PUBLICITY, n. The state of being public or open to the knowledge of a community; notoriety.
Already a seasoned networker by his early twenties, Webster tried to cash in on his connections with the well-heeled. In the fall of 1782, he headed south from Goshen to the nation’s capital, Philadelphia, armed with a letter of introduction by Henry Wisner, then a prominent member of the New York State Senate, which began, “Mr. Noah Webster has taught a grammar school for some time past in this place, much to the satisfaction of his employers. He is now doing some business in the literary way, which will, in the opinion of good judges, be of great service to posterity.” Webster had just completed a draft of his book, and the purpose of his business trip was twofold: “showing my manuscripts to gentlemen of influence and obtaining a law for securing to authors the copy-right of their publications.” From scholars and statesmen, Webster sought both advice and endorsements as well as help in protecting his intellectual property. Piracy was then common. As Joel Barlow had warned him that summer, “The printers make large impressions of it [Dilworth] and afford it very cheap.” To become America’s first self-sustaining freelance writer, Webster would take it upon himself to become the father of American copyright law.
In Philadelphia, he briefly intersected with such luminaries as the Virginia delegates Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, from whom he learned that the Congress of the Confederation lacked the authority to pass a national copyright law. Webster then tried to take his campaign to the state legislatures of both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but neither was in session. But though he had ready access to the corridors of power—in Trenton, he met personally with Governor William Livingston—he came up empty-handed. Upon his return to Goshen in October, all he had to show for his travels was an endorsement from Dr. Samuel Smith, a professor of theology in Princeton, who wrote of “the many useful improvements” in his speller. That month, he turned his attention to the state legislature in his native Connecticut. To make the case to his friend John Canfield, a state representative, Webster solicited a recommendation from the Litchfield legal scholar, Tapping Reeve, who characterized the work as “well conceived and judiciously executed.” In January, he confessed to Canfield that his trilogy was leaving him close to another breakdown: “I have been indefatigable this winter; I have sacrificed ease, pleasure and health to the execution of it, and have nearly completed it. But such close application is too much for my constitution.” But public acceptance soon came. Later that month, Connecticut passed America’s first copyright law. By the end of the year, with additional prodding by Webster, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Rhode Island all fell into line.
Giving up his teaching post, the twenty-four-year-old Webster moved back to Hartford, then still a farming village of just three hundred houses and twenty-five hundred residents, to arrange for publication of his speller. He initially stayed with John Trumbull, who had recently completed the transition from poet to high-powered attorney. In Connecticut’s co-capital, Webster was pleased to reconnect with his Yale classmates Oliver Wolcott, then beginning his legal career, and Joel Barlow, who continued to write poetry while working as a publisher. Webster’s first order of business was to negotiate a deal for his speller with Hudson and Goodwin, the firm that published The Connecticut Courant. To pay the printing costs, Webster relied on the largesse of his friends. Showing what Webster later called “generosity [that] far exceeded his means,” Barlow helped out with five hundred dollars; Trumbull made an even more substantial donation. For the rest, Webster submitted a promissory note, which the company agreed to accept in return for the author’s promise to let them print subsequent editions. On September 16, 1783, just two weeks after the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolution, Webster placed an ad in the Courant, highlighting the distinguishing features of his forthcoming text: “The sounds of our vowels which are various and capricious are ascertained by the help of figures . . . . words are so divided as to lead to a just pronunciation . . . the irregular and difficult words are collected in an alphabetical table with the true spelling in one and the true pronunciation in another.” While individual copies cost fourteen pence, to promote sales to schools, Webster offered a bulk discount of fourteen shillings per dozen—a marketing strategy that would work splendidly.
But Webster was just beginning his media campaign. On October 14, 1783, a week after the official publication date, his Grammatical Institute commandeered the front page of the Courant. Webster had placed a long endorsement signed by several key local officials, including George Wyllys, Connecticut’s secretary of state; his brother Samuel Wyllys, the major general of the Connecticut militia; Thomas Seymour, soon to become Hartford’s first mayor; and Nathan Strong, the influential pastor at the First Church of Hartford. Also lending their names to Webster’s cause were Trumbull and Barlow, as well as his former tutor, Nathan Perkins. And next to this ad, under the byline N.W., appeared an essay on the state of language in America which began, “It is surprising to consider how much the English language has been neglected and how little understood by those who have undertaken to compile dictionaries, grammars and spelling books.” Though Webster was still two days removed from his twenty-fifth birthday, he was already comparing himself to the greats in the history of English lexicography. Then finishing up the second part of the trilogy, Webster here focused on some of the key points in that volume such as the faults of prior grammars such as Dilworth’s. But he concluded with his sweeping vision: “The author’s design is to publish a general system of English education . . . . we should remember that unless the Greeks and Romans had taken more pains with their language than we do with ours they would not have been so celebrated by modern nations.” With his trilogy, which would bring order to his native tongue through rules and standards, Webster hoped to help America become a worthy successor to the Roman Empire.
