SUCCESS, n. The favorable or prosperous termination of any thing attempted; a termination which answers the purpose intended; properly in a good sense, but often in a bad sense. . . . Be not discouraged in a laudable undertaking at the ill success of the first attempt. Anon.
EDUCATION, n. The bringing up, as of a child; instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable.
The farming community with the fertile soil three miles west of Hartford that Noah Webster would always be proud to call his birthplace owes its strong identity to the fervent Congregationalism of its early inhabitants.
Religious expression was the raison d’être for the incorporation of the West Division of Hartford in the early eighteenth century. Without a church of its own, the settlement’s hundred and fifty souls, who had begun migrating over from Hartford in the 1680s, were feeling uneasy. On October 12, 1710, its twenty-eight families sent a petition to the General Assembly in New Haven, requesting a minister. Frustrated that a “good part of God’s time [was] spent traveling backward and forwards” to the three churches in Hartford, the petitioners were concerned lest their “children [might not] be present at the public worship of God.”
Though Hartford protested—a new independent community would mean the loss of tax revenue—in 1711, the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut set up the new parish. And two years later, the Fourth Church of Christ in Hartford was up and running. Located in the epicenter of the West Division, the barnlike meetinghouse with the steep roof, situated on the west side of the town’s major north-south artery, would, as one of its longtime ministers later observed, ensure that its residents remain a “united people.”
On a ninety-acre farm bordering that same north-south thoroughfare—later named Main Street—the future lexicographer would spend his entire childhood. The farm, which Noah’s father, Noah Webster, Sr., acquired soon after his marriage to Mercy Steele in 1749, featured sloping fields of corn, wheat, oats and tobacco. A long fence hemmed in the animals—cows, sheep and chickens—as well as the family horse, which the Websters would use to ride into town. Next to the white clap-board house stood the weaving shed where Noah Sr. could often be found when he wasn’t tending the crops.
Noah Webster, Jr., was born on October 16, 1758, in the “best room” of the four-room farmhouse. This sparsely furnished parlor, which doubled as the master bedroom, contained little more than a few straight-backed chairs, a four-poster bed and a writing desk, upon which sat a black Bible. On the other side of the stone chimney, which sliced the pine-walled house in two, was the kitchen with its huge brick oven. The fourth of five children, Noah would share the more rustic of the two upstairs bedrooms with his brothers, Abraham and Charles, born in 1751 and 1762, respectively. His older sisters, Mercy, born in 1749, and Jerusha, born in 1756, were stationed across the hall. The children all slept on straw mattresses, which they would have to tighten from time to time with a large bed key.
Both of Noah’s parents came from pure Yankee stock. The first Webster to come to the New World was John Webster, a native of Warwickshire, England. In 1636, as one of the hundred members of Thomas Hooker’s Puritan congregation, John Webster traveled from Boston to Hartford where he helped found Connecticut. Twenty years later, he was selected as the new colony’s governor. John’s eldest son, Robert, inherited the vast majority of his father’s property and settled in Middletown, where his eldest son, John Webster II, was born. The youngest son of this John Webster was Noah’s grandfather, Daniel Webster, born in the West Division in 1693. A captain in the Connecticut army, Daniel Webster fathered seven children, including Noah’s father, his second son, who was born in 1722. Daniel Webster died in 1765, and as a boy of seven, Noah would attend the funeral, an event he would never forget. Eager to preserve the history of the Websters, in 1836, at the age of seventy-eight, Noah would print a family genealogy, one of the first ever by an American.
Webster’s boyhood home drawn in 1849, a century after the newlyweds Noah Webster, Sr., and Mercy Steele moved in. After Webster left for Yale, three additional rooms were added. He made his last visit there in 1789.
Noah also had a direct tie to the founders of another New England colony. His mother, Mercy Steele, was the great-great-granddaughter of William Bradford, a native of a small village in Yorkshire, who sailed over on the Mayflower in 1620 and became the second governor of Plymouth Colony. Noah, who later also showed a keen interest in early Massachusetts history—in 1790, he would edit the journal of the Bay State’s first governor, John Winthrop—was particularly proud of Bradford, who orchestrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and late in life mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew. (As a writer, Noah would take after Bradford; the governor’s prose, one nineteenth-century historian has noted, was far superior to his “inelegant” verses.) Bradford’s granddaughter Meletiah married Samuel Steele of Hartford, and their seventh son, Eliphalet, born in the West Division in 1700, went on to marry Catharine Marshfield. Noah’s mother, Mercy, born in 1727, was the fourth of this couple’s eleven children. Upon Eliphalet Steele’s death in 1773, Noah’s grandmother Catharine would move into the farmhouse. Possessing a delicate constitution, “Mother Steele,” as she was known in Noah’s family, would lapse into psychosis in the last few years of her life.
Though he did not attend college—which for Connecticut residents of the mid-eighteenth century was synonymous with Yale, then the colony’s only institution of higher learning—Noah Webster, Sr., turned out to be both intellectually curious and a highly respected member of the community. A few years before Noah’s birth, he had helped to establish the West Division’s first Book Society, the precursor to its public library. A longtime deacon at the nearby Fourth Church of Christ, Noah Sr. would read from the King James Bible every evening, stressing to his children the values of hard work, personal responsibility and piety. During the Revolution, he became known as Captain Webster for his service in the town’s militia. After independence from Britain, Noah Sr. would also serve for many years as a justice of the peace in Hartford—then a civic official appointed by the state legislature and charged with making such administrative decisions as whether to send criminals to the stocks.
Mercy Webster, too, possessed a keen mind. She would spend long hours instructing the children in spelling, mathematics and music. From his mother, Noah would pick up a love of the flute, which, along with books, would forever be a source of solace. In the diary that he began keeping in his mid-twenties, he described his delight that “a little hollow tube of wood should dispel in a few moments, or at least alleviate, the heaviest cares of life!” The boy could never find, however, such comfort in other people, as both his mother and father were emotionally distant. But rather than lamenting this lack of nurturing, Noah would end up idealizing both parents as all-knowing authority figures. In turn, he, too, would become wedded to authoritarian principles. “All government,” Webster would later write in an essay on pedagogy, “originates in families, and if neglected there, it will hardly exist in society. . . . The government both of families and schools should be absolute.”
Noah Sr. and Mercy burdened their children with a strong sense of obligation. In a letter addressed simply “Dutiful Son,” written to the twenty-four-year-old Noah, they expressed their expectation that he would “do good in the world and be useful and . . . so behave as to gain the esteem of all virtuous people that are acquainted with you and . . . especially that you may so live as to obtain the favor of Almighty God and his grace in this world.” Self-esteem in the Webster family was derived not from feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, but from adhering to the moral injunctions of others. Noah never developed a sense of his own intrinsic self-worth. Acutely self-critical, he didn’t even like the sound of his own name. As an adult, he would sign his letters “N. Webster” (and forbid his children from naming any male heirs “Noah”). He would forever define himself solely by his achievements. Though the intense desire for fame and recognition would lead to excessive vanity, it would also fuel his literary immortality. Without his trademark grandiosity, Noah Webster, Jr., would never have even thought of attempting such a mammoth project as the American Dictionary.
AT THE AGE OF SIX, Noah began attending the South Middle School, one of the five primary schools built by the West Division’s Ecclesiastical Society that dotted Main Street at the end of the Colonial era. Connecticut was then one of just two colonies—the other was neighboring Massachusetts—with compulsory schooling, and the community put a premium on education. Under the code of laws established by Edward Hopkins, the seventeenth-century governor of Connecticut whose term preceded John Webster’s, every town of fifty householders had to appoint a teacher. Even so, the colony’s schools were in a dilapidated state. The students sat on rows of benches in the often frigid and rickety one-room schoolhouses. Blackboards were rare. Only the teacher had a desk and a chair. Much of the school day was spent in chopping up wood for the stove, around which the children—up to seventy in a classroom—huddled.
Worse still was the caliber of the teachers, whom Webster would later describe as the “dregs” of humanity. Men (“masters”) ran the schools during the six-month winter term, and women (“dames”) conducted classes during the three-month summer term. Regardless of gender, their manners tended to be rough; what’s more, they could be vicious. Webster had learned how to read at home, and he found their instruction both pointless and terrifying. So, too, did Oliver Wolcott, Jr., a native of nearby Litchfield, who would later attend Yale with Webster. In a memoir, Wolcott recalled his first day of school at the age of six: “[My master] . . . a stout man, probably a foreigner . . . tried me in the Alphabet; and . . . I remained silent. . . . He actually struck me, supposing me to be obstinately mute; my sobs nearly broke my heart, and I was ordered to my seat.” While Webster never recalled being whipped, he did later express his annoyance that five of the six hours in the school day had been “spent in idleness, in cutting tables and benches in pieces, in carrying on pin lotteries, or perhaps in some roguish tricks.” Before the American Revolution, teachers had few books on hand besides a couple of religious texts and A New Guide to the English Tongue, a simplified spelling book by the British author Thomas Dilworth. Subjects such as geography, history and literature remained outside the curriculum. Deep frustration with his own early education, which consisted mostly of “the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” would later motivate “America’s pedagogue” to improve the classroom experience for future generations.
