RESEARCH, n. Diligent inquiry or examination in seeking facts or principles; laborious or continued search after truth.
A few years after Webster’s death, his son-in-law Chauncey
Goodrich wrote the first detailed sketch of the lexicographer’s life, which was inserted into the 1847 edition of The American Dictionary. A generation later, journalist Horace Scudder, who would go on to become the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, published the first biography, Noah Webster(Boston, 1882). More interpretive essay than scholarly treatment, Scudder’s work focused on Webster’s major achievements—the speller, the political writings and the dictionary. Scudder’s occasional allusions to the Connecticut Yankee’s “idiosyncrasies” irked the family. Of Scudder’s slender volume, Webster’s granddaughter Emily Ford noted in 1892, “[it] seems to me to discolor his character, to belittle his work as well as his aims and to make him out an egotist of persistent self-conceit in his career.” In response, Ford began compiling Webster’s personal papers. After Ford’s death in 1902, her daughter, Emily Skeel, finished the two-volume biography, Notes on a Life of Noah Webster (New York, 1912). This privately printed work, which is available only at major research libraries, features a wealth of valuable primary-source materials, including the complete text of Webster’s diary, which he kept from 1784 to 1820, and extended excerpts from dozens of letters by and to Webster.
Working closely with William Chauncey Fowler (Webster’s great-grandson), Harry Warfel, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, published the first modern biography, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (New York, 1936), as well as The Letters of Noah Webster (New York, 1953). John Morgan’s Noah Webster (New York, 1975) leans heavily on Warfel’s work. While Harlow Unger’s Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot (New York, 1998) is the most comprehensive biography to date, his account adheres to the idealized portrait painted by both Ford/Skeel and Warfel. Webster has also been the subject of two published doctoral dissertations. K. Alan Snyder’s Defining Noah Webster: A Spiritual Biography (Washington, 2002) highlights the lexicographer’s Christian faith. In contrast, Richard Rollins’ The Long Journey of Noah Webster (Philadelphia, 1989) emphasizes Webster’s turn toward reactionary politics in his old age. Rollins also edited The Autobiographies of Noah Webster (Columbia, S.C., 1989), which contains both Webster’s diary as well as his previously unpublished sixty-three-page memoir written in 1832.
Besides the biographies, a few books cover specific aspects of Webster’s legacy. In Noah Webster: Pioneer of Learning (New York, 1966), Erwin Shoemaker explores the impact of the speller, the reader and the dictionary on American education. Likewise, in A Common Heritage : Noah Webster’s Blue-Back Speller (Hamden, Conn., 1983), Jennifer Monaghan delves deeply into his most commercially successful book, dissecting all the complicated publishing deals. David Micklethwait conducts a thorough scholarly investigation of the origins of Webster’s magnum opus in Noah Webster and the American Dictionary (Jefferson, N.C., 2000).
I aimed not to write the definitive academic biography but to introduce Noah Webster to the broad reading public, who know him largely as a name pasted onto a reference book. Intrigued by the psychological turmoil which fueled his literary activity, particularly the dictionary, I was interested in bringing the full-bodied human being to life. To tackle this assignment, I deemed it necessary to peruse as many primary source materials as possible, especially since Webster’s descendants had done so much to sculpt his public image. I examined the Websteriana at the following institutions:
American Antiquarian Society
American Philosophical Society
Connecticut Historical Society
Connecticut State Library
Harvard University (Houghton Library and Countway Library)
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Indiana University (Lilly Library)
The Jones Library in Amherst, Mass.