Webster’s promotional campaign oscillated between invoking such lofty goals and issuing harsh critiques of his predecessors. Though Webster raised many valid objections to works such as Dilworth’s, his tone was contemptuous. While partisan attack was the lifeblood of late eighteenth-century American journalism, Noah Webster fell into vilifying his opponents more easily than most. A by-product of his tempestuous temperament, ad hominem assault worked its way into nearly all his writing, not just his newspaper editorials. With his speller, as with his dictionary, the man whose father had emotionally abandoned him at twenty would attempt to slay his literary forefathers. In the preface, Webster shredded Dilworth: “In short, though his spelling book was a great improvement upon former methods of education, yet almost every part of it was originally defective.” Webster was no more respectful toward his other sources. At the back of his speller, he inserted “The Story of Tommy and Harry” from Fenning’s Universal Spelling-Book, adding in a footnote, “In the original, the language is flat, puerile and ungrammatical; for which reason I have taken the liberty to make material alterations.” Noting such zealousness, Webster’s supporters gently chided him. Writing from New Hampshire a month after the speller’s publication, Buckminster opined, “I am pleased with the spirit and stile of your introduction, think however you are a little too severe upon our friend, Mr. Dilworth . . . . it is a wonder if an ill natured world does not ascribe some of the observations not so much to his deficiencies as to a desire to give a currency to your Institute.” As Buckminster predicted, critics would soon jump on Webster for his arrogance. But once again, Webster’s character flaw came in handy. The charged attacks on Webster created a media frenzy, which, in turn, put the spotlight on his books and boosted their sales still further.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 19, 1784, was to be a day of reckoning for both Webster’s state and his country. The Lower House of Connecticut’s General Assembly was slated to consider the subject of the national impost. And Noah Webster was eager to witness both the dramatic debate and the ensuing vote, which would also be a referendum on the power of his own words.
That afternoon, Webster walked out of his rented room at the house of Captain John Skinner and headed up the recently renamed Main Street (formerly King’s Highway), which was still all there was to Hartford. As the Marquis de Chastellux reported during his visit in the early 1780s, Hartford “did not merit much attention” because the whole town was then little more than this “long street parallel with the river.” Webster’s destination was the state house, located on Main Street’s north end. Built in 1720, when Connecticut’s steadily growing legislative bodies could no longer fit snugly into taverns, the two-story structure was just seventy feet long and thirty feet wide. Dubbed the “Court House” by locals, it was divided into two equal-sized chambers—the Lower House and the Upper House. As Webster made his way through the side door up to the gallery, already filled with anxious spectators, he could not help but notice that the building was in ill repair. A year earlier, during a celebration that marked the end of the Revolution, a fire had coursed through the balcony and singed most of the cupola. Settling back in his seat, Webster began to replay in his mind the key moments in the yearlong controversy—one in which he had been a central participant—that had led up to this fateful moment. In his memoir, he described the backstory:
In the summer of 1783, commenced a popular opposition to the act of Congress which granted extra pay to the officers of the American army, to indemnify them for the losses they had incurred by being paid in a depreciated currency. This opposition was most general and violent in Connecticut . . . . To oppose this grant of Congress, the citizens, in many towns, appointed delegates for the purpose of holding a convention at Middletown. In the first meeting there was not a majority of the towns represented; but at the second meeting, more than fifty towns, being five sevenths of the state, were represented. In this convention, some resolves were proposed against the act of Congress . . . . In this crisis N.W. commenced writing a series of papers with different signatures.
Though the Middletown Convention, as Webster also noted, “ended in smoke” early that spring, opposition to the officers’ pension, which was to be funded by a national impost—a value-added tax of five percent—still ran high among Connecticut denizens. Under the Articles of Confederation, the passage of any amendment required unanimous approval by all thirteen state legislatures; thus, Connecticut’s final verdict on this new national tax had vast repercussions. As James Madison and other members of the Continental Congress warned, should Connecticut succeed in thwarting the will of the other twelve states that supported the measure, anarchy could well result across the new country.
Siding with Madison, Webster had been busy firing off dozens of editorials since the previous August. His mission, he later wrote, was “enlightening and tranquilizing the minds of his fellow citizens.” His first piece, “An Address to the discontented people of America,” published in The Connecticut Courant on August 26, 1783, began with the disclaimer, “I am not fond of scribling [sic] in public papers. It is a business by which little good is to be done and less reputation to be acquired.” But Webster the writer often denied what Webster the man was thinking and feeling. In fact, Noah Webster, Jr., loved nothing more than to voice his opinion in the newspaper, and he never failed to aim high.
