NEWSPAPER, n. A sheet of paper printed and distributed for conveying news; a public print that circulates news, advertisements, proceedings of legislative bodies, public documents and the like.
Edmond Genet was very much on Webster’s mind even before the Washington administration came calling.
Since his arrival in April, “Citizen Genet,” as he called himself, had waged a vigorous public relations campaign on behalf of France’s bellicose revolutionary government. Through his fiery speeches, which were widely covered in the press, the ambassador was gaining considerable support among Democratic-Republicans, the party led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Fearing that another war could cripple America economically, Washington had issued a Proclamation of Neutrality. But Genet remained undeterred. He began outfitting French privateers in American ports. France’s ambitions were vast: It hoped to receive American assistance in wresting Canada from Britain and both Louisiana and Florida from Spain.
In late July 1793, Webster enlisted his colleagues in Hartford’s Common Council to draft a resolution in support of Washington’s stance of neutrality. The letter, which was published in the Courant and sent to the president himself, concluded with a personal touch, “we still retain . . . that just gratitude for your services and respectful attachment to your person.” Washington, whom the Republican press had vilified for standing up to Genet—Philip Freneau of Philadelphia’s National Gazette kept denouncing him as a “king”—was deeply moved. The president replied immediately, “The address . . . affords a new proof of that characteristic love of order and peace, of that virtuous and enlightened zeal for the publick good, which distinguishes the inhabitants of Connecticut.”
On August 8, a few days after finishing this missive to the president, Webster headed to New York City on a business trip. Though no longer the capital—Philadelphia had housed the federal government since 1790—New York, with a population of some thirty-five thousand, was now America’s biggest city. Having saturated the New England market for his textbooks, Webster was hoping to boost his sales in western states such as New York. But he would soon stumble upon an entirely new publishing venture.
SINCE HE WAS LEAVING his family behind, Webster chose to travel by land rather than water. While fares were inexpensive, stagecoaches, which typically transported about a dozen passengers sprinkled across three seats, were still no place for women and children; on the rocky and muddy roads, the ride was rarely smooth. To prevent them from toppling over, the cigar-smoking drivers had to yell every now and then, “Now, gentleman, to the right!” and “Now, gentleman, to the left!”
After stopping off at Durham, New Haven and Norwalk, Webster reached Kingsbridge—located in the northern tip of what is today the Bronx—on Sunday the eleventh. The following morning, his coach arrived in New York’s South Street terminal. As Webster walked up toward his lodgings on Maiden Lane—a few houses from where he had stayed shortly after the war—he became rattled by a deafening din. The steamy streets were packed, and rows upon rows of pedestrians were clamoring.
“Vive La France,” some intoned. “Down with King Washington,” shouted others. Others were singing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” “Allons enfants de la patrie. . . .” And a chorus continued to cry, “Vive Ge-net, Vive Ge-net, Vive Ge-net.”
As Webster couldn’t help but notice, Genet was now also in Manhattan.
Genet had recently sent Washington an angry letter insisting that the president call for a special session of Congress to consider whether to side with the French. In early August, Washington responded by urging the French government to recall Genet.
On August 7, the ambassador sailed from Philadelphia to New York where he hoped to whip up some fervor for the French cause. To combat Washington’s rebuff, he vowed to “appeal directly to the [American] people.” As Webster would later recall, he was then beginning to wonder whether it was Genet—not Washington—who ruled America.
Upon his arrival in the Battery on the eighth, Genet received a warm welcome. An editorial in a leading Republican newspaper observed, “Americans are ready to mingle their most precious blood with yours.” On Genet’s first day in town, some thousand New Yorkers—including Governor George Clinton—joined him as he strode up Broadway toward Wall Street.
Day after day, the crowds came out for Genet.
As Webster reached his Maiden Lane destination—Mr. Bradley’s Inn—on the afternoon of the twelfth, he breathed a sign of relief. He couldn’t stand shouting mobs—and shouting mobs of pro-French Republicans he liked even less.