Just as Noah was beginning grade school, Hartford, like the rest of New England, was entering a period of economic retrenchment. At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the British had wrested control of Canada from the French. However, the burgeoning empire then faced the huge expense of maintaining a permanent military presence on the other side of the Atlantic. Attempting to force the colonies to foot the bill, King George III passed a series of tax laws such as the notorious Stamp Act of 1765. With levies imposed on various goods from coffee to wine, prices rose and the profits for most businesses, including farms, plummeted. These stark economic conditions darkened New England’s mood. “This was a society,” one historian has observed, “in which nobody played.” For Noah Webster and his ilk, life meant sweat and toil. Fun and frolic were rarely on the agenda.
Noah would frequently hear his father, who had nearly lost his life in 1757 while fighting against the French, rail against British perfidy. The Websters’ hometown paper, The Connecticut Courant, the oldest American paper still in business, was established in 1764 to give voice to these grievances. In the spring of 1766, the various Connecticut chapters of the Sons of Liberty—the protest organization that was then cropping up in all thirteen colonies—met in Hartford. As the Courant reported, “[they] . . . declare their respectful Approbation of . . . the . . . spirited Declarations and Resolves of the honorable House of Representatives of this Colony relative to the unconstitutional nature and destructive tendency of the late American Stamp-Act.” Though Parliament soon repealed this dreaded piece of legislation, the local economy didn’t improve. To fight for a better future, Noah Webster, Sr., would intensify his affiliations with neighbors oppressed by the same tyranny—British rule.
Noah would attend school just a few months a year, as work on the family farm—particularly during autumn harvests—took precedence. But even as a boy spending long hours in the fields, he showed a love of language. Ignoring his farm chores, he would often sit under the trees with his books, thinking about words and their origins. He was curious about exactly what they meant and how they related to one another. However, Noah’s literary pursuits did not please his father, who would occasionally scold him, insisting that he get back to work.
In the summer of 1771, when Noah was twelve, he organized a singing group. After meeting with some success in a few performances, Noah and his friends began to sit together in church on Sunday to practice their craft. But much to his surprise and dismay, those in nearby pews didn’t appreciate their efforts. Feeling humiliated, Noah knew not what to do nor where to turn. While another child might have sought out a parent, not so Noah, as he didn’t have a close relationship with either his mother or father. However, the boy soon stumbled upon the next best thing: he would put his plight into words. This incident was the impetus for Noah’s first publication, an anonymous letter to the editor that ran in The Connecticut Courant on August 21, 1771.
This turn to words was to be a lifelong pattern. Time and time again, emotional distress would compel Noah Webster to pick up his pen. His own words, he found, could both mitigate his anxiety and help him keep his mental equilibrium. To battle what the adult Webster called his “nervous affections,” the socially awkward loner would take on a series of monumental intellectual labors. Through his flood of public communications, including his dictionary, America’s most prolific freelance writer would express parts of himself that might not otherwise surface—his fears and his frustrations as well as his hopes and his dreams.
With no family letters or diaries surviving from his childhood, this compact missive of roughly four hundred words provides a unique window into Noah’s developing mind. Many hallmark features of his adult personality are already in evidence—the arrogance, the obsequiousness and the hypersensitivity to perceived slights. Addressed to “Mr. Printer,” the letter starts off like a legal brief: “After I have stated my case to you truly, I may then hope thro’ your means for a redress of my grievance; the which if I obtain, will oblige several of your young friends as well as myself.” Throughout his sixty-year literary career, Webster would look to his reader as a vital ally, who could both provide the empathy that he had never received at home and help him right what was wrong with the world. To convince the printer of his worthiness as an object of concern, Noah spends the first third of the letter boasting of his accomplishments. The boy touts his “natural good genius” and his “considerable degree of knowledge in the art of music.” He then goes on to list the “advantages . . . flowing from this pleasant art,” which include a “dutiful obedience to our parents” and “good manners.” Finally, in his coda, he highlights the various injustices that have been heaped upon him and his fellow musicians. “But alas! There are but few comparatively,” he concludes, “that openly encourage us. Some only deride us, and others are so silent or passive, as that we are greatly at a loss whether we please or displease the greater part, since the opposition we meet with from the envious and ill-natured cannot have passed unobserved, and yet no means have been used to prevent the growing mischief.” Webster’s complaint of both cold indifference and malevolence in his fellow churchgoers seems a bit far-fetched. Apparently, the boy was avidly seeking praise for his musical efforts and was crestfallen when it was nowhere to be found. Throughout his life, Webster’s mercurial temperament would frequently leave him feeling like an aggrieved outsider. This persistent sense of outrage, which often had its roots merely in the battle going on inside his own head, would spark an equally persistent desire to be heard.
A LITTLE MORE THAN A YEAR LATER, on Wednesday, October 14, 1772, Noah, then just two days shy of fourteen, headed down Main Street with his family to attend a special service at the Fourth Church of Christ. It was a day of fasting and humiliation, then a common occurrence in Puritan New England, particularly on momentous occasions when God’s aid was sought. The twenty-four-year-old Nathan Perkins was to be ordained as the new pastor, just the third in the church’s sixty-year history. The West Division had gone without a full-time minister since the untimely death of the much beloved Nathaniel Hooker, Jr., two and a half years earlier. (The great-great-grandson of Connecticut’s founder and the man who had baptized Noah, Hooker was just thirty-two when he died.) After auditioning sixteen local candidates and engaging in a fierce debate that caused deep divisions among the typically united townsfolk, the Ecclesiastical Society had finally issued an invitation to Perkins, an outsider, who had recently graduated from the College of New Jersey (today Princeton University). While the First Church of Hartford had offered nearly twice as much as the seventy pounds in base pay, Perkins, who came from a family of wealthy landowners, was convinced that the “good farms of West Hartford would be a better security . . . than the trade of Hartford town.”
The short and stocky Perkins had already made a highly favorable impression with his thoughtful sermons, delivered entirely from memory, which he had been preaching as pastor-elect since the first Sabbath of the year. Perkins’ theological views were strongly influenced by Jonathan Edwards, the Connecticut cleric who had ushered in the Great Awakening, a period of religious revival that lasted from 1730 to 1760. Edwards had combined a harsh Calvinism, which emphasized the depravity of human beings, with a belief in the need for deep religious feeling. Called New Lights, Edwards’ followers, such as Perkins, advocated an intense engagement with spiritual concerns through personal Bible study.
On that bright October afternoon, the Fourth Church, which had been rebuilt in 1744 to accommodate the West Division’s growing population, was packed. The service drew not only local congregants but also visitors from towns throughout Hartford County—then the colony’s largest, housing about a quarter of its two hundred thousand inhabitants—and from other neighboring towns as well. According to church custom, on this day the preaching was to be done not by the minister-elect, but by the church elders, the presbytery. The most influential clergymen from across Connecticut coordinated the service. Nearly all had close ties to Yale. Farmington’s Reverend Timothy Pitkin, whose late father-in-law, Thomas Clap, had been Yale’s first president, said the prayer before the sermon, which was given by the Reverend Andrew Lee, a recent Yale graduate from Perkins’ hometown of Norwich. Lee read from the first book of Corinthians, “For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God.” The distinguished Reverend Elnathan Whitman, pastor of the Second Church of Hartford—the eldest of the elders, he was losing his hearing and spoke in a booming voice—delivered the charge, in which he highlighted the accountability of pastors both to God and to their parishioners. The Reverend Joseph Perry of Windsor concluded the service by giving the right hand of fellowship, officially welcoming Reverend Perkins into the fold. Summing up the day’s events, The Connecticut Courant would report the following week, “The whole was conducted with decency and propriety.” But few were more impressed by both the orderliness of the proceedings and the eloquence of the speakers than the impressionable adolescent Noah Webster.
As the crowd exited the church, its excitement was palpable. The new minister was partly responsible for this buoyant mood, but so, too, was the prospect of feasting, which was to follow the day of fasting. As the Websters dispersed to one of the celebratory meals prepared by the dozen householders whom the West Division’s Ecclesiastical Society had appointed to keep “publick houses,” Noah’s mind wasn’t focused on the sumptuous food he was to eat. The adolescent remained awe-struck by the spectacle that he had just witnessed. This gathering of so many learned men in one place had inspired him. Though he wasn’t sure he wanted to go into the ministry, these were the men whose ranks he wished to join. He suddenly began to envision a different sort of future for himself. Noah no longer saw himself spending the rest of his life engaged in manual labor on a farm, like his father or older brother, Abraham. Noah now wanted to follow in the footsteps of his mother’s younger brother, Eliphalet, whom the late Nathaniel Hooker had fitted for Yale. Noah’s uncle, who would be saddled with a nervous condition throughout his life, later became known for his bluntness and eccentricity—he would marry a woman he had never met. At the time, Eliphalet Steele was serving as a pastor in Egremont, Massachusetts (where, as Webster grew into adulthood, he would periodically visit him).
