Spelling the New Nation

AUTHOR, n. 1. One who produces, creates or brings into being; as God is the author of the Universe. 2. The beginner, former, or first mover of any thing; hence the efficient cause of a thing. It is appropriately applied to one who composes or writes a book, or original work, and in a more general sense, to one whose occupation is to compose and write books; opposed to compiler or translator.

On Saturday, February 20, 1779, a distraught Webster placed an advertisement in New Haven’s newspaper, The Connecticut Journal: “Lost on the road between New Haven and Wallingford a neat pair of men’s shoes almost new. Whoever shall find them and give information to the printers either of New Haven or Hartford will be handsomely rewarded, and much oblige their humble servant.” That winter, Webster was working as a schoolteacher in Glastonbury and making occasional weekend visits to New Haven to visit Joel Barlow, who had stayed on at Yale to pursue graduate studies. Nothing seemed to be going right. He couldn’t even manage to keep his belongings from falling off his horse.

Though Webster was pleased to be back in Glastonbury, where he had spent the second half of his junior year, his first job was far from satisfying. Then a lowly occupation often held by alcoholics and former convicts, teaching paid less than two pounds per month. The working conditions were also harsh, as schoolmasters typically had to stare down rambunctious students in dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms. Webster complained of his unhappiness in frequent letters to Barlow. While Webster’s half of the correspondence does not remain, Barlow’s responses provide a picture of his mounting angst. On December 31, 1778, he wrote, “It appears by your letter that you indulge yourself much in serious contemplation upon the disorderly jumble of human events and are at a loss how you shall make your course from the college to the grave.” Barlow continued to offer encouragement. “I have too much confidence in your merits,” he reassured Webster a month later, “both as to greatness of genius and goodness of heart, to suppose that your actions are not to be conspicuous.” While Webster would languish in dead-end jobs for a couple of years, Barlow’s prediction turned out to be true long before either man expected. Soon after the publication of his speller in 1783, Webster would become a household name across New England.

EAGER TO INCREASE HIS EARNING POWER, Webster decided to leave Glastonbury at the end of the winter term and become a lawyer. During the Revolution, for a young man with a bachelor’s degree, admission to the Connecticut bar required two years of study with a practicing attorney. In the spring of 1779, Webster moved into the Hartford home of Oliver Ellsworth, then serving as both the state’s attorney from Hartford County and as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Having also started a private practice, the thirty-four-year-old Ellsworth had already established himself as one of the state’s busiest and richest lawyers. His docket consisted of between a thousand and fifteen hundred cases. Though Ellsworth could be gruff in both his speech and his manner—if he tired during an oral argument, he might resort to wiping his trousers with a handkerchief—he had a knack for driving his points home in the court-room. Webster would later describe Ellsworth, who in 1796 became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, as “a mighty” of the Connecticut bar.

While in Hartford, Webster was burdened by a grueling schedule. Unlike his well-to-do classmate Oliver Wolcott, who could afford to study law full-time, Webster had to take on a day job. From Monday through Saturday, he instructed students at the elite Brick School. During the evening, he struggled both to help Ellsworth with his cases and to make his way through his host’s vast law library. Within a few months, the strain led to acute depression and anxiety. He couldn’t sleep nor could he concentrate. With considerable shame and embarrassment, Webster told Ellsworth that he had to quit.

The breakdown of the twenty-year-old Webster in the summer of 1779 closely parallels the plight of the twenty-year-old Samuel Johnson a half century earlier. In 1729, Webster’s hero had to leave Oxford after just one year because his father could no longer foot the bill. That winter, according to his biographer James Boswell, Johnson “felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom and despair, which made existence misery. From this dismal malady he never afterward was perfectly relieved; and all his labours, and all his enjoyments were but temporary interruptions of its baleful influence.” Though Johnson bounced back from this lapse into incapacitating mental illness several years later, he was never again the same. Immersing himself in monumental literary works such as his Dictionary of the English Language and Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets could mitigate his depression, but not cure it. “My health,” Johnson observed at seventy-two, “has been from my twentieth year such as has seldom afforded me a single day of ease.”

Webster, too, wouldn’t feel quite right after the age of twenty. While his descendants have maintained that Webster would soon overcome his early bout with depression, this conventional wisdom is not accurate. Of Webster’s aborted first stab at legal training, his granddaughter wrote, “At this time and for two years he was troubled with a distressing nervous affection, which he eventually outgrew.” But in fact, Webster, like Johnson, waged a lifelong battle with mental illness. In a letter to one of his adult children dated June 26, 1818, the fifty-nine-year-old Webster wrote that “my nervous affections . . . which I have had for forty years seem to increase with age” (italics mine). Like Johnson, Webster would have to learn how to live with his nervous condition. And Webster would stumble upon the same creative solution: He, too, would make use of his legendary capacity for nonstop intellectual labor, which he could perform with an obsessive exactitude.