The Library of Congress
Massachusetts Historical Society
Massachusetts State House Library
The Morgan Library
New Haven Museum
The New-York Historical Society
The New York Public Library
The Noah Webster House
University of Virginia
Yale University (Beinecke Library and Sterling Library)
Among my major finds were the first pages of the 1828 dictionary in the New Haven Museum as well as Webster’s marked-up pages of Robert Ainsworth’s Latin-English dictionary at the Morgan Library, which illustrate his extensive reliance on that book. At Yale, I located several dozen letters by Webster to his daughter Harriet Fowler and her husband, William Fowler, which the Beinecke Library purchased a few years ago from the family. Warfel was the only previous writer to have had access to these documents, which deepen our understanding of Webster’s complicated relationships with his children—but he was under the watchful eye of Webster’s heirs. In 2007, Yale’s Sterling Library acquired Webster’s commonplace book, a term defined in his 1828 dictionary as “a book in which are registered such facts, opinions or observations as are deemed worthy of remembrance, so disposed as any one may be easily found.” This hundred-page manuscript of his favorite literary passages extends our knowledge of his intellectual formation. At the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., I located letters addressed to his brother-in-law Daniel Greenleaf, in which Webster revealed his sense of being betrayed by James Greenleaf, the speculator who helped build our nation’s capital. Previous biographers have downplayed the scandalous behavior of this brother-in-law, with whom Webster was once extremely close. At Amherst College, I found some letters by Webster’s wife, Rebecca, concerning the couple’s disabled daughter, Louisa, which helped to clarify what ailed her.
I also immersed myself in Webster’s own published words. As the first Webster biographer of the digital age, I could do much of this reading on my own laptop. The online resource The Archive of Americana, now features scanned copies of most American newspapers between 1690 and 1922. By searching Webster’s name, I was able to find countless newspaper articles by and about this prolific journalist, including some not mentioned in the six-hundred-page tome A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster, edited by Edwin H. Carpenter (New York, 1958). Likewise, the early American imprints section of this database includes the full text of many of Webster’s books and speeches, such as his various Independence Day orations and his 1806 “compend.” (I was also able to download other key works of the era, such as the dictionaries of America’s first lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, Jr.) While this digital archive does not contain the first edition of The American Dictionary, that book is now available both in a free online version (http://1828.mshaffer.com) as well as in an inexpensive facsimile edition (Chesapeake, Virginia, 1967). All the chapter epigraphs are culled from Webster’s “great book.”
I list below some additional sources—along with a few explanatory notes—by chapter:
Prologue: George Washington’s Cultural Attaché
Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, 1784-June 1786 (Charlottesville, Va., 1978).
Howard Lamar, “Revolutionary Patriot, Outspoken Federalist, Connecticut and Yale Loyalist, Abolitionist, Epidemiologist, Public School Reformer and Intellectual Nationalist” (lecture, Noah Webster’s 250th Birthday Celebration, New Haven, October 16, 2008).
Joseph Ellis, After the Revolution: Profiles in Early American Culture (New York, 1979), pp. 161-212.
Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History (June 2001), pp. 129-44.
Jill Lepore, A Is for American (New York, 2002), pp. 3-42.
Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the two hundredth anniversary of Webster’s “compend” is reprinted as the introduction to a recent sampling from the 1828 dictionary, Arthur Schulman, ed., Websterisms (New York, 2008).
Peter Martin, Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Cambridge, Mass., 2008).
Joshua Kendall, “Field Guide to the Obsessive-Compulsive,” Psychology Today (March/April 2008), pp. 43-44. This piece describes the benefits of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder for people in various professions, including home design and lexicography.
Chapter 1: Hartford Childhood and Yale Manhood
William Love, Colonial History of Hartford (Hartford, 1914).
The multivolume reference book Annals of the American Pulpit (New York, 1857-1869), edited by William Sprague, provides useful biographical sketches of influential pastors such as Nathan Perkins, Joseph Buckminster, Timothy Dwight and Ezra Stiles.
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds the unpublished manuscripts of a few of Joseph Buckminster’s fast-day sermons.
Elizabeth Whitman’s doomed relationship with Joseph Buckminster was the raw material for the 1797 best-selling novel The Coquette, by Hannah Foster.
Brooks Kelly, Yale: A History (New Haven, 1974).
The Laws of Yale-College in New-Haven in Connecticut, Enacted by the President and Fellows (New Haven, 1774).
Rollin G. Osterweis, Three Centuries of New Haven, 1638-1939 (New Haven, 1953).
Theodore Zunder, The Early Days of Joel Barlow (New Haven, 1934).
Theodore Zunder, “Noah Webster as a Student Orator,” Yale Alumni Weekly (November 19, 1926), p. 225.
Earle Havens, Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century (New Haven, 2001).
Moses Coit Taylor, Three Men of Letters: George Berkeley, Timothy Dwight and Joel Barlow (New York, 1895) .