After he unpacked his bags, Webster heard more animated voices coming from the direction of the inn’s barroom. As he opened the door, he heard several people yelling, “Americans love you.” Webster then did a double-take. Right in front of him was none other than Edmond Genet himself, surrounded by a circle of admirers. As Webster soon realized, his temporary way station was also Genet’s home for the night.
The thirty-year-old Genet was a handsome man with an oval face and a long, thin nose. Curious about the identity of the new guest, Genet asked Webster the reason for his visit to New York. Webster explained that he was an author who was supervising the printing of New York editions of his textbooks. Genet then invited Webster to join him for dinner that evening.
Sitting around Genet’s reserved table a few hours later were a couple of American businessmen, Timothy Phelps from New Haven and a Mr. Haxhall of Petersburgh, as well as Genet’s extensive retinue, including his personal secretary, Monsieur Pascal, and the military leader Captain Jean-Baptiste Bompard. A week earlier, Bompard’s 44-gun Embuscade had defeated the British frigate Boston in a bloody and closely watched battle off the coast of New Jersey. Though diminutive and elderly, Bompard was a key figure in France’s military offensive in America, which called for taking over British ships in neutral territory.
After dinner, Webster told Genet, “I just heard a report from Boston that the Governor of Massachusetts has taken measures to secure a prize or two which had been sent into that port by a proscribed French privateer.”
Immediately, Monsieur Pascal mumbled, “Monsieur Washington fait guerre à la nation française” [Mr. Washington makes war with France]. Pascal thought that he was just talking to Genet and Bompard, who both nodded their assent, and he was surprised that Webster’s French was good enough to pick up what he was saying.
Webster then asked Genet what he was thinking.
“The Executive of the United States,” Genet responded, “is under the influence of British gold.”
An outraged Webster stated, “It would be impossible to subject the independent freemen of the United States to any foreign power. The Executive Officers, President Washington, Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton are no fools.”
Genet, too, became irate, retorting, “Mr. Jefferson is no fool.”4
The two men then began shouting at each other. Losing his cool, Webster called his adversary “a madman” as well as a host of other epithets. As he later confided to his Yale classmate Oliver Wolcott, then an official in the department of treasury, “I cannot with propriety state all I said myself on that occasion.”
The dinner was over, and the men retired to their rooms for the night. Though that would be Webster’s last personal encounter with Genet, verbal sparring with the French ambassador would soon become his day job.
Over the next two weeks, Webster would meet with several key Federalists, including Chief Justice John Jay, New York senator Rufus King and James Watson, then James Greenleaf’s business partner and later also a New York senator. As Webster learned, Washington hoped to loosen Genet’s grip on the American public by starting a Federalist newspaper in New York City. At a dinner at Watson’s home on August 21—the James Watson House still stands at 7 State Street—Webster was offered the job of editor. He told Watson that he was eager to take this position, but that he lacked start-up capital. Watson soon arranged for a group of a dozen influential Federalists, including Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, to each furnish a hundred and fifty dollars. This five-year loan of eighteen hundred dollars would be interest-free.
The new editor of New York’s first daily newspaper would never work as a lawyer again.
ON AUGUST 30, the day after Webster arrived back home in Hartford, he finalized an agreement with George Bunce of 37 Wall Street to begin printing his newspaper by the end of the year. Four days later, he sold off his law library for $300. Needing every cent he could lay his hands on, he also put a couple of ads in the Courant for his chaise (a two-wheeled carriage), for which he hoped to receive as much as a hundred and thirty dollars. But there were no takers, and it would go with him to New York.
On October 9, Webster heard from Greenleaf, who had completed all the preparations for the move. “I have just returned from the southward,” wrote his brother-in-law from New York on October 7, “my first object since my return has been to look out for a home for you, & I have happily succeeded. Our Dear Becca . . . will be lodged like a little queen. . . . I shall have a good deal of my own furniture put into it.” Missing the joke, Webster assumed that Greenleaf had neglected to mention where the house was located. But Greenleaf’s largesse, he soon learned, would enable his family to live in style in a large rented house at 168 Queen Street.