Shortly after Perkins’ ordination, Noah approached his father, expressing a desire to study with the new pastor so that he could also attend Yale. Initially, Noah Webster, Sr., opposed his son’s request for “more learning.” Though Noah’s father, too, revered education, he had one major reservation: the cost. College was not cheap. Tuition, room and board for a year at Yale in the 1770s—about twenty-five pounds—was more than half the annual salary of a skilled worker. But Noah Sr. soon gave in. With land suddenly at a premium in Connecticut, he realized that not all of his sons could go into farming. Additionally, Noah Sr. figured that in an emergency, he could mortgage the family farm (a measure that he would eventually take to pay for his son’s education).
That autumn, Noah began meeting regularly with Nathan Perkins at either his house or the pastor’s capacious quarters, also located on Main Street, which had originally been built for Reverend Hooker back in 1758. (Like Noah Webster’s birthplace, this residence still stands; it is now the parish house of St. James’s Episcopal Church.) To prepare Webster for Yale, Perkins would steep the adolescent in Latin and Greek, as Yale’s rules then specified that “no person may expect to be admitted into this College, unless . . . he shall be found able . . . to read accurately . . . Tully [Cicero], Virgil and the Greek Testament and shall be able to write true Latin in prose.” For this task, Perkins was eminently qualified. At the College of New Jersey, on account of his remarkable facility in translating those two canonical Latin authors, he had been selected as the class salutatorian, the top-ranking senior charged with giving a Latin oration at graduation.
While a breakdown would prevent Perkins from delivering that speech—in the spring of his senior year, he was so frail that he had to rely on his classmates for assistance whenever he left his residence—his undergraduate career had been distinguished. In 1770, after an experience of religious ecstasy revived him, Perkins established the Cliosophic Society, a forerunner to today’s Whig-Cliosophic Society, America’s oldest college literary and debating club.
Though no longer unstable by the time he reached Hartford, Perkins possessed some odd quirks. Right after his ordination, he began keeping “a bill of mortality”—detailed records about the cause of death of every parishioner. He also held a rigid, doctrinal mind-set, which would lead him into tirades about “loose morals.” Moreover, as one contemporary observed, Perkins “had little of the imaginative and rarely indulged in sal-lies of wit.” And on those few occasions when he attempted humor, Perkins could be sarcastic. At the time of his ordination, the West Division pastor still received some of his salary in wood. When one parishioner asked Perkins to comment on his contribution, which consisted mostly of crooked scraps from the tops of trees, the pastor, annoyed by his stinginess, shot back, “That is a remarkable fine pair of steers you have on the lead, Colonel.”
But Noah wasn’t bothered by Perkins’ lack of charm. The adolescent was thrilled to have found a father figure who could provide a steady supply of intellectual nourishment. Catholic in his interests, Perkins could discourse on almost any topic. Tutor and student would form a bond that would last a lifetime. As an adult, Webster would continue to rely on Perkins for advice. Commenting on his mentor’s death in a letter to The Hartford Observer in 1838, Webster praised his special gifts as a classical scholar, adding, “To his instruction and example . . . I am . . . indebted for my taste for the study of languages.” Webster became the first of more than a hundred students Perkins would prepare for Yale during the sixty-six years that he served as the West Division pastor—still one of the longest tenures of any minister in American history.
IN SEPTEMBER 1774, the not quite sixteen-year-old Webster, accompanied by his father, was excited to be making the forty-mile trek from Hartford to Yale, which would soon have a huge impact on his emerging identity. New Haven was then a budding commercial center with some 8,022 white residents plus another 273 blacks and Indians, according to a survey by the state legislature, which that fall both incorporated the town and named its streets. First laid out in 1638, New Haven consisted of a grid of nine squares; at the center was the sixteen-acre public square called the Green. Just above the Green—on the other side of College Street—was the square that contained the Yale campus. New Haven made quite an impression upon most visitors. Passing through a month earlier en route to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams called it “very pleasant.” A lover of symmetry, Webster would go even further in his praise, later describing New Haven as “beautiful” because, along with Philadelphia, it was one of “the regularly built towns in America.” This would be the first of many trips that father and son would take between what were then Connecticut’s co-capitals. When traveling together, one would ride on the family horse, the other would walk. With the hardy Noah Webster, Sr., often feeling that he was more fit to go on foot, the incoming freshman may well have been the one who parked the horse at the Yale president’s mansion, located on the edge of campus across from the surrounding farms.
Callow farmboy goes off to college to get educated: Noah Webster’s coming-of-age journey was then the stuff of popular literature. Like Webster, “Tom Brainless,” the adolescent protagonist of the satiric poem “The Progress of Dulness,” written in 1772 by John Trumbull (at the time a Yale tutor), also exchanges grueling farmwork for books:
The point’s agreed; the boy well pleased,
From country care and labor eased;
No more to rise by break of day
To drive home cows or deal out hay;
To work no more in snow or hail
And blow his fingers o’er the flail
Or mid the toils of harvest sweat
Beneath the summer’s sultry heat
Serene, he bids the farm, good-bye,
And quits the farm without a sigh.
In his spoof of Yale, Trumbull, who would also serve as Yale’s treasurer during Webster’s undergraduate career, made fun of the college’s bland curriculum, which had traditionally pivoted around biblical studies. Founded in 1701 for the “upholding and propagating of the Christian Protestant religion,” Yale—called the Collegiate School until 1718—was originally designed to train its students for positions in local Congregational churches. Partly as a result of Trumbull’s spate of satirical poems and essays in the early 1770s, the college was more lively by the beginning of Webster’s freshman year. Believing that Yale students were “condemn’d each day to study, read, recite and pray,” Trumbull had insisted on reducing the emphasis on Latin and Greek and adding English literature and composition to the mix. Trumbull’s reform efforts quickly made their mark. Of the forty students in Webster’s class of 1778, only four would go into the ministry, as law suddenly emerged as the profession of choice. When editing a literary magazine a decade later, Webster would pay homage to Trumbull by reprinting several of his poems, including this mock-epic that recounted the “rare adventures” of the Yale country bumpkin.
Though New Haven was up and coming—in 1763, a new state house had been added to the Green, which already featured two churches—Yale was in the sorriest state of any of the nine colleges then sprinkled across the thirteen colonies. The students referred to its treeless campus as a “Brick Prison” because it featured just three run-down buildings. The Old College, constructed back in 1717 when Yale first moved to New Haven from Old Saybrook, once aspired to grandeur, but this sky-blue, three-story structure, crowned by a cupola, was teetering. (In 1782, it would be demolished; Bingham Hall now occupies this site). The main dormitory was the nearby New College—later renamed Connecticut Hall, this Yale landmark, dating back to 1750, still stands—but it offered few amenities. During the winter, Webster and his fellow Yale men would have to spend their Saturday afternoons chopping wood to keep their dorm rooms warm. Just to the south stood the small chapel—the first on an American college campus—dwarfed by its 125-foot-high steeple, an addition contributed by the citizens of New Haven. This 50-by-40-foot building, where undergraduates congregated every day at sunrise for morning prayers, also housed the library, a collection of three thousand books, which undergraduates could rent for sixpence per folio volume—a fee steep enough to stave off much use.
The poet John Trumbull (1750-1831) was six years older than his cousin of the same name, the celebrated painter, who completed this portrait in 1793. In 1773, the precocious Yale tutor—he had graduated from the college at seventeen—moved to Boston, where he spent a year working in the law office of John Adams. John Trumbull returned to New Haven during Webster’s freshman year.
And pre-Revolutionary War Yale wasn’t exactly a hotbed of the En-lightenment. Less intellectually demanding than its British or Scottish counterparts such as the universities at Oxford or Edinburgh, the college resembled a modern-day preparatory school. The emphasis was on giving students a grounding in the classical languages (called “tongues”) rather than on exhorting them to engage in probing scholarship. Freshman year focused on schoolboy Latin (Virgil’s Aeneid and Cicero’s Orations ) and Greek (The New Testament). Sophomore and junior year consisted of more classical literature along with a smattering of geography, algebra, logic and natural philosophy. The seniors, in contrast, took courses in metaphysics and ethics, taught by the president, in which they read such cornerstones of Western philosophy as John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For Webster, completing the requirements for his Yale degree would signify not that he was a learned man, but that he had acquired the necessary tools to become one.