After leaving Ellsworth’s house, Webster went back to his father’s farm to regain his stamina. But Webster was no longer an adolescent who could depend on his father for subsistence. To pay for his room and board, he did some teaching at a local parish school. Unfortunately, the winter of 1779-1780 was the coldest in a century and also one of the snowiest. “For a week or ten days past,” The Connecticut Courant reported in early January, “there has been a greater body of snow on the ground than has ever been known, at one time, during the remembrance of the oldest man.” Years later, Webster would vividly recall that commuting to work that winter required walking four miles a day through “drifts of snow which completely covered the adjoining fences.”

33 Miles to Hartford.

102 Miles to New York.


IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY NEW ENGLAND, it was a common practice for affluent citizens to place milestones on major thoroughfares in their community. While most were of red sandstone, the one Jedediah Strong, the register of deeds in Litchfield, erected on Bantam Road near his residence, a half mile west of the courthouse, was of sleek marble.

In the summer of 1780, Webster tried once again to become a lawyer. This time, he selected as his mentor Jedediah Strong, in whose Litchfield home he would live for nearly a year. The son of Supply Strong, who owned an eighth of Litchfield when the town was first settled in 1721, Jedediah Strong had graduated from Yale in 1761. Though trained to be a minister, he switched to law and then to politics. In 1770, Strong was appointed a selectman. The following year, he was elected to the Connecticut state legislature, where he would eventually serve during some thirty sessions. In 1779, Strong was named a delegate to the Continental Congress, but he declined the appointment because of what was called “an inveterate complication of nervous disorders.”

Thus, lawyer and trainee would both be on the mend from mental afflictions at the same time. Strong was then under considerable stress. In 1777, this small man with the unbecoming face and limp had lost his wife of three years. By the time of Webster’s arrival in 1780, the aggrieved widower was raising his five-year-old daughter, Idea, by himself. Strong hired Webster because he needed an assistant to help him with compiling and recording public records. An exacting man with beautiful handwriting, he was good at what he did, but he was also overwhelmed by the demands of daily life.

Webster had heard about the opportunity from Titus Hosmer, a family friend from the West Division who was then serving in both the state senate and the Continental Congress. Webster jumped at the chance to move to Litchfield, then one of Connecticut’s four largest towns, with a population of about four thousand. Two of his Yale classmates, Oliver Wolcott and Uriah Tracy, were already studying law there under Tapping Reeve. Married to Aaron Burr’s sister, Sally, the brilliant but humble Reeve counted the future vice president, whom Webster would soon meet, among his many devoted students. Though Reeve had a genial manner, he was self-absorbed. He once was observed walking around town with a bridle but no horse; not realizing that the animal had run off, he proceeded to tie the bridle to a post. Webster occasionally attended the law lectures that Reeve gave in the basement of his two-story home. To accommodate his growing number of students, Reeve would soon construct an addition to his residence. This building, in turn, became the Litchfield Law School, the nation’s first private law school.

By March 1781, Webster was ready to take the bar exam in Litchfield. Much to the surprise of Webster and his twenty fellow candidates, no one passed. But Webster didn’t give up. In early April in Hartford, he tried again and was successful. Though he was now Noah Webster, Esquire, his new title, which he would soon proudly affix to his byline, wasn’t much use. With the Revolutionary War still in full swing, Webster couldn’t find any work as a lawyer. As he later recalled, “the practice of law was in good measure set aside by the general calamity.”

Webster would forever remain loyal to his Litchfield employer, who met a particularly tragic end. In 1788, Strong got remarried, to Susannah Wyllys, the daughter of Connecticut’s secretary of state, George Wyllys. But just two years later, Strong was arrested for horrific cruelty toward his new wife. Newspapers throughout New England covered his scandalous divorce trial: “It appeared in evidence that the accused had often imposed unreasonable restraints upon his wife, and withheld from her the comforts and conveniences of life; that he had beat her, pulled her hair, kicked her out of bed, and spit in her face times without number.” Presiding over the case in the Litchfield courthouse was Judge Tapping Reeve, who pronounced a fine of a thousand pounds and bound Strong to his good behavior. As the papers also reported, this punishment was satisfactory to his acquaintances “in Litchfield and elsewhere who have long known the infamy of his private character.” But Webster was one of the few who stood by Strong. In fact, a year later, Strong hired Webster, then living in Hartford, as his attorney. On July 12, 1791, Webster wrote in his diary, “Mr. Jedh Strong in town; engages me to negotiate with his wife for a release of all claim to her dower; she declines.” With Webster’s legal maneuvering unsuccessful, Strong sank deeper into debt and drink. A decade later, Strong went mad and a guardian had to take over his affairs. Upon his death in 1802, his remains would be placed in an unmarked grave in a cemetery just west of Litchfield. All that would be left of Strong was his elegant milestone.