For the petulant Webster, by defending the actions of Congress, he was standing up against both chaos and evil itself. Going into his natural attack mode, he identified those he disagreed with as enemies to his country. Failing to express any empathy for the protesters who met at Middletown, he portrayed them all as violent thugs. In one of several pieces written under the pseudonym “Honorius,”2 (the name of the Whig protagonist, modeled on John Adams, in the 1775 mock-epic poem “McFingal” by John Trumbull), Webster declared in September that “the resolves of some towns in this state . . . amount to high treason against the United States and render the leaders liable to an impeachment.” But though Webster’s vitriol may have been unwarranted, his political judgment proved remarkably astute. He was way ahead of the curve in understanding that the Articles of Confederation hadn’t created a strong enough central government. In “An Address to the thinking judicious inhabitants of Connecticut,” published on September 30, 1783, “Honorius” attempted to win over the unthinking and foolish: “There is one consolation, however, that must ease the mind of a well wisher to his country—which is that these convulsions will terminate in a general conviction of the necessity of a supreme power and a more peaceable acquiescence in their decrees.”
Throughout the fall of 1783, Webster cast aspersions on Connecticut’s rebels. In November, he published an unsigned letter to the editor of the Courant, addressed “To Mr. Respondent, Probus, Agricola, & c.” His purpose, he claimed, was to protect “Honorius” from an “ambuscade” by these myriad writers, whom he assumed to be the same person. However, Webster’s missive was more offense than defense. He maintained that the writing of his enemy lacked “some little degree of respectability.” While Webster charged his interlocutor with hiding behind “different garbs,” he also went on to assume a variety of different identities. On December 30, two weeks after the third Middletown Convention, Webster took to an anonymous poem to ridicule his foes as Tories eager to destroy the fruits of the Revolution:
How every member of Convention,
Tortures his brains and racks invention,
To blast good men and in their place
Foist knaves and fools with better grace:
O’erturn our happy constitution,
Reduce all order to confusion,
With want of laws make mankind groan,
And on their miseries raise a throne.
Putting “Honorius” to rest after a final send-off in January 1784, Webster resurfaced as the officers’ prime defender in two editorials signed “A.Z.” published that January and February.
But early in 1784, Webster suddenly changed his tack. Steering clear of polemical prose, he began making broad appeals for American unity in a series of unsigned essays entitled “Policy of Connecticut” that would run both in the Courant and in New London’s Connecticut Gazettethroughout the first half of 1784. Few of Webster’s contemporaries realized that these sober assessments of Connecticut affairs were written by the same person who had penned the vituperative “Honorius” essays. In fact, many assumed that Jonathan Trumbull, the outgoing governor of Connecticut (and father of the celebrated painter John Trumbull), was the anonymous author. Nicknamed “Brother Jonathan,” the popular Trumbull, who was the only Colonial governor to stay in power after the Revolution, firmly backed the officers’ pension. In March, sounding much like Connecticut’s seventy-three-year-old sage, who was also known for his discriminating way with words, Webster conceded that the national impost was a necessary evil: “And I have no doubt that after people become acquainted with the utter impossibility of opposing the whole continent, they will ultimately close those wild schemes with this rational reflection; that of the two evils, they ought to choose the least. . . .” Calm reason had also come over Webster himself.
As the debate began in the Lower House, Webster was feeling hopeful. After all, the fourth meeting of the Middletown Convention in mid-March had been a bust. Likewise, the results of the statewide election, held on May 11, augured well. Of the new Assembly delegates, some three-quarters now expressed support for the government. At the same time, Webster had some cause for concern. In February, the impost had been defeated by a vote of 69 to 37, with only delegates from the commercial centers such as New London and Norwich showing much enthusiasm. Likewise, in the election the previous week, Trumbull’s loyal longtime lieutenant governor, Matthew Griswold, had received just 2,192 out of the 6,853 votes cast by the freemen. While the Assembly voted Griswold into the governor’s office a few days later, his failure to attain a majority suggested lukewarm support for Trumbull’s policies. Though both the Upper House and new governor were squarely behind the measure, there was no guarantee that the Lower House would come through.
And when Erastus Wolcott, who had served as brigadier general during the Revolution, took to the floor to argue for a state impost rather than a national impost, Webster became anxious. One of fourteen children of the Colonial governor Roger Wolcott, Erastus Wolcott was a well-to-do farmer from East Windsor. But unlike his brother, Oliver Wolcott, Sr., and his nephew, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Webster’s college classmate, Erastus Wolcott had only a grade-school education. However, the general was skilled in representing the interests of Connecticut’s agrarian majority and its small manufacturers. As Wolcott argued, the state impost, by taxing articles made abroad such as hats and clocks, would shift more of the financial burden to the state’s growing professional and commercial class.