Yale in Webster’s day was hierarchical. The man at the left wearing a black robe and a cocked hat is a professor, while the hatless figures dressed in plain clothes are freshmen.
Yale students grumbled about the food, which they washed down with cider served in pewter cans, since the administration felt they could not be trusted with glass. For the midday dinner, the commons fare typically started with “Injun pudding”—cornmeal and broth—followed by a few scraps of beef or chicken on a bone along with a couple of potatoes and some cabbage. Transforming the discarded bones into hair-raising projectiles, Webster and his classmates had their share of food fights—both with one another and with the faculty, who ate on a raised platform so that they could watch their charges’ every move. Served at five, supper was a lighter but less objectionable meal—often just brown bread and milk. Students could find some supplemental nourishment at the buttery, located in a corner room on the ground floor of the New College. Manned by a butler, a recent college graduate, it sold primarily fruit and baked goods. And to discourage students from bringing hard liquor into their rooms, this cozy gathering place also carried beer and cider.
But to curb unruly behavior, the faculty relied much less on carrots than on sticks. Traditionally, the punishment of degradation, which reduced the student’s class ranking, had been a favored tool. However, a decade before Webster’s arrival, the administration began organizing the class lists, which determined seating and various perks, alphabetically rather than by social position. After ending this aristocratic arrangement, which had given the sons of governors and ministers preferential treatment, the faculty began levying fines for standard college pranks. While etching one’s name on the shingles on top of the New College could exact a toll between fourpence and one shilling and sixpence, excessive drinking of spiced wine could cost from two to five shillings. Likewise, the “crime” of traveling to New Haven on the Sabbath could leave a student out twenty pence. And on occasion, physical punishment was still used to keep order. For example, a few years before Webster’s arrival, Yale’s instructors decided that the freshman who “was catched in the act of ringing the bell atop the Old College at 9pm shall have his ears boxed by the president.” Freshmen, whom upperclassmen treated as errand boys, also had to worry about excessive discipline from seniors, assigned the task of teaching them the “laws, usages and customs of the college.”
Though Webster came from a family with a prestigious pedigree, he was a notch behind most of his school chums socially. And he initially felt some embarrassment about his father’s relative lack of sophistication and wealth. In contrast to Webster, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., the Litchfield native who would later replace Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury, didn’t have to worry about paying his tuition each semester. Just as the fourteen-year-old Wolcott arrived in New Haven, his father, Oliver Wolcott, Sr., himself a Yale graduate, headed off to the Continental Congress as a Connecticut delegate. Of Wolcott Jr., who, like both his father and grandfather, would do a stint as the state’s governor, Webster would later write, “He was in college a good scholar, though not brilliant. He possessed the firmness and strong reasoning powers of the Wolcott family, but with some eccentricities in reasoning.” Other prominent members of the class of 1778 included Josiah Meigs, son of Return Meigs, Sr., a major in the Continental army, who became a professor of natural philosophy at Yale and president of the University of Georgia; Zephaniah Swift, a future chief justice of Connecticut; Uriah Tracy, who would serve as a Connecticut senator; and Abraham Bishop, later one of New Haven’s richest men.
For the first time, Webster had companions with whom he could share his thoughts and experiences. Webster’s best friend at Yale was Joel Barlow, whose deprived childhood had also resulted in a burning literary ambition. As Barlow wrote of his harsh early life on a farm in nearby Redding:
From morn to noon from noon to night
I dayly drove the plow
And fodder’d like an honest wight
Sheep, oxen, horse and cow.
The unexpected death of his father in late adolescence left Barlow with an inheritance of a hundred pounds, just enough money to attend Yale. Four years older than Webster, the dashing Barlow took his fellow farmboy under his wing. Following Barlow’s lead, Webster would gain entry to a lively social circle in New Haven, which would include alluring representatives of the fairer sex. In contrast to Webster, Barlow had a keen sense of humor. During his stretch in the Continental army after Yale, in which he served along with the author of “The Progress of Dulness,” Barlow would quip, “Trumbull grows red and fat, and I black and handsome.”
Webster and Barlow were among the thirty-three members of the class of 1778 who joined the Brothers in Unity, a literary society. Its free-lending library had 163 books, which, as its leaders boasted, was a dozen more than could be found in the confines of its older rival, the Linonian Society. A center for debate and intellectual exchange, the Brothers in Unity, founded in 1768, also spiced up campus life every spring with dramatic performances, which had long been considered the devil’s work in Puritan New England. (In fact, until the late 1760s, Yale students were fined three shillings for taking part in a play and one shilling for just attending.) Despite concerns from one Yale faculty member that dramas were “calculated only to warm the imagination,” the upstart Brothers in Unity—a forerunner to Yale’s present-day secret society, Skull and Bones—staged them in the chapel. During Webster’s junior year, the group mounted the comedy The West Indian by Richard Cumberland. Webster’s commonplace book—the notebook he began keeping at Yale, which features his favorite passages from literary works—includes dialogue from this play, and Webster presumably took part in this production. While showing occasional interest in the dramatic arts, Webster never strayed too far from the antitheater bias that reigned supreme in pre-Revolutionary New England. In 1823, he wrote, “Very few plays are, however, free from sentiments which are offensive to moral purity.” And tragicomedy and opera he liked even less, labeling them “the inferior species of drama” in his 1828 dictionary.
When Webster matriculated, Yale housed one hundred students. Over the next few years, enrollment would expand by more than thirty percent, as students flocked to colleges to avoid the draft, just as they would during the Vietnam War almost two centuries later. In the mid-1770s, the entire faculty consisted of the president, Naphtali Daggett, who doubled as a professor of divinity; Nathan Strong, a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy; and four tutors, one for each class. Appointed as president pro tempore back in 1766, the overweight and clumsy Daggett, nicknamed “Old Tunker” by the students whom he failed to inspire, wasn’t supposed to have remained on the job as long as he did. Daggett’s distinguishing characteristic, which he shared with many clergymen of his day, was a biting sense of humor. When addressed by his official title, Daggett, who, like the rest of the faculty, walked around campus in a black robe, white wig and high-cocked hat, would retort, “But did you ever hear of a President pro aeternitate [for eternity]?” Among the tutors were Timothy Dwight, an accomplished poet and scholar, who would guide the class of 1777, and Joseph Buckminster, a renowned classicist, who, as the most recent Yale grad on the faculty, was assigned Webster’s freshman class. Dwight and Buckminster, who would readily lapse into Latin quotation, would each have an immense influence on the intellectual development of the West Division farmboy.
Unfortunately, like Webster’s hometown instructor, Nathan Perkins, both Dwight and Buckminster were tormented scholars who would wage intense internal battles for their own sanity. For the generation that had never learned how to play as boys and would come of age during the late eighteenth century, such emotional crises seemed to be a standard rite of passage. While Dwight had recovered from a nearly fatal attack of anorexia by the time Webster got to know him, Buckminster descended into despair right before his eyes. His tutor’s bout with incapacitating depression would leave Webster shaken in his senior year. While Yale’s professors would dazzle Webster with their intellectual prowess, they were too self-absorbed to provide much personal guidance. Upon graduation, when Webster became anxious about his own uncertain future, he would have no one to whom he could turn; and he, too, would veer toward a breakdown.
Webster and Barlow both learned versification from the precocious Timothy Dwight, a scion of one of New England’s most illustrious families—Thomas Hooker was his great-great-grandfather and the pastor Jonathan Edwards his grandfather—who had taught himself Latin at the age of six and had graduated from Yale at seventeen in 1769. Appointed a tutor in 1771, Dwight considered employment the best antidote to melancholy, and he prided himself on studying fourteen hours a day and sleeping only four hours each night. A couple of years later, he suddenly became concerned that too much food was dulling his mind. He began to reduce his intake to twelve mouthfuls at each meal; after six months of this experiment, he upped the ante, cutting out all meat and eating only vegetables—primarily, potatoes. By the summer of 1774, Dwight was down to ninety-five pounds, and his father whisked him home to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he was expected to die. But under doctor’s orders to avoid all study and to drink a bottle of Madeira per day, Dwight slowly regained his health over the next few months.
After his return to New Haven, Dwight would complete his epic, “The Conquest of Canaan,” a biblical allegory in eleven books that recounted how Connecticut freed itself from British rule. In response, the eighteen-year-old Webster—who, like Barlow, then thought of himself as a poet destined for literary immortality—wrote “To the Author of the Conquest of Canaan,” one of the few surviving examples of his youthful verses. Webster was often obsequious toward authority figures, but was particularly deferential to the instructor, who maintained a lifelong love affair with power, later earning sobriquets such as “the Pope” and “his Loftiness.” Comparing Dwight to the giants Homer, Virgil and Milton, Webster harped on his teacher’s likely impact on succeeding generations:
. . . o’er the land these glorious arts shall reign
And blest Yalensia lead the splendid train.