In a postscript to his letter, Greenleaf asked Webster to insert in Connecticut newspapers an announcement that the city of Washington was looking to hire mechanics and brickmakers “on a large scale.” This remark related to Greenleaf’s own new venture. While traveling down South in September, the speculator clinched the biggest real estate deal in the history of the young country. His charge: to build from scratch America’s new federal city. On September 18, Greenleaf joined a crowd of thousands that witnessed the Masonic ceremony at which George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. During the day-long festivities, which culminated in the consumption of a five-hundred-pound ox, the city’s commissioners offered for sale lots for America’s newest city. But though President Washington himself bought a few to spur interest, most went unsold. The enterprising Greenleaf immediately sprang into action. Five days later, he bought three thousand lots for a pittance—a mere $66.50 each (the going rate had recently been as high as three hundred dollars). As part of the deal, Greenleaf was supposed to build ten brick houses a year and loan the commissioners $2,660 a month. Washington had high expectations. On September 25, the president wrote Tobias Lear, his former secretary (who had taken on the tutoring job declined by Webster a decade earlier), “You will learn from Mr. Greenleaf that he has dipped deeply, in the concerns of the Federal City. I think he has done so on very advantageous terms for himself, and I am pleased with it notwithstanding on public ground; as it may give facility to the operations at that place.” Two months later, Greenleaf formed a partnership with the Philadelphia businessmen Robert Morris (then America’s richest man) and John Nicholson, and managed to wrest away another three thousand lots from the city’s commissioners at a bargain-basement price. Greenleaf now controlled about half of the government’s salable land in the new capital.
On October 31, Webster, his wife and two young daughters, along with the black maid who had lived with them in Hartford, set out for Middletown to wait for the sailing vessel. Though travel by water was more comfortable than by coach, it could take much longer. Due to unfavorable wind conditions, the family didn’t arrive in New York Harbor until November 13. The delay upset eight-month-old Frances, and Webster was frequently called upon to calm the crying baby.
The Websters spent their first two nights at the home of James Watson, now Greenleaf’s former business partner, as the two men had just dissolved their firm. On November 15, the Websters settled into their new quarters on Queen Street (renamed Pearl Street the following year, as New York attempted to shed its remaining British trappings). Four days later, Greenleaf and his friend Charles Lagarenne, a Royalist exile from France, moved into the Webster household, which would soon also include a nurse and manservant. America’s “first capitalist” would be using Webster’s home as a base of operations while he traveled around the country meeting potential investors.
On December 9, 1793, Webster published the first issue of American Minerva, which he subtitled “Patroness of Peace, Commerce and the Liberal Arts.” The four-page paper would come out every day but Sunday, at four in the afternoon. An annual subscription cost six dollars. Webster envisioned that the city’s first daily—Alexander Hamilton’s New York Post would not begin its run until nearly a decade later—could be instrumental in exporting American democracy to the rest of the world. In his editor’s note in that first issue, he wrote, “It is the singular felicity of Americans and a circumstance that distinguishes this country from all others that the means of information are accessible to all descriptions of people.” An informed citizenry, Webster believed, could help Americans tackle all the political and economic challenges that they faced.
Minerva is the Roman name for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, wit and war. As was common in the early Republic, Webster often looked to ancient Rome for inspiration.
Webster’s Federalist organ quickly made a mark. A few weeks after its launch, Vice President John Adams wrote from Philadelphia to his wife, Abigail, of New York’s new publishing phenomenon, “Mr. Noah Webster who is lately removed from Hartford to that city . . . is said to conduct his gazette with judgment and spirit upon good principles.”