The debate pitted both the rural inland communities against the coastal towns and Noah Webster’s past against his present. While Webster was of the land, he was now a proud hat-wearing Connecticut professional. Leading the other side was General Samuel Holden Parsons, a New London native who had also emerged as a celebrity due to his war record. A Harvard graduate and respected lawyer, Parsons had served on the board of officers that had condemned to death Benedict Arnold’s accomplice in treason, Major John André. The nephew of the new governor, Parsons, who would later endorse Webster’s speller, countered Wolcott by emphasizing the importance of national unity.
At five o’clock, the question was finally put to all the delegates. Webster and the other spectators all held their breath. And then just like that, the controversy was all over. Yeas were 93. Nays were 42.
Of this vote, Webster, who was rarely jubilant, noted in his journal, “A happy event!”
As Webster returned home from the state house, he came across Stephen Mix Mitchell, then a newly elected member of the governor’s twelve-man Council of Assistants and later the chief justice of the state supreme court. “You Sir,” Mitchell told him, “have done more to appease public discontent and produce a favorable change, than any other person.” Two days later, at a retirement ceremony in which a vast retinue accompanied “Brother Jonathan” back to his family home in Lebanon, the governor also personally thanked Webster for his service to his state and his country.
Webster the public scribe would have the last word on this historic vote. In an anonymous article published the following Tuesday in the Courant, he wrote, “Never did people in general feel more satisfaction at any public measure than in consequence of this act.”
LESS THAN TWO WEEKS LATER, on June 1, 1784, the very day that the second printing of the speller was released, Webster rode from Hartford to the small Connecticut town of Canterbury. He was off on a promotional tour around New England to meet with scholars, publishers and booksellers. Over the next week, he would weave back and forth between Providence, Worcester, Newport and Boston. To mark his arrival in a new venue, he would place an ad in the local newspaper, in which he mentioned where his book was to be sold. News of the speller appeared in several papers that month, including The Massachusetts Spy: Or Worcester Gazette, The Providence Gazette and Country Journal and The Newport Mercury. In Boston, he drank an evening tea with James Bowdoin, then a Massachusetts state legislator. The future Bay State governor held considerable influence among the literati, as he was also the first president of the newly established American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In Cambridge, Webster’s after-dinner host was Joseph Willard, the president of Harvard, who had recently penned an endorsement of the speller. After a brief stop in Newburyport, Webster rode on to New Hampshire. On Sunday, June 13, he saw his former Yale tutor, Joseph Buckminster, give a sermon at the North Church in Portsmouth.
During his week in Portsmouth, Webster’s quest for a bride was often on his mind. Throughout his twenties, Webster was constantly surveying the landscape for attractive women, and it didn’t take long for him to be smitten. But he wasn’t winning over too many hearts. Shortly before leaving Hartford, he had written in his diary, “If there were but one pretty girl in town, a man could make a choice, but among so many, one’s heart is pulled in twenty ways at once. The greatest difficulty, however, is that after a man has made his choice, it remains for the lady to make hers.” Of his second night in Portsmouth, he was filled with more romantic longing: “Took a view of the town. Drank tea at Dr. [Joshua] Bracketts. At evening attended a ball and was agreeably entertained; had a fine partner, but she is engaged.” A couple of days later, Webster was also wistful after spending an evening in the elegantly wainscoted home of Colonel John Langdon and his striking wife, Elizabeth. As a commander of light horse volunteers at Saratoga, Langdon had personally witnessed Burgoyne’s surrender; then a leading member of the New Hampshire state senate, Langdon would later take a turn as both the state’s senator and governor. Of Mrs. Langdon, whom the Marquis de Chastellux had described a couple of years earlier as “young, fair and tolerably handsome,” Webster jotted down in his diary, “a most beautiful woman, 20 years younger than her husband.”
Webster returned home to Hartford on July 3. The following week, he moved into his new Main Street lodgings, the home of Dr. Eliakim Fish, an eminent physician who later became the first president of the Hartford County Medical Society. Though he apprenticed himself to his Yale mentor, John Trumbull, he found little legal work. His only gainful employment was promoting his own books. Webster spent most of his time reading. But the lack of purposeful activity left him feeling anxious and depressed. On Saturday, August 7, he lamented in his diary, “Did nothing worthy of particular notice.” Without a new literary project, he soldiered on as best he could. A few days later, he noted, “Read a little law and some poetry, if a man lays up a few ideas every day and arranges them, it is enough.” The following day, he added, “Ibidem” [the same]. His taste in books extended to history, politics and literary criticism. Fiction, which in the late eighteenth century was not to be confused with literature—that term was reserved for the classics or scientific writing—rarely made much of an impression. After finishing Betsy Thoughtless, a popular Bildungsroman by Eliza Haywood about an independent woman who leaves her abusive husband, he observed, “Novels will not bear reading but once. It would be well if people would not permit children to read romances, till they were arrived to maturity of judgement.”