In future years unnumber’d Bards shall rise
Catch the bold flame and tower above the skies:
Their brightening splendor gild the epic page
And unborn Dwights adorn th’ Augustan age.
Webster would eventually realize that Dwight’s epic was too bombastic to have much of a shelf-life. A decade later, when sending a copy to George Washington, to whom Dwight had dedicated the poem, Webster alluded to the “faults . . . found in this performance.”
Dwight’s valedictory address, given to Yale’s senior class in a private graduation ceremony on July 25, 1776, moved Webster deeply. Though America was officially only three weeks old, Dwight was convinced that “the greatest empire the hand of time ever raised up to view” already had a distinct identity. After describing the vast richness of the North American continent—its abundant forests, fields and mountains—Dwight homed in on the remarkable unity among Americans: “I proceed then to observe that this continent is inhabited by a people, who have the same religion, the same manners, the same interests, the same language and the same essential forms and principles of civil government. This is an event, which, since the building of Babel, ’till the present time, the sun never saw.” From Dwight, Webster first began to appreciate how a shared culture could help Americans overcome their ethnic divisions and cement their national ties. Webster would dedicate his life to meeting Dwight’s injunction to Yale men at the end of his address to “inform yourselves with every species of useful knowledge. Remember that you are to act for the empire of America, and for a long succession of ages.” Later, when he became an author and editor, Webster would republish time and time again Dwight’s 1776 speech; excerpts appeared both in the first issue of his literary magazine in 1788 and in the 1835 version of his reader for schoolchildren.
Ever since first meeting Dwight during their freshman year, Webster, Barlow and the rest of the class of 1778 were all convinced that he would evolve into an American hero. So enamored were they of Dwight that in September 1777, they petitioned the administration to have him replace Buckminster as their tutor for their final year. The plan fell through, and the next month, the Continental Congress came calling, appointing Dwight chaplain for the Connecticut brigade headed by General Samuel Parsons. In 1795, Dwight would return to Yale as president.
Another reason that Webster’s class preferred Dwight over Buckminster is that their tutor’s soul was slowly coming undone. Buckminster’s distress was partly rooted in a constitutional depression, which would plague him for the rest of his life. He was also racked by a deep sense of his own sinfulness. During his stint as a Yale tutor, Buckminster would traipse around New England, giving dozens of fast-day sermons, in which he gave voice to his obsession with his own personal failings. “Sin is an abominable thing,” the pastor intoned, “which God’s soul hates and it is no less offensive in his children than in others. Was there no such thing as sin in the world, suffering would be a stranger.” Buckminster’s spiritual affliction was also partly related to matters of the flesh. In early 1778, he became engaged to the beautiful Elizabeth Whitman, the daughter of Elnathan Whitman, the Hartford pastor who had preached at Perkins’ ordination—a romance which he sealed with a ring of amethyst set in diamonds. However, Elizabeth, an aspiring poet, was tiring of her suitor’s depression and hypochondria and ended the courtship. She soon changed her mind, but Buckminster, having assumed a position as a pastor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that spring, would not have her back. In the year after his Yale graduation, Webster would continue to socialize with Whitman, by then smitten with Joel Barlow who, as she noted, put her “in mind of Buckminster.”
During the breakdown at the end of his Yale career, Buckminster, who didn’t fully appreciate the impact of his instability on others, leaned on his students for emotional support—and they felt that they had no choice but to provide it. A few months after his move, the pastor wrote to Webster, his pet: “The long acquaintance I have had with your class, the many favors I have received from them, the particular tenderness and respect with which most of them have treated me, joined to the peculiar share of genius and merit with which as a class, they were distinguished, have begotten and cherished such feelings in me as time can never totally remove and as I shall never feel for any other members of society.”
Buckminster’s assessment of his students’ intellectual prowess would be echoed by historians, who would call Webster’s class Yale’s most distinguished until the Civil War. And of the class of 1778, Webster would be the most celebrated. In 1823, he received an honorary doctorate of laws from his alma mater, which, a century later, placed his statue atop Harkness Tower along with seven other “Yale worthies,” such as its founder, Elihu Yale, and the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.
AMERICA’S STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE would shape every aspect of Webster’s Yale career. With cataclysmic national events swirling around them, Webster and his classmates lived in a constant state of high anxiety. As Joel Barlow wrote to his mother their freshman year, “The students are sensibly affected by the unhappy situation of public affairs, which is a great hindrance to their studies.” In the fall of 1774, just as Webster was acclimating himself to New Haven, the First Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia. Before adjourning at the end of October, the delegates had imposed a boycott on the importation of all British goods, which was slated to go into effect by December 1. That winter, Yale’s student body, composed mostly of Patriots, did its part, ceasing its consumption of British tea.
By early 1775, the drums of war could already be heard in New Haven. In February, the undergraduates formed their own militia that began practicing and marching on the Green; so, too, did the Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard, a sixty-man unit of New Havenites headed by Captain Benedict Arnold, then a local pharmacist and merchant. In March, a Yale senior reported to Nathan Hale, the 1773 Yale graduate who would be executed as America’s first spy the following year, that “the Military Art just begins to dawn in the generous breasts of the Sons of Yale. . . . College Yard constantly sounds with poise your firelock, cock your firelock, etc.”
The war’s first skirmish in April caused a near frenzy among Yale students. Though the “shot heard round the world” by the farmers on Concord’s North Bridge took two days to reach New Haven, its impact was dramatic. On Friday, April 21, sophomore Ebenezer Fitch, later the first president of Williams College, wrote in his diary, “Today tidings of the battle of Lexington . . . filled the country with alarm and rendered it impossible for us to pursue our studies.” That same afternoon, a handful of Yale upperclassmen joined the graying, thirty-four-year-old Benedict Arnold as he raided New Haven’s powderhouse to seize the British ammunition held there. Arnold’s cadets then dashed off to Boston to “assist their bleeding countrymen,” as the New York Journal reported. The following day—two weeks before spring break was supposed to begin—classes were halted. Students didn’t return to New Haven until the end of May. This was to be the first of many war-induced interruptions in Webster’s Yale education.
The backdrop of war wreaked havoc upon Webster’s psyche. Whatever tendency he had toward melancholy was greatly exacerbated. With the British ensconced in nearby New York City after the Battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776, the threat of a direct attack loomed large. In fact, a year after Webster’s graduation, some three thousand British forces did descend on New Haven, burning and destroying property and mortally wounding “Old Tunker.” Feelings of dread, coupled with thoughts of death and dying, would be frequent companions for Webster and his college chums. Elijah Backus, a member of the class of 1777, wrote the year of his graduation:
I’m swiftly wafted down the Tide of Life:
And soon shall enter on the endless scenes
Of the huge Ocean of Eternity
Where never ceasing rolls the vast Abyss.
To manage his dark moods and anxiety, Webster would disconnect from his innermost thoughts—a coping strategy he had begun in childhood and would use for the rest of his life. This man of words never cared much for introspection. Webster would always prefer doing—whether it be rushing off to war or compiling a massive reference work—to feeling.
THURSDAY, JUNE 29, 1775, was a radiant morning in New Haven, and Webster, finishing up his freshman year, was up at the crack of dawn in his room at the New College. At the time, Yale was also in session during the humid New Haven summers. Webster’s morning routine had him waking up at 5:30 a.m., then heading over to the chapel for an hour and a half of prayers and recitations. And afterward, when the butler rang the chapel bell as he did before every meal, Webster would sit down for his usual breakfast of beer and bread. But today would be different. A special guest was in town, and Webster had to rush off to another kind of early morning engagement, one which required that he don his long coat, knee breeches and cocked hat. Grabbing both his flute and flint-lock musket, Webster marched down College Street toward the Beers Tavern on Chapel Street, just a few hundred yards away.
Isaac Beers’ elegant hostelry, located in a wing of his spacious home, was a center of New Haven’s cultural life. A bibliophile, Beers ran the largest imported-book shop in North America on the College Street side of the ground floor, where students would congregate and talk about ideas. He also kept a general store, selling everything from pewter to balloon hats. Ever the conversationalist, Beers would personally entertain his distinguished out-of-town guests such as John Adams and other delegates to the Continental Congress. His current guest of honor was George Washington, who just ten days earlier had been appointed general and commander-in-chief of the Continental army. On June 23, Washington had left Philadelphia accompanied by his chief aides, Major General Charles Lee and Major Thomas Mifflin; on the evening of the twenty-eighth, they had all reached Beers’ inn. On the following morning, Washington and his entourage would be setting out for Cambridge, where they were to be stationed. But before leaving town, Washington and Lee had a promise to keep. As soldiers-in-residence at Yale, they had agreed to inspect the college’s troops.