IT WAS SEVEN THIRTY on Monday evening, October 1, 1781, and the Sharon Literary Club, America’s first literary society, was in session. Founded in January of 1779 by Cotton Mather Smith, the town’s pastor, who served as chairman, and his son, John Cotton Smith, then a thirteen-year-old preparing for Yale, who became its secretary, the group was designed to “promote a taste of belles lettres and of logic and to gain some skill in the useful freeman’s art of debate.” The weekly meetings, which were suspended from the beginning of May to the end of September so that the townsfolk could attend to pressing agricultural duties, ran for an hour and a half. At precisely nine o’clock, refreshments were served. An hour of dancing typically followed—except on nights such as this one when the meeting, which rotated among more than a dozen local residences, was held at the parson’s large stone house, constructed by a Genoese mason, on the east side of Sharon’s main street. As Parson Smith’s ebullient twenty-year-old daughter, Juliana, editor of the club’s magazine, The Clio, a Literary Miscellany, once explained, “Papa does not think dancing to be wrong in itself, but only that it may be a cause of offending to some.”

That spring, Noah Webster had moved to Sharon. In this western Connecticut town across the border from New York’s Dutchess County, he opened a small private school, in which, as he put it in an advertisement that ran on June 1 in The Connecticut Courant, “young gentlemen and ladies may be instructed in reading, writing, mathematics, the English language, and if desired, the Latin and Greek languages—in geography, vocal music, etc.” An instant success, Webster’s academy had already attracted numerous students from the area’s prominent Whig families such as the children of Mrs. Theodosia Prevost (later Mrs. Aaron Burr) and of the lawyers John Canfield and Zephaniah Platt. Living in one of the perfectly proportioned square rooms in Pastor Smith’s three-story house, he conducted his classes upstairs in the roomy attic with its oak rafters. All summer long, Webster had been toiling away for the three dollars a month that he was clearing from the six and two-thirds dollars he charged each student per quarter. His only break had been a brief trip to New Haven to pick up his master’s degree. With advanced degrees not requiring any additional classes, all Webster had to do was to give a lecture at the September 14 graduation, Yale’s first public ceremony in seven years. On the afternoon of his talk, entitled “Dissertation in English on the universal diffusion of literature as introductory to the universal diffusion of Christianity,” he also handed over another twenty-five dollars to President Stiles.


A man who was fastidious about his appearance, Webster was a natty dresser.

Juliana, her older sister, Elizabeth, and her mother, Temperance, helped the roughly one hundred guests settle in their seats in the three rooms set aside for the occasion—the parson’s study, the parlor and the kitchen—which were all heated by a large fireplace. The granddaughter of William Worthington, one of Oliver Cromwell’s colonels, Temperance Gale had captured Parson Smith’s heart with her sharp intelligence and her stunning beauty. In 1758, right after the death of her first husband, Dr. Moses Gale of Goshen, she was caught in a rainstorm while riding on horseback through Sharon. Finding temporary shelter in Cotton Smith’s magnificent home, she never left.

The three Smith women remained mostly silent while, as Juliana later put it in her diary, “the slower half of creation was laying down the law.” As the hostesses picked up their knitting needles, they noticed that Webster, Parson Smith and Dr. Joseph Bellamy, a cleric from neighboring Bethlehem, were having a heated discussion regarding the proper translation of Plutarch’s Life of Hannibal. The animus, they assumed, came from the large and stout Bellamy, an eminence grise with a reputation for terrorizing his interlocutors with sharp words. Mrs. Smith herself had recently had her own run-in with her mild-mannered husband’s mentor, which required her, as she later wrote, to show “pretty plainly that I was not beholden to him for his opinions or permission.” However, the precise nature of the dispute between the two pastors and the future lexicographer has been lost to history. Of this encounter, all that remains is Juliana’s report that “they became as heated over a Greek word as if it were a forge fire.”

According to protocol, the main event of the evening was a reading of the complete contents from the latest issue of Clio. Juliana was an enterprising editor who managed to garner literary forays from a wide variety of contributors. Chief among them were her brother’s Yale classmates such as Abiel Holmes (later a pastor whose son was the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.); James Kent (a future chancellor of New York State); and David Daggett (later a U.S. senator from Connecticut). As a critic, Juliana was hard to please. Just because she printed something, it didn’t necessarily follow that she liked it. As she once wrote her brother, “Oh my dear Jack, I fear me there is very little promise that any of your friends will prove to be Shakespeares or Miltons.”