Unlike his idol Samuel Johnson, Webster did not have a literary sensibility. Stories rarely captivated him. His commonplace book illustrates the analytic detachment with which he read fiction. This notebook, to which he added for about two decades after his Yale graduation, includes a few passages from Henry Fielding’s bawdy 1749 novel, The History of Tom Jones. What Webster found worth recording was not any moving adventure, but the author’s definitions. At the beginning of the sprawling novel, one character dies of “a broken heart,” an affliction which Fielding describes as “a distemper which kills many more than is generally imagined, and would have a fair title to a place in the bills of mortality, did it not differ in one instance from all other diseases, viz., that no physician can cure it.” Above this passage, Webster superimposed in big, block letters the word that Fielding has just defined—“DESPAIR.” For Webster, reading great works of literature could prove relaxing to the extent that it gave him a chance to classify and arrange concepts. He would follow his own dictum, mentioned in a 1790 essay, to “always endeavor to read with some particular object.”
The one activity that Webster relished during the summer of 1784 was responding to the speller’s most vociferous critic, a man who called himself “Dilworth’s Ghost.” Though the Ghost, who sometimes went by D.G., never revealed his true identity, he appears to have been a retired schoolteacher from Dutchess County named Hughes. He first surfaced in a letter addressed to “Mr. N—W——, A.M. alias Esq.” that was published in The Freeman’s Chronicle on June 24, 1784. The Ghost mounted a vigorous campaign to assassinate Webster’s character. Standing up for the author of Dilworth’s speller, his supposed bodily incarnation, the Ghost accused Webster of engaging in a sleight of hand: “You accuse me very invidiously and without sufficient cause of absurdity and falsity, and afterward adopt what you had censured in me.” While the Ghost’s first piece rambled, it kept coming back to the charge of plagiarism. In addition, the Ghost was incensed by Webster’s lack of modesty. Mocking Webster’s pride in his titles, the Ghost wondered: “As from A. M. in part the first, you have risen to Esquire in part the second, may it not be expected that you will appear benighted in the third part and dub yourself Sir N—h &c. or perhaps, from ‘We’ to ‘We ourself,’ which must undoubtedly entitle you to all the respect that can be due to an imperial despot.” On account of his New England peregrinations, Webster didn’t see the Ghost’s handiwork when it was first published. In his absence, Barlow, calling himself “Thomas Dilworth,” fired back a widely circulated letter that characterized the Ghost “as abusive a scribbler as ever disgraced the annals of literature.”
Not known for his playfulness, Webster nevertheless had some fun when he finally got around to his own rebuttals. Quickly realizing that every manifestation of the Ghost would help to move his product, he encouraged “his Ghostship” to keep writing. Webster also came up with a few choice barbs of his own. “That the publication referred to is the publication of a Ghost,” he wrote in early July, “I have no doubt for no being on this earth is capable of such a ghostly performance.” On July 22, Webster penned a long letter to The New York Journal in which he went point by point through all of the Ghost’s attacks. Regarding the Ghost’s chief complaint, he mused: “I am accused of compiling and transcribing. The accuser ought, however, to remember that every grammar that was ever written was a compilation. The materials of all English grammars are the same, and that man who arranges the principles of the languages in the best form and reduces the ideas to the easiest method compiles the best grammar.” Here, Webster was not only fending off the Ghost, but he was also saying something fundamental about the obsession that would drive his literary output for the remaining six decades of his life. His grammar, like his dictionary, required that he be a compiler, arranger and organizer. For Webster, this vocation was no shame—far from it. In fact, he considered bringing order to the raw materials of others a divine calling.
Much to Webster’s delight, over the next nine months, other critics took up the Ghost’s mantle and kept attacking the Grammatical Institute in the Connecticut papers. In its first issue published on November 21, 1784, The Litchfield Monitor ran letters signed “A Learner of English Grammar” and “Entity” that also challenged Webster’s ideas about pronunciation. Undaunted, Webster gleefully responded a couple of months later, “The Ghost has now appeared in a different shape. From a substantial spectre in a state of probation, he has transmigrated into an Entity, a mere physical existence . . . . But under whatever shape or name my enemies are introduced to notice, they will answer all my purposes if they will rail at the Institute as much as possible.” An anonymous poet would have the final word about the controversy in March 1785:
He Dilworth’s Ghost? Tis all a fiction! . . .
Could Dilworth see his name thus stolen . . .
His wrath sink Entity to non-existence
And strike the grammar learning dabster
A deadlier blow than he’s struck Webster.
With Dilworth’s Ghost and his allied spirits improving his visibility throughout New England, Webster also had to combat charges that he himself had composed their invectives.