Arriving in front of the Beers Tavern, Webster fell in line with his schoolmates. Soon, with Webster playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his flute, the entire Yale militia—a contingent of nearly a hundred students, forty of whom would later serve in the war—began marching in unison. Smiling, Washington looked over at the students and expressed his approval at the precision with which they carried out these military exercises.
And then up College Street came two other military units. One was a company of Minutemen and the other was the illustrious Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard, led by Lieutenant Hezekiah Sabin, Jr., just back from Boston where he had been serving under Captain Benedict Arnold. Widely considered the best-equipped soldiers in the whole Continental army, the Second Company was also the best dressed. Despite the heat, Sabin and his men wore their complete uniforms, consisting of white breeches and vests along with scarlet coats, topped off with collars of buff. And on their heads sat fur headdresses.
But these three groups of soldiers weren’t the only ones to escort Washington and Lee out of town. Suddenly, a throng of local residents eager to express their support for the war effort started trailing them, too. As New Haven’s weekly paper, The Connecticut Journal, later described this procession, Washington “set out for the provincial camp near Boston attended by great numbers of inhabitants of the town. . . . by two companies dress’d in their uniforms and by a company of young gentlemen belonging to the seminary of this place, who made a very handsome appearance.”
For the rest of his life, Webster would remain immensely proud of his presence at the Beers Tavern that fateful day, which forever linked him with America’s resolve to take up arms against British tyranny. Sixty-five years later, in a July Fourth oration before a Sunday school class in New Haven, he spoke of that June morning in 1775 when “a company of students of Yale College” escorted Washington out of New Haven to the nearby Neck Bridge. Webster concluded this account, which fails to mention that the Yale militia was just one part of the cavalcade, with the line, “It fell to my humble lot to lead this company with music.” But in fact, Webster never was at the head of the pack. The motivation for this embellishment remains unclear. While Webster’s first biographer attributed it to “a pardonable little vanity,” his granddaughter Emily Ford countered that Webster “inserted his own ‘humble’ share in the scene to make it more real to his auditors.”
IT WAS FRIDAY, MAY 3, 1776, and it was sophomore Noah Webster’s turn to step up to the podium. Public speaking then formed a key part of a Yale education, and the chapel galleries contained three raised platforms precisely because its undergraduates were expected to engage in frequent disputing and declaiming. While disputations (debates between students) could be done in either Latin or English, declamations (short speeches) could be given in either of those languages or in Greek or Hebrew (no modern languages were yet taught). Every Tuesday and Friday, eight students were chosen to address declamations to the faculty, and Webster’s number had come up.
Webster’s Latin speech, which he delivered from memory, focused on the relationship between youth and old age. Looking over at Buckminster, Webster began in his high-pitched voice: “We have all the arguments that it is necessary to use in proving that a well spent youth prepares for a happy old age. Young men of tender years who are averse to serious matters and those which pertain to the mind as if they were beyond all law are borne headlong to the enjoyment of passions and the gratification of earthly desires.” Webster was arguing that a youth devoted to rigorous intellectual labors rather than sensual experience would pave the way for a peaceful adult life. He also made the case for the corollary, contending that the pursuit of pleasure in adolescence could later lead to regret and unhappiness. “But what foolishness, what madness it is,” he declared, “to purchase youthful pleasure with the sorrow of Old Age!”
Though Buckminster and the other tutors were typically bowled over by Webster’s ingenious compositions, not so on this occasion. His attempt to impress the faculty with his eloquence had come up short. Buckminster would later characterize his star pupil’s effort that day as “second-rank.”
Webster’s remarks were uninspired because he himself didn’t truly believe them. Unbeknownst to Buckminster, Webster had not been speaking from the heart. Over the past two years, a funny thing had happened to the Congregationalist farmboy; he had discovered the joy of letting go of his inhibitions.
Under the influence of the suave Barlow, Webster had been circulating with the fast crowd that chased women, drank and swore. And on account of this free-spirited behavior, he was the envy of his classmates. As the shy Zephaniah Swift, who was a year younger, noted in a letter written early in their junior year: “it appears that to be solely a man of Letters or a man of the world is not sufficient, for one pleases the learned, and the other the unlearned. . . . Your opportunities and the time you spend with the Ladies will enable you to reach both, but as for myself I fear I shall reach neither.” Few documents remain from Webster’s college years, so it’s hard to determine exactly what pleasures he indulged in at Yale. However, at the age of fifty, in a piece published in a religious periodical, Webster would make some general allusions to these youthful indiscretions: “Being educated in a religious family under pious parents, I had in early life some religious impressions, but being too young to understand fully the doctrines of the Christian religion and falling into vicious company at college, I lost those impressions and contracted a habit of using profane language.”
The split between Webster’s morally upright public self and his pleasure-seeking private self would continue until his marriage in 1789. For the next decade, as he would acknowledge in the diary that he began keeping in 1784, he would divide his “time between the Ladies and books.” But Webster would also at times feel ashamed of his keen interest in attractive young women. In a letter to Buckminster in 1779, he described his resolution to make himself “master of every evil passion and propensity.”
Once married, Webster would stay faithful to his wife, but his youthful adventures would continue to haunt him. A year after his wedding, when endowing a Yale prize to the author of the best English composition, as judged by the faculty, he specifically excluded any person with a “well founded reputation of having been guilty of seduction.” By thus sanctioning Yale essay writers of the future, Webster may well have been trying to atone for what he perceived to be his own wayward past. Likewise, thirty years later, Webster planned to compile an anthology of expurgated English poetry. Though he would abandon this project, he continued to feel that many canonical writers were too smutty. “It is mortifying,” he wrote in 1823, “that [the seventeenth-century poet John] Dryden . . . should . . . regale the libidinous with his translations of Theocritus and Lucretius which I read when at college and which are vade mecums for a brothel.” Just as Webster the sophomore had warned, Webster the old man would be tinged with sorrow about his adolescent flirtations with pleasure.
IN AUGUST 1776, Yale suddenly dismissed its students because a typhoid epidemic had swept over New Haven. And a few weeks after taking another trip back home with his father and the family horse, Webster found himself traveling once again. This time, there were two Websters and two horses, and Noah’s companion was not his father but his older brother, Abraham, then nearly twenty-five. Abraham had to return to his army company, stationed in Skenesborough (today Whitehall), a small town on the eastern edge of New York State near the Vermont border. Noah needed to trail along so that he could bring his brother’s horse back to the West Division. For the first time, the seventeen-year-old Noah would observe war from close range.
His brother’s harsh existence represented the road Noah had not taken. Without a Yale degree, Abraham had no choice but to become a farmer. In 1774, Abraham moved into his own house in the West Division, but with the price of land shooting up, Noah Sr. could manage to provide his eldest son with only half an acre. The following year, Abraham married Rachel Merrill. But in January 1776, tragedy struck. On the nineteenth, Rachel died in childbirth; a week later, their son, also named Abraham, was dead as well. In early February, the despondent Abraham attempted to bury his grief in a noble cause, signing up with Captain John Stevens’ company in the Continental army, a decision that would soon bring on further hardship. For the rest of his life, Abraham, who would eventually settle on a farm in New York State, would struggle with loss, poverty and despair.
When Noah first saw his brother that summer, Abraham had just escaped a close brush with death. He had spent the spring in Quebec, where he had joined Benedict Arnold’s forces. Initially, Abraham met with few difficulties. As he wrote Noah back on April 14, “I am through Goodness of God in good health, and tolerably contented with a soldier’s life.” Abraham was at first more anxious about the welfare of his family back home than about himself. Fiercely religious, he managed to keep calm by attending local church services, even though in Connecticut he had never been exposed to Catholicism. But in May, Abraham was captured by the enemy and thrown into a prison on the outskirts of Montreal. Paradoxically, he would then be saved by an illness that almost killed him. Concerned about the spread of the smallpox that Abraham had contracted, the British were forced to release him. Yet for a while, Abraham still feared for his life. As Noah later recalled, “It seemed to him his flesh would leave his bones.” But after finding refuge in the cabin of a French woman who could offer him nothing but milk, Abraham somehow summoned up the strength to make it back to the West Division.
Now that he had regained his health, Abraham was ready to go back into battle.
From Hartford, the brothers rode to Bennington, Vermont, and then crossed over into forest land in New York State. Over the last twelve miles of their journey to Skenesborough—the New York town between Lake George and Lake Champlain—the Websters had to rely on marked trees as their guide.