One of Webster’s first tasks was to bring down his old nemesis, Genet, whose fortunes were already tumbling. On December 5, when Washington attacked Genet on the floor of Congress, most congressmen sided with the president. Webster kept up the pressure. In an editorial addressed to Genet a few weeks later, he insisted that the American people were too savvy to fall for his duplicity: “Had you passed a few weeks only in acquiring a slight knowledge of the American yeomanry, you would have discovered real people, as little known to Europeans as the fabled Amazons of antiquity. A people in short who are not found in any other region of the globe, a people who know their rights and will neither suffer you or any other man to invade them.” Genet soon also lost the support of his own countrymen. The following month, the new Jacobin government issued an arrest notice, demanding his return to France. Fearing the guillotine, Genet immediately appealed for political asylum, which Washington approved. In a strange twist, Genet married Cordelia Clinton, the daughter of New York’s governor, in November 1794, and the newlyweds settled on a Long Island farm.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25, 1793, was a normal business day for Webster. He went ahead with the publication of his paper that afternoon. The Christmas edition featured an article on Genet; some death statistics from Philadelphia, recently hit by an outbreak of yellow fever; and a rental ad for the front room of his Queen Street home (which he figured could be used as a hardware store). Webster also stuck in an item praising his Prompter, which claimed that “many householders deem it so useful as to purchase a copy for every adult in their families.” Webster wasn’t celebrating Christmas—then dismissed as “a popish holiday” by Congregationalists; he was thinking about how to define America.
Webster put his musings in a letter to his friend Jedidiah Morse, who was seeking help with a geographical dictionary that would include a “description of all the places in America.” A few years earlier, Webster had contributed a twenty-page review of U.S. history after the Revolution to Morse’s American Geography, a textbook for schoolchildren. (Nearly as successful as Webster’s speller, this frequently reprinted book later earned Morse the sobriquet “Father of American Geography.”) A recent Yale graduate (whose first child, Samuel, the inventor of the telegraph, would later paint a celebrated portrait of Webster), Jedidiah Morse was then serving as pastor in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Webster was eager to pitch in. After all, Morse’s project bore a close resemblance to the elaborate fantasy that he had hatched five years earlier, in which proprietors scattered across the nation would funnel information about America back to him. However, one obstacle remained. “Indeed it appears to me,” Webster had written Morse on September 20, “very difficult to ascertain what I have to do or what will be the portion of labor each of us must bestow. This is my great objection to undertaking such a work with others.”
Having settled in New York, Webster was now ready to address the thorny matter of exactly how they might collaborate. In his Christmas Day letter, he suggested the following protocol: “My idea is that each of us take a state—give the best account of each town, river, &c in that state that we can; each place on a detached sheet of paper—all which papers may be easily stitched together. When I have finished that state, I will forward the MSS to you—and you may supply all you know, in addition to my account and & so vice versa. . . . After the description of each place is completed, the separate sheets can be arranged alphabetically and numbered.”
Morse eagerly embraced Webster’s ideas. In fact, in his response in early January, he insisted on adding a few more touches to the already elaborate protocol. The two men, Morse wrote, should also be sure to fold the paper in quarto so that the margins could be a quarter of an inch all around. In addition, they might also put the first letters of the place described on a given sheet in the top left corner—say, BOS for Boston. Though Webster couldn’t wait to get started on this massive task of compiling and arranging, his newspaper work intruded. Three years later, he would concede defeat, writing Morse, “My own labors require all the nerves I have.” While Morse went on to complete the book by himself, The American Gazetteer, published in 1797, showed signs of Webster’s influence. To describe Lower Manhattan, Morse recycled Webster’s “Description of New York”—an essay that ended up serving as a model for Morse’s own entries, many of which included precise house counts.