Franklin Dexter, ed., The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, vols. 2 and 3 (New York, 1901).
Chapter 2: Spelling the New Nation
Alain C. White, The History of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut, 1720-1920 (Litchfield, 1920).
William Brown, The Life of Oliver Ellsworth (New York, 1902).
The Noah Webster House has recently published a facsimile edition—a tiny 120-page paperback with a blue cover—of Webster’s speller, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I (West Hartford, Conn., no date). This is a reprint of the original version released by the Hartford firm Hudson and Goodwin in 1783.
Helen Everston Smith, Colonial Days and Ways as Gathered from Family Papers (New York, 1900).
Joel Benton, “An Unpublished Chapter in Noah Webster’s Life. Love and the Spelling Book,” Magazine of American History (July 1883), pp. 52-56.
Chapter 3: Traveling Salesman
James Hammond Trumbull, The Memorial History of Hartford County, 1663-1884 (Hartford, 1886).
Allen Walker Read, “The Spelling Bee: A Linguistic Institution of the American Folk,” PMLA (June 1941), pp. 495-512.
The June 25, 1788, letter to publisher Isaiah Thomas is held at the American Antiquarian Society, the repository of Americana founded by Thomas.
Kate Keller, Dance and Its Music in America 1528-1789 (Hillsdale, N.Y., 2007).
Chapter 4: Counting His Way across America
I read George Washington’s personal copy of Webster’s American Magazine at the Boston Athenaeum. Washington wasn’t an underliner, and the only marks on the volume are his printed signature, “G. Washington.” Washington also stuck in a bookplate containing the family’s coat of arms and the quotation “Exitus acta probat” [The outcome justifies the deeds], a line from the Roman poet Ovid.
Webster’s words in his Baltimore speech are taken from the notes of M. I. Warren, which are held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Raphael Semmes, Baltimore as Seen by Visitors, 1783-1860 (Baltimore, 1953).
David Franks, The New York Directory for 1786, Illustrated with a Plan for the City, Also Changes in the Names of the Streets, Prefaced by a General Description by Noah Webster (New York, 1905 facsimile edition).
Chapter 5: Courtship at the Constitutional Convention
Frank D. Prager, ed. The Autobiography of John Fitch (Philadelphia, 1976).
Massachusetts Historical Society. Collections. The Jeremy Belknap Papers; Correspondence between Jeremy Belknap and Ebenezer Hazard, Fifth Series, vol. 3 (Boston, 1877).
Chapter 6: Marriage and a Turn Away from Words
Allen Walker Read, “The Philological Society of New York, 1788,” American Speech (April 1934), pp. 131-36.
Regarding the family’s spin on Webster’s floundering legal career in the early 1790s, Chauncey Goodrich wrote in his memoir, “Mr. Webster found his business profitable and continually increasing, during his residence . . . in Hartford.” Likewise, in her biography, Emily Ford noted, “his profession . . . was interesting and fairly remunerative to him.”
Chapter 7: Editor of New York City’s First Daily
On September 26, 1793, Webster summed up his dinner with Genet in an affidavit, which he sent to Oliver Wolcott. This document is now housed at the Connecticut Historical Society.
Bryan Waterman, Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature (Baltimore, 2007).
James Cronin, ed., The Diary of Elihu Hubbard Smith (1771-1798) (Philadelphia, 1973).
Allen Clark, Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City (Washington, D.C., 1901).
Gary Coll, “Noah Webster Journalist, 1783-1803” (dissertation, Southern Illinois University, 1971).
Marcus Daniel, Scandal and Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy (New York, 2009).
John Blake, “Yellow Fever in 18th Century America,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine (June 1968), pp. 673-86.
John Duffy, “Yellow Fever in the Continental United States During the Nineteenth Century,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine (June 1968), pp. 687-701.
Robert Lawson Peebles, Language and Written Expression in Revolutionary America (Cambridge, Eng., 1998). Chapter 2, “A Republic of Dreams,” has an illuminating discussion of Webster and his two fellow architects of “republican culture,” Benjamin Rush and Jedidiah Morse.
Chapter 8: Setting His Sights on Johnson and Johnson Jr.
Allen Walker Read, “Noah Webster’s Project in 1801 for a History of American Newspapers,” Journalism Quarterly (September 1934), pp. 258-75.
