, the shy Dickinson wrote to her friend, “I know I can’t have you always. . . . some day a brave dragoon will be stealing you away and I will have farther to go to discover you at all.” Four years later, when Emily Fowler married Gordon Lester Ford, a prominent New York businessman, Dickinson included a lock of her auburn hair in one of her missives. Emily Ford later became a well-known poet and writer in her own right, whose final project involved compiling her grandfather’s personal papers. The literary line continued with her son, Paul Leicester Ford, who was both a leading Americanist—he edited the complete works of Jefferson—and a best-selling novelist. But Paul, like his grandmother Harriet, would suffer an untimely death. On May 8, 1902, his recently divorced older brother, Malcolm Webster Ford, a journalist who had fallen upon hard times, murdered the thirty-seven-year-old author in his Manhattan townhouse before shooting and killing himself.
“WITH THIS, I bring my literary labors to a close.”
Noah Webster would write this sentence dozens of times over the last decade of his life, but he would never really mean it.
More disgusted than ever by the disorder in the world, Webster felt he still had much to accomplish. But by the early 1830s, America’s preeminent pedagogue was less interested in gathering and disseminating new knowledge than in rectifying errors. In 1832, Webster took on the Bible, which he considered “the chief moral cause of all that is good, and the best corrector of all that is evil in human society.” In his new version published the following year, Webster fixed what he saw as the flaws of the 1611 King James edition—namely, its use of obsolete and “indelicate words.” Webster sought to eradicate all those Shakespearean locutions which he felt shouldn’t be spoken in mixed company. As part of his cleanup, he also desexualized its terminology, changing “teats” to “breasts” and “fornication” to “lewdness.” Despite Webster’s active marketing campaign, which featured an endorsement from the Yale faculty, the book never caught on. “They don’t want the word of Webster, but the word of God,” commented one pastor about the reluctance of missionaries to purchase it. Four years later, Webster followed with a slender volume entitled simply Mistakes and Corrections. In addition to biblical translation, the six essays addressed various philological matters. One concerned Charles Richardson’s recently published New Dictionary of the English Language. While the book was eccentric—it often supplied quotations rather than definitions—Webster’s assault on the British lexicographer was merciless, “And now our country is furnished with a fresh supply of mistakes in Richardson’s Dictionary, many of which are so enormous as to deserve nothing but derision.”
Next up was what Webster called the “correction” of his own “great book.” Though this would be the last dictionary authored by one man, Webster reached out to numerous experts for help. As he was getting started in 1835, he wrote to Benjamin Silliman, a professor of chemistry at Yale, “If you know of any corrections which will be proper, I will make them, if you will be good enough to give me a memorandum for my direction; and if there are any words of good authority in the sciences which you teach, which you wish to have added to my vocabulary, I will thank you to make notes of them as they occur to you.” While he relied on others, Webster would have the final say. When Fowler suggested adding “alerity” and “otherness,” he shot back, declaring that such “outrageous anomalies” had no place in the language. In the advertisement, he would thank only Dr. William Tully, Yale’s professor of materia medica, for the “correction of definitions in several of the sciences.” The second edition of The American Dictionary, a royal octavo, which contained fifteen thousand words more than the original quarto, began coming off the press on October 22, 1839. When the last page of the fifteen-dollar book was printed on January 30, 1841, Webster, who still was fond of tallying seemingly random facts and figures—the number of students enrolled in Yale every fall rarely escaped his notice—made a note to himself that publication had taken a total of “fifteen months and eight days.”
THE DATE WAS TUESDAY, April 21, 1840. The place was the Center Church in Hartford, and the time, as Webster noticed on his gold watch, was eleven o’clock. The Connecticut Historical Society was celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the state’s first written constitution, and the eighty-one-year-old lexicographer was about to give its keynote address. Though Webster was supposed to provide a “historical discourse,” he chose to focus on “the prevalent errors of our people.”
Webster was staying at the Hartford home of his son-in-law William Ellsworth, then the state’s governor, who that month would be reelected to a second two-year term. Webster skipped the festivities the night before, hosted by the society’s head, Thomas Day (the brother of Webster’s good friend, Jeremiah Day, who had succeeded Timothy Dwight as Yale’s president in 1817). At this masquerade party, which Webster’s former paper, The New York Commercial Advertiser, speculated was “perhaps the first ever in the land of steady habits,” dozens of young men and women donned the Puritan garb of their great-grandparents.
Webster had been nervous about taking center stage. A few weeks earlier, he confided his fears to his daughter Emily: “And then only think how many people are expecting great things from your father! How can such an old man as I am gratify such an audience as will be present. But I must encounter the task.” With his lower legs sore, it pained him to stand. And on account of his hoarseness, Webster had to shout out his words in order to be heard in every corner of the church.