The net result of the Ghost’s efforts to smear Webster was that sales of the speller doubled, from five hundred to a thousand copies a week. By early 1785, as the public wrangling was starting to die down, Webster had sold some twelve thousand books—an astounding number in a country of just three million. He then began selling new publishers the rights to market his book in other states, and the sales figures began to rise exponentially. But the impoverished Webster was forced to ask for cash up front—a move that would cost him dearly in the long run. If he had been able to hold out for a decent royalty rate, he would have become inordinately wealthy. As Webster lamented several years later, “Could I have kept my copyright in my own hands . . . I might now have rid in a chariot.” In 1786, Benjamin Edes of Boston paid five pounds, ten shillings per every thousand copies. Two years later, Philadelphia’s William Young and New York’s Samuel Campbell also finalized contracts with Webster. While Young published the speller in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, Campbell took over operations in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Carolina. Campbell got a bargain, paying just eighty pounds (two hundred dollars) for a five-year period, during which he would sell nearly two hundred thousand copies.
A few other regional deals for the speller ensued, but in June of 1788, New Hampshire made the Constitution the law of the land, and as Webster was quick to observe, he was suddenly confronting an entirely new marketplace. On June 25, 1788, Webster, putting all patriotic sentiment aside, wrote Isaiah Thomas, the Worcester printer and publisher: “This day we have received the intelligence that the ninth state has ratified the federal constitution. This constitution will place the regulation of literary property in the power of Congress and of course the existing laws of the several states will be superseded by a federal law. This will enable me to enter into new contracts with regard to the publication of the Institute.” As it turned out, the U.S. Congress didn’t pass the national copyright law until 1790. From that time on, authors held the rights to their books for fourteen years. In 1804, after the initial term for his speller expired, Webster began working out new contracts with his publishers for an updated edition, The American Spelling Book, Revised . Between 1783 and 1804, Webster managed to sell some eighty-eight different editions of his speller. Sifting through all the contracts with various publishers, one historian has estimated that a typical edition translated into about twelve thousand copies, meaning that Webster sold about a million books by the time he filed for that second national copyright. During his lifetime, Webster would peddle nearly thirteen million copies.
But after his death in 1843, The Elementary Spelling Book (the title for all editions published after 1829) would enter its heyday, with sales averaging more than a million a year. By the 1840s, the publisher, George Cooledge, was so concerned that he wasn’t printing Webster’s book fast enough that he constructed a new steam press. Cooledge eventually bumped up his rate to 525 copies an hour or 5,250 a day. Summing up the career of Webster’s 1783 creation, H. L. Mencken wrote in the early twentieth century, “The influence of his Speller was really stupendous. It took the place in the schools of Dilworth’s . . . [book], the favorite of the Revolutionary generation, and maintained its authority for nearly a century.”
Along with the speller’s wide circulation came enormous cultural influence across the nation. Speaking at a hundredth birthday celebration for Webster in September 1858, Jefferson Davis, then a Mississippi senator, declared, “Above all other people we are one, and above all books which have united us in the bond of a common language, I place the good-old spelling book of Noah Webster. We have a unity of language which no other people possess and we owe this unity above all to Noah Webster’s Yankee spelling book.” And even when the North and South started slaughtering each other on the battlefield a few years later, southern leaders such as Davis, later the president of the Confederate States of America, never wavered in their attachment to this cornerstone of Yankee culture. During the Civil War, Confederate publishers such as the Macon, Georgia, house of Burke, Boykin and Co. put out their own versions of The Elementary Spelling Book, which were virtual reprints except for a few minor changes “to suit the present condition of affairs.” This Georgia rendering of “the cheapest, the best and the most extensively used spelling book ever published” sold so briskly that by 1865, it was already in its third printing.
Webster’s speller also gave rise to America’s first national pastime, the spelling bee. Before there was baseball or college football or even horse racing, there was the spectator sport that Webster put on the map. Though “the spelling match” first became a popular community event shortly after Webster’s textbook became a runaway best seller, its origins date back to the classroom in Elizabethan England. In his speller, The English Schoole-Maister, published in 1596, the British pedagogue Edmund Coote described a method of “how the teacher shall direct his schollers to oppose one another” in spelling competitions. A century and a half later, in his essay, “Idea of the English School,” Benjamin Franklin wrote of putting “two of those [scholars] nearest equal in their spelling” and “let[ting] these strive for victory each propounding ten words every day to the other to be spelt.” Webster’s speller transformed these “wars of words” from classroom skirmishes into community events. By 1800, evening “spelldowns” in New England were common. As one early twentieth-century historian has observed:
The spelling-bee was not a mere drill to impress certain facts upon the plastic memory of youth. It was also one of the recreations of adult life, if recreation be the right word for what was taken so seriously by every one. [We had t]he spectacle of a school trustee standing with a blue-backed Webster open in his hand while gray-haired men and women, one row being captained by the schoolmaster and the other team by the minister, spelled each other down.