As the evening wore on, Webster stepped into the kitchen, which, situated behind the two other rooms, gave speakers a view of the entire assemblage. He then read his latest, a moral essay, which took the form of a dream. The full text no longer remains, but the acerbic Juliana did bequeath to posterity a blanket assessment of Webster’s writings for Clio, comparing them unfavorably to the imagined cogitations of the family’s horse, Jack:

Mr. Webster has not the excuse of youth (I think he must be fully twenty two or three), but his essays—don’t be angry, Jack—are as young as yours or brother Tommy’s, while his reflections are as prosy as those of our horse, your namesake, would be if they were written out. Perhaps more so, for I truly believe, judging from the way Jack Horse looks around at me sometimes, when I am on his back, that his thoughts of the human race and their conduct towards his own, might be well worth reading. At least they would be all his own and that is more than can be said of N. W.’s. In conversation, he is even duller than in writing, if that be possible, but he is a painstaking man and a hard student. Papa says he will make his mark.

Despite her sharp edge, Juliana Smith was touching on what would emerge as a central feature of Webster’s literary activity. Over the course of his long career, Noah Webster, Jr., would rarely dazzle his readers with breathtaking originality. He would, indeed, make his mark on posterity but not so much for his writing as for his rewriting. His monumental contribution to American letters would be to redo the leading British works on language for a native audience. Lexicography was a perfect fit for Webster’s personal tics, as it required collecting and examining ideas that were not one’s own (of all the entries in his dictionary, only “demoralize” would be of his own coinage). And no one could analyze the words of others more scrupulously or with greater élan than Webster.

That night was the last time Webster would address the Sharon literary society. A week later, just as the fall term was beginning, he suddenly closed up his school and skipped town. While Webster didn’t explain his surprising decision in his memoir, it appears that he was distraught over a failed romance. That summer, in addition to his full load of teaching duties, the musically accomplished Webster also directed a choir one evening a week. And before long, he fell in love with one of his students, Rebecca Pardee, a local beauty to whom he proposed marriage. At the time, Rebecca was unattached, but in the fall, her former beau, Major Patchin, who had been serving abroad in the army, returned to Sharon. With Rebecca unable to choose between the two appealing bachelors, she deferred to the wishes of the local clergy—a rare move even for the times. The church elders decided in favor of the major because he had first won her affection. Webster never wrote about this loss, but it must have devastated him. Commenting on Webster’s “pretty love romance” with Rebecca Pardee a century later, The Saturday Evening Post quipped, “Unlike most disappointed swains, he did not turn to puerile poetry for relief. It took a whole dictionary to express his feelings.”

AFTER WANDERING ACROSS Connecticut in a fruitless search for employment, Webster returned to Sharon early the following year. Back at the Smith house, he soon began a lively correspondence with the pastor’s son, John Cotton Smith, then finishing up his junior year at Yale. A half-dozen years younger than Webster, Smith was honored by Webster’s “condescension in writing.” Perhaps attempting to soften the blow of the rejection by Pardee, in January 1782 Smith reported on the negative impact of marriage on Josiah Meigs, Webster’s Yale classmate, who was now his tutor: “he appears no more possessed of that vigour, sprightliness and vivacity, but on the contrary anxieties and solicitudes seem to brood upon him . . . . if this be the effect marriage produces . . . may I get the wrong side of thirty before I put on its shackles.” Steering the dialogue away from personal concerns, Webster wrote Smith of his dreams for himself, his friends and his nation:

American empire will be the theatre on which the last scene of the stupendous drama of nature shall be exhibited. Here the numerous and complicated parts of the actors shall be brought to a conclusion; here the impenetrable mysteries of the Divine system shall be disclosed to the view of the intelligent creation . . . . You and I may have considerable parts to act in this plan, and it is a matter of consequence to furnish the mind with enlarged ideas of men and things, to extend our wishes beyond ourselves, our friends, or our country, and include the whole system in the expanded grasp of benevolence.

For Webster, emotional setbacks resulted not in mourning, but in a ratcheting up of his fierce ambition. Doing something noteworthy, he felt, could help him regain his self-esteem. And fortunately for Webster, his grandiose fantasies surfaced at a crossroads in world history. With the Revolutionary War now winding down—that October, Lord General Cornwallis had surrendered to Washington at Yorktown—and a new nation needing to be built, Webster would soon have ample opportunity to satisfy his itch for fame and glory.