Webster’s first three years as editor were trying. Unable to afford an assistant, he had to do everything himself, including correcting proofs and paying the bills. He would later recall, “My labors in writing and editing and translating from the French papers were very severe.” His body started to register the stress almost immediately. On two occasions that first winter, Webster was terrified to discover that his pulse was barely perceptible. Once again, financial aid from James Greenleaf (and the promise of more if needed) proved life-saving. In a letter dated Sunday, March 2, 1794, Webster wrote to Greenleaf, who was away on business, “My resources are exhausted. . . . I hope to receive more money from some gentlemen in this city, but I am not certain of it. . . . Becca & myself have sometimes hard struggles to keep our spirits up, but we have dismissed one servant & we endeavor to retrench every unnecessary expense.” Time also became a precious commodity. On April 23, he noted in his diary, “It is too much trouble to make particular remarks every day.”
During his first six months at the helm of his paper, Webster provided constant coverage of the major international story of the day: the emergence of the “Reign of Terror” in France. Besides posting extracts from the French papers, Webster wrote a series of editorials which he republished that spring as the pamphlet “The Revolution in France Considered in Respect to Its Progress and Effects.” As in his slavery essay, here, too, Webster showed little patience for abstract theorizing. Results were all that counted. Though he was supportive of the ideals of the Revolution, he was horrified by the attendant chaos. To capture his sentiments, for the only time in his life the future lexicographer felt compelled to coin a neologism: “All wars have, if I may use a new, but emphatic word, a demoralizing tendency; but the revolution in France, in addition to the usual influence of war, is attended with a total change in the minds of the people.” Webster was convinced that the rejection of religion promoted violence and lawlessness. With Jeffersonian Democrats continuing to look to France for guidance, Webster was concerned that the mayhem might spill over into America. On April 20, 1794, he sent a copy to President Washington: “The enclosed is intended to aid the cause of government and peace. . . . Be pleased to accept it as a proof of my attachment to you and the Constitution of the United States.” On May 9, 1794, the president issued a warm response, noting that “your motives in writing it are highly laudable, and I sincerely wish they may meet the reward which is due to them.”
In June, with the Minerva down to just 250 subscribers—half the number needed to remain viable—Webster was despondent. Though he was enraged with his partner, the printer George Bunce, whom he considered incompetent, he wasn’t about to give up. He started a semi-weekly offshoot called The Herald: A Gazette for the Country. He tailored this paper, also a four-pager and consisting entirely of previously published Minerva articles, to readers outside of New York. He would exclude the advertising to save on the hefty postage costs and cut the price in half. On launch day, June 4, 1794, Webster promised his readers, “The compiler will spare no pains to render it respectable in regard to the purity, authenticity, variety and value of its materials.” As a newspaper man, Webster considered himself less an editor than a compiler, which he would define in 1828 as “one who forms . . . a composition from various authors or separate papers.” Organizing information would be central to most of his literary labors.
Despite his frantic efforts, Webster wasn’t able to improve the balance sheets of his papers right away. In December 1794, he complained to Hudson and Goodwin, the Hartford publisher of his speller, with his characteristic hyperbole, “I have endured more drudgery and suffered more anxiety on account of the bad execution of the paper, than perhaps ever fell to the lot of man in the same time; partly from the difficulties attending a new business . . . and partly from the inability of Bunce.” But Webster’s persistence eventually paid off. By 1796, he was earning “handsome profits” and was able to hire an assistant editor and clerk. The following year, when American Minerva was renamed The Commercial Advertiser, circulation was up to seventeen hundred subscribers, some five hundred more than its nearest competitor. His net profit, Webster estimated, was the considerable sum of five thousand dollars a year.
Back in 1794, when his papers were still in the red, Webster was also coping with a series of personal losses. As the “mortuary notice” in the Courant on October 13, 1794, put it, “Died at West-Hartford, the 5th instant, the wife of Noah Webster, Esq. aged 67.” Webster was caught off guard because his mother had been in robust health; the cause was a sudden attack of dysentery. A harried Webster didn’t attend the funeral. As he had grown closer to Rebecca’s family, he had grown further and further apart from his own parents. Webster would continue to have only occasional contact with his father, who in 1806, at the age of eighty-four, moved into the West Division farm of a new bride, Sarah Hopkins. Squire Webster, despite his prominent social status, would still have to beseech his son for an occasional twenty-dollar bill until his death in 1813.