Christopher Bickford, Carolyn Cooper and Sandra Rux, eds., Voices of the New Republic: Connecticut Towns, 1800-1832 (New Haven, 2003), vol. 1, What They Said.
Aldred Scott Laird, “Noah Webster as Epidemiologist,” Journal of the American Medical Association (March 17, 1923), pp. 755-64.
Martha Gibson, “America’s First Lexicographer: Samuel Johnson, Jr.,” American Speech (December 1936) pp. 283-92.
Martha Gibson, “Identifying Samuel Johnson, Jr.,” New England Quarterly (December 1936), pp. 688-89.
Charles Brockden Brown, “On the Scheme of an American Language,” Monthly Magazine and American Review (July 1800), pp. 1-4. Though Brown doesn’t mention Webster by name, he is clearly referring to his particular plan, which received wide press coverage a month earlier.
Chapter 9: Paterfamilias
Kenneth Thompson, “The question of climate stability in America before 1900,” Climatic Change (September 1981), pp. 227-41.
Charlton Laird, “Etymology, Anglo-Saxon and Noah Webster,” American Speech (February 1946), pp. 3-15.
Chapter 10: A Lost Decade
Fred Robinson, “Noah Webster’s ‘Synopsis of Words in Twenty Languages’ ” (unpublished manuscript, 2008). Dr. Robinson, a professor emeritus of English at Yale, has deposited this useful overview of Webster’s etymology in the Webster papers at the New York Public Library to assist researchers combing through this nearly incomprehensible work. Dr. Robinson has reworked this manuscript into the article “Noah Webster as Etymologist,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen (April 2010), 167-74.
James Murray, The Evolution of English Lexicography (Oxford, 1900).
Jonathon Green, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made (New York, 1996).
Everett Thompson, “Noah Webster and Amherst College,” Amherst Graduates Quarterly (August 1933), pp. 289-99.
W. S. Tyler, History of Amherst College During Its First Half Century, 1821-1871 (Springfield, Mass., 1873).
Edward Carpenter, The History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts (Amherst, 1896).
Noah Webster, “Origin of Amherst College,” A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects (New York, 1843), pp. 222-54.
Chapter 11: The Walking Dictionary
William Webster’s European diary is held at the New York Public Library.
Julius Ward, The Life and Letters of James Gates Percival (Boston, 1866).
Harry R. Warfel, ed., Uncollected Letters of James Gates Percival, Poet and Geologist, 1795-1856 (Gainesville, 1959).
Joseph Reed, “Noah Webster’s Debt to Samuel Johnson,” American Speech (May 1962), pp. 95-105.
According to the Samuel Johnson scholar, Jack Lynch of Rutgers University, charges of plagiarism have dogged nearly all one-man lexicographers. Even Robert Cawdrey, the author of the first English-language dictionary, Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, was not immune. Critics were furious that Cawdrey lifted half of the head words directly from the 1596 textbook, English Schoole-Maister , written by Edmund Coote. (Jack Lynch, “Disgraced by Miscarriage: Four and a Half Centuries of Lexicographical Belligerence” (lecture, opening the exhibition “Everything from A to Z: The Edward J. Bloustein Dictionary Collection,” Alexander Library, New Brunswick, N.J., February 6, 2007).
Chapter 12: “More Fleshy Than Ever Before”
Brooks Swett, “A Portrait of the Webster Family During the Civil War” (unpublished manuscript, 2008).
The 1855 petition filed by the family concerning Louisa Webster’s mental competence is located at the Connecticut State Library.
The author of the 1936 biography contests the scholarly consensus on Webster’s translation of the Bible, arguing that it was his “crowning achievement.” Harry Warfel, “The Centenary of Noah Webster’s Bible,” New England Quarterly (September 1934), pp. 578-82.
Webster intended to publish his 1840 speech commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of Connecticut’s constitution, but never did. I read a typed version of the manuscript at the Connecticut Historical Society.
Epilogue: Webster’s after Webster
Herbert Morton, The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics (New York, 1994).
James Sledd and Wilma Ebbitt, Dictionaries and That Dictionary: Casebook on the Aims of Lexicographers (Chicago, 1962).