In fact, that January Noah Webster, the scribe of American identity, made his debut and, by the end of the month, had emerged as a public figure with a significant following. In late 1781, Rivington’s Royal Gazette tried to do what British might had failed do—convince Americans to renounce their independence. The loyalist New York City newspaper carried a series of letters by Silas Deane, a former Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress, which leaned on a recent pamphlet by Abbe Raynal, a French philosopher, to make the case for reconciling with the British. Hearing of this attempt to, in his words, “twist the meaning of the Abbe . . . in order more effectually to disunite the Americans,” Webster was apoplectic. He immediately shot back with an editorial, “Observations on the Revolution,” first published on January 17 in The New York Packet and republished two weeks later in the prominent New England paper, The Salem Gazette. Webster offered a different reading of Raynal’s work: “A philosopher like the Abbe . . . must see that the astonishing opposition of America to the attacks of Great Britain cannot be the fortuitous ebullition of popular frenzy; but the effect of design—the calm result of daring zeal, tempered with reason and deliberation.” Over the next couple of months, Webster published three more articles, stressing that the break with Britain was permanent. “America,” he emphasized, “is now an independent empire. She acknowledges no sovereign on earth, and will avow no connexions but those of friend and allies.”

In the spring of 1782, Webster considered giving teaching another try in Sharon. On April 16, he distributed a prospectus, announcing his plan to open another school on May 1 in which “any young gentlemen and ladies, who wish to acquaint themselves with the English language, geography, vocal music, etc. may be waited upon for that purpose.” A couple of days later, the Smith family suffered a huge loss. Thomas Mather Smith, the brother of Juliana and John Cotton Smith, died of consumption at age nineteen. And then, for the second time, Webster abandoned both his plans to teach school and his room in the Smith household under mysterious circumstances.

Webster didn’t account for this hasty retreat from Sharon in his memoir, either. Though the death of Thomas Smith was not sudden—as Webster put it in a touching poem to Pastor Smith, the youth’s family and friends had suffered “the pangs of six months’ slow decay”—its finality may have jolted the Smiths, who perhaps no longer felt prepared to put up a houseguest. But another failed romance may also have played a role. Toward the end of his stay in Sharon, Webster had fallen for Juliana Smith, and she, too, would reject his advances. While Webster soon gave up his pursuit of the discerning editor, who, in 1784, would marry Jacob Radcliff, later the mayor of New York City, he never forgot about her. When putting together his reader a couple of years later, Webster included a brief moral essay, “Juliana: A Real Character,” which reads like a love letter to the real Juliana Smith. In fact, composing these few pages made him ill. In his diary on November 1, 1784, he noted, “Writing the character of Juliana. PM very sick with a headache.” “Juliana,” the piece begins, “is one of those rare women whose personal attractions have no rivals.” Webster goes on to heap twenty-seven paragraphs of lavish praise upon this “elegant person.” Juliana possesses all those qualities that Webster holds most dear. She has “engaging manners . . . . to her superiors she shows the utmost deference and respect. To her equals . . . the most modest civility.” Juliana, Webster adds, also “pays constant and sincere attention to the duties of religion” and has a “strong desire for useful information” (an attribute that was particularly enticing to the future lexicographer). In the last paragraph, Webster uncharacteristically expresses abject romantic longing: “If it is possible for her to find a man who knows her worth, and has a disposition and virtues to reward it, the union of their hearts must secure that unmingled felicity in life, which is reserved for genuine love, a passion inspired by sensibility, and improved by a perpetual intercourse of kind offices.” Juliana was clearly the type of woman Noah Webster—a twenty-six-year-old bachelor when he wrote these words—was looking for in a wife. A decade later, Webster would pay another tribute to this Sharon love by naming his second child Frances Juliana.

After leaving Sharon in the spring of 1782, Webster also lost touch with Juliana’s brother, John Cotton Smith, who would go on to have a distinguished career in Connecticut politics. From 1812 to 1817, Smith served as the state’s last Federalist governor. Afterward, he became president of the American Bible Society and would dabble as a wordsmith. Surprisingly, after the publication of Webster’s dictionary, the retired lawyer would issue harsh attacks upon the man he once revered as a teenager. In an essay “The Purity of the English Language Defended,” published in The New York Mirror nearly six decades after Webster’s Sharon sojourn, Smith would write, “It is from orthography that language receives its form and pressure; and as ours has been settled by respectable authority, and sanctioned by the best usage, the chief merit of a lexicographer . . . consists in suffering it to remain precisely as he finds it. Unfortunately, our author [Webster] thought otherwise.” Smith was knocking Webster for his unique contribution to American letters—the creation of a distinct language for the new nation. That Webster first formulated this goal while living in Smith’s own house didn’t soften the ex-governor’s stance toward his former literary society colleague. In fact, it had been to the teenage John Cotton Smith that the young Sharon teacher complained about his frustration with the leading British speller, the grumblings that eventually led to Webster’s spectacularly successful school text.