From New England, “spelling schools” migrated to the Midwest. As Edward Eggleston wrote in his 1871 novel, The Hoosier Schoolmaster, “In fact, spelling is the ‘national game’ in Hoopole County. Baseball and croquet matches are as unknown as Olympian chariot races. Spelling and shucking are the only competitions.” This regional interest fed into today’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, established in 1925. In a tribute to the prime mover behind the tournament, Webster’s has always served as its dictionary of record.
IN THE FALL OF 1784, a year after the publication of his speller, Webster had considerable cachet but little cash. He was a well-connected and respected member of the Hartford community, but his professional life was going nowhere. A novice lawyer who wouldn’t plead his first case before a jury until February 1785, Webster would often go to the courthouse just to watch the proceedings. In September, he heard the case of General Erastus Wolcott, who had sued a neighbor for flooding his property. “Verdict for the defent,” Webster wrote in his diary that night. Gradually he picked up a few clients of his own. In November, he represented the West Division’s Stephen Bidwell in a case in which the judge was none other than Noah Webster, Sr. But while he was still trying to get his legal career off the ground, Webster continued to move in elite social circles. On October 12, when the Marquis de Lafayette, then on his nineteen-hundred-mile victory tour around America, came to Hartford, Webster attended the ceremonial dinner held at David Bull’s tavern—known to locals as “Bunch of Grapes”—on the west side of Main Street. Though he enjoyed rubbing elbows with George Washington’s adopted French son, Webster couldn’t shake his financial anxiety. That night, he wrote in his diary, “Money is so scarce that I cannot borrow 30£ for a few weeks, giving 12 pr cent interest and good security.” But the impoverished Webster was not despondent, as he could always fall back on his string of literary successes. Four days later, he summed up where he stood, “My birthday. 26 years are past. I have lived long enough to be good and of some importance.”
What also boosted Webster’s spirits was his favorite hobby—dancing. Though his search for a permanent partner wasn’t proving successful, he kept jumping back out onto the dance floor. On October 26, he arranged a dance at his house, reporting the next morning in his diary, “Much fatigued.” In mid-November, he attended a family dance at the house of Joel Barlow, recently married to his college sweetheart, Ruth Baldwin. A few weeks later, Webster participated in a ball at William Collier’s tavern; “25 Gentlemen and 53 Ladies” was his summary of the evening in his diary. At the end of the year, Webster and Barlow helped put together a subscription assembly, which held biweekly dances through the end of March. On December 31, the day following the first assembly, Webster noted, “Feel exceedingly well after dancing; close the year.” In a 1790 essay, “Address to Young Gentlemen,” Webster described dancing as a necessary outlet for a budding writer: “Its excellence consists in exciting a cheerfulness of the mind, highly essential to health; in bracing the muscles of the body and in producing copious perspiration . . . . The body must perspire, or must be out of order.” While Webster the public scribe would later advise women not to take dancing too seriously—“No man ever marries a woman for her performance on a harpsichord or her figure in a minuet”—Webster the private citizen may well have felt otherwise. He kept an eye out for beauty, grace and talent. During the winter season, his landlord’s daughter, Rebecca Fish, made quite an impression: “At evening attend Assembly, very agreeable. Saw Miss Becca Fish dance a minuet for the first time; of 3 ladies, she did best.”
ON FEBRUARY 5, 1785, Webster finished going over the page proofs for the third part of his Grammatical Institute. Two and a half weeks later, he announced its publication in the Courant, stating that his new book contained “the rules of reading and speaking . . . calculated to form the morals and improve the understanding of youth.” Though Webster briefly alluded to the rules of elocution, this volume was largely a reader, which included selections from both “British writers of eminence” and some American men of letters. With American literature then little more than a concept, Webster had to improvise. He drafted a few short compositions of his own (including “Juliana,” that essay about his former love interest, Juliana Smith) and threw in a few unpublished poems from his Yale friends Joel Barlow and Timothy Dwight. As an inveterate compiler and arranger, Webster was once again not so much creating as revising. In this case, his models were books such as the 1780 text Exercises in Elocution, by British minister William Enfield, then in use in several American colleges, and The New England Primer, the primary school reader that dated back to the late seventeenth century. The various editions of The New England Primer were awash with religious tales and maxims, and as Webster wrote in the preface, he objected to this practice because the “common use of Bible is a kind of prostitution of divine truth to secular purposes.” Webster retooled his reader in 1787 under the title An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking Calculated to Improve the Minds and Refine the Taste of Youth and also to Instruct Them in the Geography, History and Politics of the United States. This version included a fiercely patriotic epigraph from the French statesman Mirabeau: “Begin with the infant in his cradle: Let the first word he lisps be Washington.”