That October, Webster’s intimate friendship with James Greenleaf, who had repeatedly provided a financial lifeline, also drew to an abrupt close. A few months earlier, Webster had gotten his first inkling that Greenleaf might not be quite the man he professed to be. On July 26, 1794, Nathaniel Appleton wrote from Washington, where he was helping out with the real estate transactions, “[Brother James] makes large & bold speculations hitherto they have proved successful. . . . I frequently wish however for his sake, as well as my own, that his concerns were not so extensive.” In his visits back to the Queen Street house, Greenleaf, who no longer seemed interested in reuniting with his Dutch wife, would raise a ruckus with his drinking companions. Webster was aghast, and on October 11, he put his foot down, writing in a note to Greenleaf, “When you are at home, the house work is greatly increased, & Becca is compelled to become servant herself. . . . the perpetual run of company, often thrown upon her without notice . . . wounds her pride. . . . You cannot conceive how unhappy you make her.” Greenleaf soon moved out of both Webster’s house and his life. Of the man who had bankrolled him during the first few years of his marriage, Webster would tell Rebecca’s brother Daniel in 1797, “I knew his baseness years ago, and thanks to my good fortune, I quarreled myself out of his clutches.”
By 1797, James Greenleaf also was persona non grata with the rest of the family because of his shady business dealings. In 1795, Greenleaf and his two well-heeled partners, Nicholson and Morris, formed the North American Land Company, which expanded their speculative ventures across the South. But Greenleaf proved dishonest, and the following year, both partners wanted nothing more to do with him. Greenleaf was soon besieged by angry creditors. In July 1796, Greenleaf wrote to Alexander Hamilton, offering a fifth of his net worth—then a staggering $5 million—if the prominent attorney would lend his “name, responsibility and talents in the liquidation of my concerns and payment of my obligations.” Hamilton turned him down. Two years later, a penniless Greenleaf was whisked off to Philadelphia’s Prune Street Debtors’ Prison. In April 1798, the New London Bee identified Webster as one of the prominent Federalist editors whom this disgraced “bankrupt speculating nabob” had once bankrolled.
As 1794 wound down, Webster was turning his attention from France to its neighbor across the Channel. In November, President Washington’s special envoy, John Jay, negotiated a commercial treaty with England, which addressed several nagging conflicts dating back to the Revolution. At the time, the British still maintained a strong presence in the Northwest Territories and routinely seized American ships bound for France (along with their cargo, which included slaves). Under the terms of the agreement, the British promised a gradual pull-out from the Northwest, but little else. Though Jay’s Treaty would manage to avert another war with England, it was not popular even among some of Washington’s staunchest supporters. Sensitive to the fervent opposition, which would deepen the divide between the Federalists and Republicans, Washington delayed passing it on to the Senate for six months.
The Minerva immediately rallied to Washington’s defense. Soon after hammering out the treaty, Jay, who was by now Webster’s close friend, began forwarding exclusive materials from London for publication. In July 1795, Webster followed up by writing the first of ten pro-treaty editorials. Using the pen name “Curtius,” Webster was responding to a writer posing as “Decius,” who was attacking the Washington administration in the Argus, a competing New York paper. Webster’s position was pragmatic. To his Yale classmate Oliver Wolcott, who had recently replaced Hamilton as secretary of the treasury, he acknowledged that while “the Treaty, as modified by the Senate, makes no sacrifices which are dishonorable to us as a nation . . . my own hopes are in some measure disappointed.” After reading the first installment, Thomas Jefferson, who, like many readers, assumed that “Curtius” was Alexander Hamilton, realized that the Republicans were facing a formidable opponent. To his fellow Virginian James Madison, Jefferson wrote, “Hamilton is really a Colossus to the anti-republican party. . . . In truth, when he [“Curtius”] comes forward, there is nobody but yourself who can meet him.” In fact, Hamilton himself would soon enter into the debate, writing three dozen essays in support of Washington’s second administration under the pseudonym “Camillus.” But Webster would succeed, as he proudly noted in his memoir, in out-Hamiltoning Hamilton. After the treaty was funded in April 1796, Webster overheard Senator Rufus King telling Jay, then New York’s governor, that “Webster’s writings had done more to quiet the public mind and reconcile people to the treaty than the writings of Mr. Hamilton . . . [due to his] style and manner of treating the subject.” Webster, who would have a dramatic falling-out with Hamilton in 1800, was delighted by the idea that posterity might consider him the more articulate Federalist scribe.