After depositing Abraham with his unit, Webster faced a new round of travails. He needed to find a place to lay his head. Fortunately, he ran into Ashbel Wells, a classmate from his West Division schooldays, then serving in the army. He slept one night in Wells’ tent. But Webster could hardly rest easy, as Wells had to fill the tent with smoke to fight off swarms of mosquitoes. The next night, Webster spent on a boat in South Bay, an inlet on the western shore of Lake Champlain. Webster then headed off to Mount Independence, where the army had built a fort. But he soon noticed that about half of the soldiers were suffering from dysentery. Terrified about having to breathe infected air, Webster made his way back to the Vermont forest, which was lined with tall pines and hemlocks. He hunkered down the following night on the floor of a farmhouse owned by a hospitable young stranger.
The next morning, Webster was greatly relieved to reach Wallingford, a Vermont town which had been settled just three years earlier by a former Connecticut pastor, Abraham Jackson, Sr. There Webster stayed with his aunt Jerusha—Mercy Steele’s youngest sister—and her husband Abraham Jackson, Jr., the son of the venerable Deacon Jackson. The floor of the Jacksons’ log cabin was nothing but bare earth sprinkled with a few sticks, and the walls were mud-plastered. The crude windows were placed high up so as to prevent wolves, bears or any other wild animals from jumping inside. But when compared with his previous Vermont rest stops, Webster’s new quarters were sumptuous. “Here I was very comfortable,” he would later write.
Though Jerusha Jackson was then busy raising several young children and in poor health, she accompanied Webster all the way back to Hartford, riding one of the horses herself. She would die of consumption not long afterward.
IF YALE WAS IN A STATE of disarray when Webster first set foot in New Haven, it was literally crumbling when he came back to start his junior year. By the fall of 1776, two-thirds of the Old College had been torn down, leaving just its south end with the dining hall and kitchen. Now that the New College was the only dormitory, up to four students could be piled on top of one another in one of its dingy rooms. And that year, with wood in short supply, the undergraduates began relying on straw, causing some fire damage to their residence. By the beginning of December, with food prices also soaring, the campus was no longer inhabitable. On December 10, President Daggett had to call off classes because, as Webster later reported, “the steward . . . could not procure enough for the students to eat.” Due to the various hardships caused by the war, Webster and his classmates would be denied the full benefits of a Yale education. “The advantages then enjoyed by the students, during the four years of college life,” Webster would recall in his 1832 memoir, “were much inferior to those enjoyed before and since the Revolution, in the same institution.”
Webster returned to Yale at the end of the extended winter break in early January 1777, but did not stay long. With the British threatening to attack New Haven, the college was forced to take drastic action. On March 29, Daggett shut Yale down. He then promptly resigned. At a meeting on April 1, the Yale Corporation decreed, “That in the opinion of this board, it is necessary to provide some other place or places, where the classes may reside under their respective tutors until God in His kind providence shall open a door for their return to this fixed and ancient seat of learning.” Webster returned to his father’s house, where he was briefly sidelined by smallpox, a disease that was then blanketing New England—often with lethal consequences. But he soon recovered, and in mid-May, he wrote his classmate Ichabod Wetmore about the possibility of rooming together during the summer term. Fond of Webster, Wetmore responded immediately, “Nothing can be more agreeable to me.” Wetmore then set up the arrangements in Glastonbury, where the junior class was to be relocated. Continuing his course work under Buckminster, Webster stayed in Glastonbury, which was only a few miles from Hartford, until the fall recess began on September 10.
As Webster was packing up his belongings in Glastonbury, the Yale Corporation was still deliberating about how to keep the college running during the 1777-1778 academic year. Webster liked Glastonbury and would be disappointed when they finally made their decision in early November. As he later recalled, “The senior class to which N. W. belonged was ordered to repair to New Haven, although the other classes were permitted to remain in the country. This gave offense.” But Webster ended up not having to spend much more time in the besieged New Haven. Classes didn’t start until the end of November, and were suspended between the end of February and the end of June.
AND FOR A WHILE IT LOOKED as if Webster might never make it back to New Haven for his senior year. As soon as he returned to the West Division in September 1777, he was forced to confront some terrifying news. Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, described by The Connecticut Courant as “the chief and director of the King of Great Britain’s band of thieves, robbers, cut-throats . . . and murderers” was on the march. In Canada, Burgoyne had been squaring off against the American general Horatio Gates and, in early July, had taken Fort Ticonderoga. Coming down from Lake Champlain, Burgoyne’s force of 7,700 troops was now plundering northern New York State and Vermont. Even worse, despite Burgoyne’s protestations to the contrary, the Indians under his command were murdering and scalping American women.
Horrified by British aggression, Patriots such as Noah Webster, Sr., then fifty-five, felt compelled to enter the fray. A captain of the alarm list—the emergency forces of the local militia, consisting of men over forty-five—Noah Sr. organized a band of soldiers from the West Division to head off Burgoyne’s troops. Accompanying Noah Sr. were all three of his sons: Abraham, recently returned to Connecticut; Noah Jr.; and Charles, who had just turned fifteen. As Noah Jr. later wrote, “In the fall of the year 1777, when the British army under Gen. Burgoyne was marching toward Albany, all able-bodied men were summoned into the field. . . . I shouldered a musket and marched, a volunteer. . . . Leaving at home no person but my mother and a sister [Jerusha] to take charge of the farm.” This time around, Noah Jr. would not just be trailing along, but he, too, would be marching off to war.
In late September, the quartet of Websters, along with the other Connecticut militiamen under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hezekiah Wyllys, reached the east bank of the Hudson River near Kingston, New York State’s new capital. The mission of the American troops was to prevent General Henry Clinton, then sailing north out of New York City (the former capital), from joining forces with Burgoyne. If the British could establish a line of posts along the Hudson, they could perhaps isolate New England from the rest of the colonies and bring a quick end to the war. The fate of the new nation hung in the balance—and so did Webster’s. As he recalled some sixty years later, “In the most critical period of the Revolutionary War . . . when the companions of my youth were sinking into the grave, I offered to hazard my life.”
As Webster scrambled to find a bed of straw to rest his head each night, Clinton’s troops continued to advance. At dusk on October 6, on the left bank of the Hudson, the 2,100 men under Clinton achieved a major military victory, overcoming American resistance at Forts Clinton and Montgomery. While almost two hundred British soldiers were either killed or wounded, the American casualties were nearly twice as high. Hearing news of this defeat, Webster was rattled. In contrast, Clinton could smell victory and sought to encourage the embattled Burgoyne. From Fort Montgomery on October 8, Clinton dashed off a quick note on tissue paper, which he wrapped in a silver bullet, “Nous y voici [Here we are], and nothing between us and General Gates. I sincerely hope this little success of ours will facilitate your operations.” But the Americans captured Clinton’s messenger, and after being administered an emetic, he vomited up the missive, which thus never reached its destination.
Unaware of Clinton’s success, the increasingly desperate Burgoyne, now in Saratoga, could no longer continue. In early October, Burgoyne had had to put his men on half rations. This want of provisions caused a sudden flurry of deserters. And at around noon on October 7, he had conducted a risky attack upon the Americans at Bemis Heights, a battle which was over in just a couple of hours. Benedict Arnold, wounded in the fray, had mounted a heroic charge. A worn-down Burgoyne was forced to abandon hundreds of sick and wounded soldiers in the field. Surrounded, Burgoyne retreated to Saratoga, where he would soon begin negotiating his surrender with General Gates.
When he heard these developments, Webster was greatly relieved. But just as he started to relax, he had to witness a frightening barrage of British terror from across the Hudson. With Burgoyne defeated, Clinton decided to sail back to New York City. To distract the enemy, he assigned Major General John Vaughan and his seventeen hundred troops the task of burning down Kingston. Calling the capital “a nursery for almost every villain in the country,” Vaughan torched nearly all three hundred of its homes on October 16. This humiliating defeat turned Kingston into an ash heap. (New York would soon have to move its capital fifty miles further north to Albany.) As the British fleet retreated, Colonel Wyllys’ regiment exchanged fire with a British sloop. The shots whisked right past the ears of Webster and his comrades, then beginning their march toward Albany.
That next day, Friday, October 17, would mark a watershed in the brief history of the new nation. As one Saratoga-based Connecticut soldier recorded in his journal, “The hand of providence worked wonderfully in favour of America this day . . . . At three o’clock [Burgoyne and his army] marches through our army . . . with a guard for Boston.” Within a few hours, Webster received word. He later recalled, “Before the regiment reached Albany, it was met by an express upon a full gallup brandishing a drawn sword exclaiming as he passed the regiment, ‘Burgoyne is taken, Burgoyne is taken!’ ” With “the chief cut-throat” subdued, the militiamen were no longer needed, and Webster returned home. America’s first major victory would soon convince France to join the fight against the British. Keenly aware that his brief tour of duty had helped to turn the tide of the war, the adult Webster would be moved to tears whenever he reminisced about the courier’s shouts. On his list of the forty most “remarkable events” in America’s history, which he appended to the back of his speller, Webster would include both the Battle at Bemis Heights and Burgoyne’s surrender.