IN APRIL 1782, while Webster was winding up his second sojourn in the Smith house, General George Washington moved into Hasbrouck House in Newburgh, a town in upstate New York, just across the Hudson River from Sharon. There Washington set up the new headquarters for the Continental army. While the United States had succeeded in neutralizing British forces, New York City was still in enemy hands and the war was not yet over. Though the new nation faced many challenges, Washington had to focus largely on the disbanding of the Continental army’s seven thousand troops. Under the Articles of Confederation—hastily passed in 1777 and ratified in 1781—the national government had little leverage. It could not, for example, raise tax revenue. Frustrated by this arrangement, some sought quick fixes. On May 22, 1782, Colonel Lewis Nicola wrote to Washington, suggesting that he take matters into his own hands and declare himself king. Washington would have no part of this scheme. “Let me conjure you then,” the General wrote back that same day, “if you have any regard for your country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.” As he waited for Benjamin Franklin and the other diplomats in Paris to complete the peace negotiations, Washington, like most of America’s leaders, wasn’t sure exactly what kind of country he wanted; however, the General knew what traps he wished to avoid.

After leaving Sharon, Webster spent a day in Newburgh with a friend who was an officer in Washington’s army. He then moved on to the neighboring town of Goshen, located in Orange County, where he opened a classical school for the children of prominent local families. Down to his last seventy-five cents, Webster felt he could no longer afford to teach in a public school. Fortunately, his new pupils—the scions of well-to-do parents such as the pastor Nathaniel Kerr and Henry Wisner, New York’s lone signer of the Declaration of Independence who would later help found the State University of New York—paid not in paper currency, but in silver dollars. This arrangement gave Webster, he later noted, “an advantage rarely enjoyed in any business at this time.”

Yet Webster still longed to earn a better living in his chosen profession—law. He was also feeling lonely in this strange town outside of his native Connecticut. “In this situation of things,” Webster recalled in his memoir, “his spirits failed, and for some months, he suffered extreme depression and gloomy forebodings.” With the nation’s overall economic picture bleak, Webster was not alone in feeling desperate. But he managed to shake himself out of despair through a creative solution. “In this state of mind,” Webster added, “he formed the design of composing books for the instruction of children; and began by compiling a spelling book on a plan which he supposed to be better adapted to assist the learner, than that of Dilworth.”

The Reverend Thomas Dilworth was the author of the eighteenth century’s most widely used speller. Until about 1700, English spelling was all a jumble, particularly in the New World. As late as 1716, “general” was spelled “jinerll” in official Hartford documents. But soon after the first standards began to be set, a series of spellers appeared. Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue was first published in London in 1740. Seven years later, Benjamin Franklin printed the first American edition. Focusing more on pronunciation than on orthography (correct spelling), Dilworth explained to children how to divide words into syllables. As noted in the preface, he sought to give “each letter its proper place, each syllable its right division and true accent and each word its natural sound.” This was the alphabet method of teaching reading. By 1782, Dilworth’s speller had reared the vast majority of English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic. As Joel Barlow once observed, Dilworth’s was “the nurse of us all.” Though the cleric had died in 1780, sales showed no signs of slowing down; a new edition consisting of tens of thousands of books continued to come out every year.

Having used Dilworth as a school instructor, Webster was keenly aware of its shortcomings and inconsistencies. But in revising Dilworth, Webster would grapple not only with pedagogy but also with cultural politics. During his sojourn in Goshen, the new nation’s identity remained a huge question mark. Just as Americans were debating what kind of ruler they should have, they were also debating what language they should speak. After all, the English of King George III was now the language of the oppressor. Some proposed replacing it with German, then the country’s unofficial second language, spoken by nearly ten percent of the population. Others advocated even more radical ideas. As the Marquis de Chastellux, a member of the French Academy and a major-general in the French army, reported on the chatter among some Bostonians in 1782, “They have gone even further, and have seriously proposed introducing a new language; and some people, for the convenience of the public, wanted Hebrew to take the place of English, it would have been taught in the schools and made use of for all public documents.” And if nothing else, perhaps a name change was in order. “Let our language . . . be called the Columbian language,” stated a letter that ran in newspapers across the country that year. “Let us make it as familiar to our ears to say that a foreigner speaks good Columbian, as it is to say that he speaks good English. The dignity and habits of independence can only be acquired by a total emancipation of our country from the fashions and manners of Great Britain.” A new speller, Webster realized, could quickly put an end to this debate, as it would be destined to shape the speech habits of Americans for generations to come. “A spelling book,” he would later write, “does more to form the language of a nation than all other books.” The emotionally fragile and often despondent Noah Webster, Jr., was compelled to think big. This project with its potentially vast repercussions could well meet his pressing need for both fame and silver dollars.