In the wake of the Jay Treaty, Webster’s papers became required reading for the nation’s elite. He was now at the pinnacle of American journalism. On February 9, 1795, his brother-in-law Thomas Dawes reported from Boston, “I am highly gratified by the success of your paper. It is my duty to tell you that I hear it spoken of in the most flattering terms in all companies. I suppose, tho’ you can tell the best, it has the greatest currency of any composition of the kind on the Continent.” On February 13, a proud Webster reported to his Hartford friend Josiah Blakely, who had undertaken new business ventures in the Caribbean, “My family are generally well—my business not ill and growing better. . . . Our country enjoys peace and unexampled [sic] prosperity.”
But his calm didn’t last long. By the end of July, New York City came face-to-face with one of the most serious public health crises in its history. Yellow fever—so called because its victims looked as “yellow as gold”—was back. The viral disease, which had literally decimated New York in 1702, was now working its way across the entire eastern seaboard. For the next four months, the specter of imminent death would hang over every New Yorker.
TWO YEARS EARLIER, when Webster first heard of the “raging malady” in Philadelphia, he was deeply shaken. On September 26, 1793, he wrote Oliver Wolcott, then still working under Hamilton at Treasury, “The melancholy accounts received from you and others of the progress of a fatal disease . . . excite commiseration in every breast. An alarm is spread over the country.” In fact, that fall, President Washington was whisked away from the capital, and the entire U.S. government was nearly shut down. While other cities remained largely unaffected, Webster immediately became interested in the many scientific questions surrounding what the Philadelphia College of Physicians initially termed “the plague.” He was eager to classify the menace as quickly as possible. On October 10, 1793, as he was preparing to leave Hartford, he wrote Wolcott, “I am not acquainted with diseases of this kind; but I have an idea that the plague of the Levant, the yellow fever of the West Indies and the malignant fevers of our country are all diseases of the same genus.” He also tried to keep track of the body count. “Fever in Philadelphia carries off 159 in a day,” ran the entry the following day in his diary. Though by November the disorder in Philadelphia abated, it had felled five thousand city residents in just a few months.
In the spring of 1795, upon hearing reports of a new outbreak of yellow fever in the West Indies, New York City health officials issued an edict requiring ships originating from that destination to be anchored at least a quarter mile from the city’s shores. New York’s first casualty was a man named Thomas Foster, who initially sought medical help from Dr. Malachi Treat, the health officer to the city’s port, on July 6, 1795. According to the account of Dr. Treat’s assistant, Dr. Valentine Seaman, Foster’s bright yellow skin was “covered with purple spots, his mind deranged, his tongue covered with a dry black sordes, with hemorrhages from his gums and nose, and a discharge of black and very offensive matter from his stomach and bowels.” Foster died on July 9. Two weeks later, Dr. Treat himself was stricken, and by the end of the month, he, too, was gone. In mid-August, as two New Yorkers a day were dying, the city’s physicians were ordered to quarantine all afflicted patients at Bellevue Hospital.