Webster started by dipping into Hartford’s history, but this part of his speech wasn’t entirely flattering to his hometown. He talked of how his ancestor, John Webster, “wearied with dissension,” set off for Amherst to seek a new settlement. From this preamble, he moved on to the degenerate state of America, the main subject of what turned out to be a ninety-minute speech. “Let us attend,” the lexicographer stated, “to the public evils which may result from the use of indefinite words, and the errors, which may proceed from vague ideas.” Webster was horrified by what he saw as a misreading of America’s most hallowed text:
In the Declaration of Independence, it is affirmed to be a self evident truth that all men are created equal. If the gentlemen who signed that instrument had been called on to define these words, they doubtless would have given to them a correct interpretation. . . . Nothing can be more obvious than that by the appointment of the Creator, in the constitution of man and of human society, the conditions of men must be different and unequal. . . .
The rich depend on the poor for labor and services; the poor depend on the rich for employment and the means of subsistence. The parent depends upon the child for assistance in his business and for support in old age; the child depends on the parent for food and raiment; for protection and instruction. . . . The husband depends on his wife for the management of his domestic concerns, and the care of his young children; the wife depends on her husband for support and protection. . . .
Remove these dependencies arising from different and unequal conditions, and we should wholly derange or wholly interrupt the employments and the order of society, and to a great degree, the very civilities of life. This inequality of conditions, which political dreamers stigmatize as injustice, is, in reality, the support of the social system; the basis of all subordination in families and in government.
Inequality, an embittered Webster had come to believe, was inherently good. While, as the papers reported, he still “retained the full power of his faculties,” Webster had lost touch with the promise of America, which he himself had championed a half century earlier. It was the expert definer rather than his fellow countrymen who could no longer appreciate the true meaning of “liberty” and “equality.”
ON THE AFTERNOON of Wednesday, May 24, 1843, Eliza Jones knocked on the door of her father’s study. Upon entering, she saw something that she had never seen before. Wrapped in a cloak, Webster was lying down.
That spring, though bothered by a lame foot which had been crushed by his rocking chair, Webster had been carrying on as usual. In early April, while New Haven was overwhelmed by four feet of snow, he had finished a new book, A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects, which gathered together essays from the past fifty years. On April 11, he reported to Fowler, “We are all in pretty good health. . . . The state of our country, in point of government, is gloomy. . . . we have no remedy but in industry and economy.”
On Monday, May 22, Webster had twice gone to the post office, as he continued to monitor his business activities through an active correspondence. That afternoon, he received a visit from Yale president Jeremiah Day, before retiring to his study. Suddenly feeling a chill, Webster asked Lucy to start a fire. Alarmed that he was gulping down large amounts of water—Webster never drank between meals—Lucy notified Rebecca, who called in both Julia and Dr. Ives. As the doctor soon determined, Webster was suffering from pleurisy (a lung inflammation) and needed to rest.
On Friday night, Eliza slept in the study with her father, giving him medicine every half hour to treat his constant coughing. The next morning at eight, Eliza sent a note to her husband, Henry Jones: “Our solicitude for dear father is very great. He is very sick. Dr. Ives tells us frankly his apprehensions. . . . It was the first time he had permitted any of the family to be with him at night—so accustomed is he to do every thing for himself.”
On Sunday, May 28, the entire family gathered around Webster, with William and Emily Ellsworth arriving from Hartford and his son, William, returning from Manhattan where he had been away on business. Moses Stuart, Webster’s spiritual father, who happened to be in New Haven from Andover, also paid a visit. To Stuart, Webster declared, “I have confidence in God. I know in whom I have trusted. I am wholly submissive.”
At ten minutes before eight, Webster breathed a final sigh.
Two hours later, Eliza wrote another letter to her husband, “All is over. Father, dear father, has gone to rest. . . . He said his work was done, and he was ready.”
A year after Webster’s death, the Amherst publisher J. S. and C. Adams published his final work, An American Dictionary of the English Language, containing the whole vocabulary of the quarto, with corrections. (A copy of this lexicon soon made it into the hands of a teenage Emily Dickinson, who later called it her “only companion.”) This update of the 1841 edition of his “great book,” completed by William, featured fifteen pages of new addenda, including “aerodynamics,” “agronomy” and “puritanically.” Though the octogenarian had soured on American politics, he never lost his passion for defining with his characteristic precision American English. For this task, the cantankerous, driven and indomitable New Englander had always been ideally suited. And nobody, before or since, has ever done it any better.