Dilworth’s New Guide contained five parts. The first part, which covered about half of the book, included syllabariums (lists of syllables) followed by tables of related words and short readings. Dilworth began by presenting columns of syllables such as “ma, me, mi, mo, mu” and “ab, eb, ib, ob, ub”; a few pages later, he provided various monosyllabic words such as “an,” “as,” “at,” “ax” and “ay.” And then to give children a chance to practice what they had learned, he featured “some early lessons on the foregoing tables.” Lesson I featured the following reading:

No man may put off the Law of God. 

The way of God is no ill way. 

My joy is in God all the day. 

A bad man is a foe to God.

Adhering to the same format, Dilworth went on to teach the pronunciation of words containing more and more syllables. The second part of Dilworth consisted solely of “a large and useful table of words that are the same in sound, but different in signification.” While the third part contained a grammar, the last two parts were readers that featured fables and prayers, respectively.

Webster would eventually rework the five parts of Dilworth’s speller into three separate books—the three volumes of his A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language, Comprising, an Early, Concise, and Systematic Method of Education, Designed for the Use of English Schools in America. The first volume, his speller, roughly paralleled the first two parts of Dilworth—consisting largely of syllable lists and the tables of homonyms. Likewise, Webster’s second and third volumes—his grammar and reader—revised the third, fourth and fifth parts of Dilworth. Webster’s grammar, published in March 1784, never sold too well, and he abandoned it in 1804 (though he later wrote an academic treatise, Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language). His reader, which first appeared in February 1785, fared better, and lasted until it was superseded by the McGuffey reader in the late 1830s. But Webster’s so-called blue-backed speller—the nickname derives from the thin blue paper that covered later editions—was a sensation that would stay on the market for more than a century. Its initial print run of five thousand copies was more than the total number of spellers sold in a year throughout the colonies back when Webster was a West Division schoolboy. In 1784, the second and third editions of the 120-page text were published. Nearly four dozen more editions—some with print runs as high as twenty-five thousand—would come out by the end of the eighteenth century. The tiny speller—it was about six and a quarter inches long and three and a half inches wide—was the cash cow that enabled Webster to devote the second half of his life to the dictionary. To use the nautical metaphor of his granddaughter Emily Ford, “it was the little steam tug that conveyed the large East Indiaman laden with spices and silk, or the man-of-war bristling with cannon.”

Webster was not the first person to revise Dilworth, nor the first to challenge its dominance in the American marketplace. In 1756, the British author Daniel Fenning published his Universal Spelling-Book. Its tenth edition—the first one printed on the other side of the pond—appeared in Boston in 1769. Modeled closely on Dilworth, the text by Fenning also contained five parts, including a grammar and reader. But it also featured some material not found in Dilworth, such as a dictionary of five thousand easy words and some historical information about the kings of England.


Upon the recommendation of Yale president 

Ezra Stiles, Webster selected the long-winded 

A Grammatical Institute of the English Language as the 

title for the first edition of his speller. (This was a nod 

to the Protestant theologian John Calvin, whose 

seminal work was Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In 1787, Webster renamed it The American Spelling 

Book, which was close to his original title, 

The American Instructor.

To compose his speller, Webster did some cutting and pasting from both Dilworth and Fenning, and then added his own American touches. But though Webster’s text was not entirely original, it was a seminal contribution to pedagogy. His method of instruction was the most user-friendly to date. Simple yet rigorous, Webster’s book spoke directly to children in a language they could easily understand. Soon after its publication, Timothy Pickering, then the quartermaster general based in Newburgh and later Washington’s secretary of state, stayed up all night reading it, reporting to his wife: “The author is ingenious, and writes from his own experience as a schoolmaster, as well as the best authorities; and the time will come when no authority as an English grammarian will be superior to his own.” But Webster had done more than just improve on the spelling books of his British predecessors. He had also helped give birth to a new language, which in turn would soon unite a fledgling nation. Though he didn’t yet use the term “American English,” his speller was a linguistic declaration of independence: “It is the business of Americans to select the wisdom of all nations, as the basis of her constitutions . . . . to prevent the introduction of foreign vices and corruptions and check the career of her own . . . . to diffuse an uniformity and purity of language—to add superiour dignity to this infant empire and to human nature.” Americans, Webster asserted, would speak English, but it would be an English of their own making.