AT THREE THIRTY ON THE AFTERNOON of Thursday, July 23, 1778, the College Chapel bell tolled. This was the signal that Ezra Stiles had been waiting for. Yale’s new president was now ready to convene the Presentation Day (today Class Day) exercises for the graduating seniors.
That morning, Webster and the rest of the class of 1778 had all passed two sets of public examinations. First came a grilling in Latin and Greek; and then, after a recess of half an hour, came a barrage of questions about the sciences. Those were the final requirements for the bachelor’s degree and the honorific “Sir” that went with it. All that now stood between Webster and his Yale diploma was the cliosophic (on the arts and sciences) oration that he was slated to deliver that afternoon.
After being closed all spring, Yale had reopened on June 23, with Stiles at the helm. Back in March, Stiles had accepted the Yale Corporation’s offer of a hundred sixty pounds—only forty of which were to be paid in cash; the rest were to come in the form of corn, pork and wheat—for his services, but the imminent threat of capture by the British had delayed his relocation to New Haven for three months. With Buckminster in Portsmouth where he had replaced Stiles as pastor, the new president personally supervised the instruction of the seniors. As with Buckminster, who considered Stiles “an honor to mankind,” Webster and his classmates took an immediate liking to the eminent biblical scholar, who impressed them with both his vitality and his command of Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. On June 30, the seniors engaged in their first forensic disputation under Stiles, discussing the question of whether “learning increaseth happiness.” So much did they enjoy his tutelage that the next day they asked Stiles to double their dose to two disputations a day until graduation.
Focusing his penetrating dark gray eyes on the seniors and guests gathered in the chapel auditorium, the short and compact Stiles began in his mild yet energetic voice, “Ut nostra cura Gradibus academis conferendis innotescat [As our concern for those taking academic steps becomes known]. . . .” After finishing his Latin introduction, Stiles ceded the floor to the ten top-ranking seniors. At exactly 3:47, as Stiles would later note in his factoid-filled diary, Sir Meigs began his cliosophic oration in Latin. Twelve minutes later, Sir Barlow delivered the commencement poem, “The Prospect of Peace,” which concluded with his utopian vision:
THEN Love shall rule, and Innocence adore,
Discord shall cease, and Tyrants be no more;
’Till yon bright orb, and those celestial spheres,
In radiant circles, mark a thousand years.
Barlow was expressing the millennial thinking that had first gained wide currency with the publication Of Plymouth Plantation, the journal of Webster’s ancestor, the early Massachusetts governor William Bradford. For the optimistic Barlow, the American Revolution was the signature event that signified the end of Satan’s nefarious influence. Having inspired his Calvinist listeners with his dream of a glorious future for America, Barlow sat down to a round of applause. Barlow’s patriotic composition, published later that year, would make a lasting impression. “Your poem does you honor in this part of the country,” Buckminster wrote Barlow from New Hampshire that fall, “and every person that has seen it speaks very highly of it.”
Though Webster’s remarks weren’t as heralded as Barlow’s, they do reveal something about the arc of his own intellectual career. The sixth student orator that afternoon, Webster addressed the state of natural philosophy (the objective study of nature) in his sixteen-minute address. “There are few subjects,” he began, “in the whole circle of literature that present a larger field for the exercise of genius or furnish more sublime and rational satisfaction for a speculative mind.” Webster proceeded to cover the discipline’s history, starting with the Egyptians and the Greeks. Classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, he argued, were stuck in “a maze of irregular discoveries which their own strength of genius was insufficient to understand, much less to explain.” But then came the Dark Ages during which all learning declined. In the Renaissance, scientific progress resumed and Isaac Newton managed to put the field on a solid empirical footing.
While Webster had initially toyed with the idea of becoming a poet like Barlow, by the end of his senior year at Yale, he saw himself as a budding philosopher. The “immortal” Newton, who had discovered “the nice order and regularity observed by those stupendous bodies that compose the solar system,” was the intellectual hero whose example he wished to emulate. Webster’s literary ambition now focused on acquiring and organizing knowledge: “Those who design to distinguish themselves in the literary world may, by a proper degree of application, make themselves masters of the arts and sciences, which during the earlier ages of civilization, were scarce known to mankind, and which have been advancing, with some interruption, to their present degree of perfection for more than 4000 years.” Like Dwight in his valedictory address two years earlier, Webster also reminded his fellow graduates of the need for “uncommon acquisitions of knowledge.” Having completed his “liberal education,” Webster was thoroughly steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment. He was committed to bringing order to the world through his intellectual labors, though he hadn’t yet figured out exactly what those labors might be.
Sir Tracy gave the last speech of the day, the valedictory address. The class tutor typically addressed the seniors, but Buckminster did not wish to return to Yale. In a letter to Barlow sent from Portsmouth, Buckminster had mentioned the difficulty of traveling to New Haven, adding, “I am really disconnected from College.” Sir Tracy finished his remarks at 5:28. How Webster and his classmates celebrated the end of their undergraduate days is not known. Ezra Stiles’ diary—the only surviving account of the festivities—is vague: “Decency in amusements recommended & observed in the day and evening.”
TWO MONTHS LATER, on Wednesday, September 9, in a brief private ceremony in the Yale chapel, Stiles handed out diplomas to Webster and the other seniors. (Commencement services, as the term implies, were initially held at the beginning of the academic year.) Like most of his classmates, Sir Webster gave President Stiles a gratuity of ten dollars, while the impoverished Sir Barlow could manage only eight. But the total of $351 contributed by the thirty-five new graduates wasn’t worth much. As Stiles noted in his diary next to this tally, five dollars in paper currency was then equal to just one silver dollar.
In September 1778, rampant inflation was blanketing the colonies. The price of a subscription to the Courant had nearly tripled since early 1777, shooting up to eighteen shillings per year.1 To help finance the war, the Continental Congress had authorized the states to print their own money, and the economically devastated Connecticut had been the first to do so. By October, the state would be printing its first set of fifty-dollar bills; by early 1779, it would have to introduce sixty-five-, seventy-and eighty-dollar bills as well. But printing additional denominations of currency just exacerbated the problem. “The depreciation of [our money] has got to so alarming a point,” wrote George Washington in April 1779, “that a wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions.”
Looking for his first job in a period of hyperinflation, when many Americans were resorting to barter, Noah Webster was feeling lost and confused. And he was suddenly separated from the beloved classmates with whom he had shared his hopes and dreams. As he contemplated his future back at the family farm, all he knew was that he had to keep reading and writing. As a Yale undergraduate, Webster had developed a love of intellectual discovery; exploring the ideas running around inside his own head made him feel thoroughly alive. The thought of going into business repelled him. “What is now called a liberal education,” he later wrote, “disqualifies a man for business.” According to Webster, business required mechanical thinking, and once a young man was exposed to books, there was no turning back.
But Webster had no idea how he could earn a living. Barlow found himself in a similar predicament, writing Webster from New Haven shortly after their graduation, “We are now citizens of the world . . . no longer in circumstances of warming the soul and refining the sensibility by those nameless incidents that attend college connection . . . . I am yet at a loss for an employment for life and unhappy in this state of suspense.” While Barlow and Webster both held fast to their literary ambitions, they felt hopeless about ever achieving them. As the two Yale men well knew, war-ravaged America did not yet harbor any professional writers.
Webster had hoped that his father might provide some wise counsel, but that’s not what he got. One day that fall, while he was pacing up and down the pine-planked floor of the family parlor, Noah Sr. pulled out one of those hardly inflation-proof eighty-dollar Connecticut bills and told him, “Take this; you must now seek your living; I can do no more for you.”
The twenty-year-old was stunned. He felt, as he later wrote, “cast upon the world.” Webster promptly raced up the stairs to the second floor and threw himself headfirst onto the straw mattress in his boyhood bedroom. For the next three days, he hardly came out—even for meals. He did little but read The Rambler, the collection of moral essays penned a generation earlier by his idol, Samuel Johnson (then still living in London off the special pension granted by King George III). “This book,” Webster would later note in his third-person memoir, “produced no inconsiderable effect on his mind.” In Johnson’s maxims—such as the one that would grace the title page of his dictionary a half century later, “He that wishes to be counted among the benefactors of posterity must add, by his own toil, to the acquisitions of his ancestors”—the new graduate found the fatherly advice he longed for. Johnson advocated approaching life with a scrupulous exactness, and that’s the path that Webster resolved to take.
Graduation from Yale unmoored Webster, separating him from everything he held dear. As he later recalled, “Having neither property nor powerful friends to aid me, I knew not . . . by what way to obtain subsistence. Being set afloat in the world at the inexperienced age of 20, without a father’s aid which had before supported me, my mind was embarrassed with solicitude and gloomy apprehensions.” To avoid lapsing into abject despair, Webster would turn to his favorite companions—words.