Just as Webster was bringing his reader to press, he was starting on another project, a political treatise inspired by discussions with his fellow writers in Hartford, a circle that would soon gain national recognition as “the Connecticut wits.” On December 28, Webster reported in his diary, he “formed regulations for the literary club.” This group, which would distinguish itself by its satire-laced federalism, would eventually include Barlow, Timothy Dwight, John Trumbull and David Humphreys (Washington’s aide-de-camp during the war), as well as the physicians Lemuel Hopkins and Elihu Smith. At the next meeting, the club “converse[d] upon the great question: What are the means of improving and establishing the union of the United States.” Just a month later, Webster dashed off his own pamphlet on the subject that he entitled Sketches of American Policy.
As Webster noted in the Courant ad of March 8 that announced the publication of his Sketches, the fifty-page pamphlet consisted of four “heads”:
I. Theory of Government
II. Governments on the Eastern Continent
III. American States; or the principles of the American Constitutions contrasted with those of the Eastern States
IV. Plan of policy for improving the advantages and perpetuating the union of the American states
Webster later admitted that the first three sections contained “chimerical notions” and were “general.” The first sketch borrowed heavily from Rousseau’s Social Contract, which he had just read and whose “visionary ideas” he would later reject. In the second, Webster lamented that most European governments were despotic and relied on superstition and military force to command their subjects. The third highlighted the unique opportunity possessed by Americans to design a new government during “the most enlightened period of the world.” In contrast, Webster would consider the fourth, which advocated handing over more power to the federal government, one of his crowning achievements. Reflecting back on all his political writings on American unity during the mid-1780s, Webster would later contend that he played a pivotal role in designing the Constitution. “I know of no other person,” he wrote in 1804, “who took the same active part in or who devoted half the time to the subject [proving the necessity of a new federal compact] as I did.”
In that final sketch, Webster offered his prescriptions for his struggling and fragmented nation. The centerpiece of his plan to ward off anarchy was to transform the “Policy in Connecticut”—the title of his anonymously authored series in the Courant published the preceding year—into “American policy.” If the country as a whole could be run like his Congregationalist haven, Webster argued, it could be just as harmonious, “like nature in the planetary system.” For Webster, Connecticut’s particular nexus of executive, legislative and judicial authority, in which his father had served proudly (albeit in a small role), was a model of peaceful governance. “The state,” he wrote, “elects a governor or supreme magistrate and cloaths him with the whole power to make the laws . . . . Thus the whole power of the state is brought to a single point—united in a single person.” While a new executive called a “president” did make it into the Constitution, not so for some of Webster’s other recommendations—namely, his pleas for the abolition of slavery and “a general diffusion of knowledge among all classes of men.”
Most leaders of the early Republic would later concede that Webster’s efforts were instrumental in shaping the contours of the new central government. In 1804, James Madison, then Jefferson’s secretary of state, wrote to Webster:
It is certain that the general idea of revising and enlarging the scope of the federal authority, so as to answer the necessary purposes of the union, grew up in many minds, and by natural degrees, during the experienced inefficacy of the old confederation. The discernment of General Hamilton must have rendered him an early patron of the idea. That the public attention was called to it by yourself at an early period is well known.
Besides Madison and Hamilton, the two chief authors of The Federalist, other key advocates for a stronger union were Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and Pelatiah Webster, Noah’s older cousin, a Pennsylvania merchant who had authored an influential but little-read 1783 essay, Dissertation of the Political Union and Constitution of the Thirteen United States of North America. But while Webster had not produced something entirely original, he had made his singular contribution by his thoughtful compiling and arranging, as well as his clear articulation of critical points.
Webster’s highly regarded fourth sketch also argued for cultural unity—to wit, a uniformity of manners between North and South. He professed to take a neutral stance toward all cultural practices. “Particular districts,” he wrote, “have local peculiarities, but custom gives all an equal degree of propriety.” But this claim, like his allegedly nonjudgmental approach toward southern pronunciation in the speller, didn’t come from the heart. By maintaining that improvements in education would ultimately produce national standards, Webster was suggesting that Southerners should do the accommodating. As he stressed in a footnote, little learning in America occurred outside of New England. “In the southern states, gaming, fox hunting and horse-racing are the height of ambition; industry is reserved for slaves. In the northern states, industry and the cultivation of the arts and sciences distinguish the people.” While Webster hadn’t yet been any further south than New York, he still felt he knew enough to offer these generalizations.
But south was where Noah Webster was now headed. In April 1785, as New England, after enduring a brutally cold winter, was still shrouded by two-foot snowdrifts, Webster began making preparations for an extended tour of the southern states. Over the next thirteen months, he would take his copyright campaign to the remaining state legislatures. Steady book sales, he figured, could provide him with the financial stability that he sorely lacked. Assuming he could find a suitable bride, his sporadic legal work wasn’t bringing in enough money for him to marry. Though Webster was often lonely, he was proud of his literary accomplishments. As he observed on the fast day of April 20, he felt neither “plunged in calamities nor overwhelmed with the blessings of heaven.” A week and a half later, the twenty-six-year-old New England celebrity left Hartford to seek renown all across the new nation, which he had already helped to define.