Webster consistently improved on Dilworth by supplying a greater degree of clarity. For example, Dilworth’s definition of a syllable as “either one letter; as a; or more than one; as man” was confusing. In contrast, Webster’s left nothing in doubt: “one letter or so many letters as can be pronounced at one impulse of the voice, as a, hand.” Likewise, Webster, like Fenning before him, critiqued Dilworth’s method of dividing up words according to abstract principles borrowed from Latin grammar. Webster argued that it made more sense to divide them up according to their pronunciation. “The words,” he wrote in the preface, “cluster, habit, Mr. Dilworth divides clu-ster ha-bit; according to which, a child naturally pronounces the vowel in the first syllable, long. But the vowels are all short. . . . In order to obviate this difficulty, he has placed a double accent thus, clu"ster, ha"bit. . . . Let words be divided as they ought to be pronounced clus-ter, hab-it. . . . and the smallest child cannot mistake a just pronunciation.” Furthermore, Webster also objected to Dilworth’s insistence that “ti” before a vowel be considered a separate syllable. For words such as “na-ti-on” and “mo-ti-on,” Webster preferred “na-tion” and “mo-tion,” thus opting for two syllables rather than three. Besides these methodological tweaks, Webster also tailored his text for an American audience. Axing the dozen or so pages that Dilworth devoted to the spelling of English, Irish and Scottish towns, Webster inserted a list of all the states and principal towns and counties in the United States of America. In addition, for every Connecticut town, he included both its population as well as its distance in miles from the state capital, Hartford (then still the center of his own personal universe). Webster’s recent addresses also crept into the book as he stuck in entries such as “Litchfield, 1509, 32” and “Sharon, 1986, 59.” For towns throughout the other twelve states, he failed to feature any analogous statistical addenda.

Webster saw his rewriting of Dilworth as a necessary follow-up to the American Revolution. Just as the American military had taken on the tyrannical British government, the American literati, he felt, now had to strike out against the unwieldy English language. Their charge: to bring order to its underlying chaos. As Webster well understood, the sounds of English letters “are more capricious and irregular than those of any alphabet with which we are acquainted.” In English, as opposed to many other languages, while a given vowel or consonant can denote a variety of different sounds, the same sounds can be represented by a variety of different combinations of letters. Americans, Webster believed, could create a better form of English than the British. “This country,” he stressed, “must in some future time, be as distinguished by the superiority of her literary improvements, as she already is by the liberality of her civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.”

His overriding linguistic goal was that Americans should adopt “one standard of elegant pronunciation.” Though Webster now knew where he wanted to take the English language, he wasn’t yet sure how to get there. In that 1783 first edition of his speller, he proposed only some general guidelines. Citing the greatest man of letters of ancient Rome, Cicero, the icon upon whom Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton also drew inspiration, Webster argued that “usus est norma loquendi” [usage should determine the rules of speech]. But he didn’t specify whether the usage of one group—say, the highly educated—should take precedence over another—say, country folk. At this stage of his career, he identified the problems with regional dialects without discussing how to adjudicate between them: “I would observe that the inhabitants of New England and Virginia have a peculiar pronunciation which affords much diversion to their neighbors . . . . The dialect of one state is as ridiculous as that of another; each is authorised by local custom; and neither is supported by any superior excellence.”

Though Webster pled neutrality, that’s not what he felt. In fact, after a quick allusion to “a flat drawling pronunciation” among some New Englanders, he went on to describe several vulgar pronunciations commonly heard in the South, such as “reesins” for “raisins” and “woond” for “wound.” In later editions, Webster would make his preference for the New England way explicit.

In this first salvo on behalf of his native tongue, Webster didn’t include the spelling changes, which he would later insist on in his dictionary, and for which he became best known. Calling “Dr. Johnson’s dictionary my guide,” Webster here argued against expunging “superfluous letters” such as the “u” in “favour” and “honour.” He supplied the following rationale: “Our language is indeed pronounced very differently from the spelling; this is an inconvenience we regret, but cannot remedy. To attempt a progressive change is idle.” Webster would go back and forth on this point over the next few decades before settling on the need for limited spelling reform. But in his 1783 text, Webster did break a little new ground. For example, the speller is where Americans first learned to pronounce the twenty-sixth letter of the alphabet “zee” rather than “zed.”

While Webster’s speller was well suited to curry the favor of a struggling new nation, it would have not sold so well were its author not also a marketing genius. As would often be the case, Noah Webster’s personal failings would be instrumental to his literary success. Precisely because of his shaky self-esteem, Webster turned out to be a natural at self-promotion; after all, talking (or writing) himself up was his way of being in the world. The first book printed in the new United States of America would benefit from the publicity tools that later became the staples of the publishing industry, including blurbs from prominent people (many of which Webster wrote himself), prepublication buzz, heated media controversy and the book tour. In the late eighteenth century, authors—not publishers—typically arranged for the financing, printing and distribution of books, and Webster would handle these practical challenges with remarkable aplomb. Over the next century, only the Bible would sell more copies in America than Webster’s speller.

However, the soon-to-be literary sensation would continue to struggle with intense feelings of anxiety and alienation.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!