Soon Webster, like the rest of his fellow New Yorkers, could think of little else. On the evening of September 16, the young doctor Elihu Hubbard Smith, upon returning home from a visit to Webster’s home, wrote in his diary, “This whole city is in a violent state of alarm on account of the fever. It is the subject of every conversation, at every hour, and in every company; and each circumstance of terror acquires redoubled horror, from every new relation. In reality there is reason to be alarmed. I am told that 24 persons died yesterday.”
Even more frightening, the epidemic was no longer confined to the harbor. As Dr. Seaman would also report, “For in every . . . situation, favoring the accumulation of filth and stagnation of putrefactive materials, there it [the fever] was no stranger.” And with few sanitation measures yet in place, Manhattan was a virtual garbage dump. Rotten cabbage along with dead rats and pigs could be found in the middle of just about every street, alley and bylane. Elegant Pearl Street, where Elihu Smith (who had learned music from Webster as a Connecticut schoolboy) also lived in a rented room, was no exception. In fact, its stench, as Webster reported in the Minerva, was so overpowering that he often felt a need to keep the windows closed—even on hot days—to avoid vomiting. Webster feared that the sink right in front of his house, which contained the kitchen refuse and yard wash of the surrounding lots, was a breeding ground for the deadly disease. By mid-October, New York was already mourning its five hundredth casualty.
On October 27, the day after returning to New York from a brief trip to Philadelphia, the Websters hosted Smith and a couple of other guests for tea. While Webster fulminated about the treachery of Edmond Randolph, who had recently resigned as secretary of state when Washington learned of his secret negotiations with the French, politics weren’t the primary focus of the evening. “Much talk about the fever,” noted Smith.
Once again, high anxiety pushed Webster to new creative heights. Feeling compelled to do something, he took the only kind of decisive action of which he was capable—he began compiling and arranging the facts of the epidemic.
In the October 31 edition of his paper, Webster printed a circular addressed to the physicians of Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Norfolk and New Haven, the cities hardest hit over the past three years. “To decide on the nature and origin of the yellow fever,” he asserted, “we want the evidence of facts; and it is not improbable that facts have occurred in the U. States, sufficient in number and clearness to furnish . . . universal conviction, shall those facts [be] . . . ordered to the public in a mass.” Webster asked the physicians to pass on whatever information they had gathered from their own practice. This questionnaire, which he designed in an attempt to restore “happiness” and “prosperity” to his country, was the world’s first scientific survey; it also helped give birth to modern medical research. Inspired by Webster, Elihu Smith released a similar circular a year later, in which he solicited research on the fever from physicians across the country. Smith soon found a home for these articles by starting The Medical Repository, America’s first medical journal.
Despite the gravity of this crisis, Webster’s Republican counterparts could not resist the temptation to pounce on him. On November 6, Dr. Franklin’s grandson, the editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, mocked “Noah Webster, Esq., Author and Physician General of the United States” in a letter published in his Philadelphia paper, the Aurora. Accusing Webster of venturing into an arena he knew nothing about, Bache stated, “It is to be deplored, sapient sir. . . . that not a physician, no not one can be found to investigate its origin. . . . To the author of the Institutes, the Editor of the Minerva . . . is reserved the honor and the glory to triumph over a malady.” (In a cruel irony, a few years later, the disease would level Bache at the age of twenty-nine.) But Webster was undeterred. After the fever dissipated in late November—New York’s final death toll was 730 people, the equivalent of about two hundred thousand today—he kept up his furious correspondence with the numerous physicians who responded to his query.
In mid-1796, Webster published these reports in his book A Collection of Papers on the Subject of Bilious Fevers, prevalent in the United States for a Few Years Past. Webster’s 250-page volume consisted of ten chapters, the first eight of which contained contributions by leading physicians such as his New York neighbors, Elihu Smith and Samuel Mitchill. Their accounts were short on hard data. For example, noting that poor immigrants constituted a significant percentage of the dead, Smith postulated that “the sudden intermingling of people of various and discordant habits [was] a circumstance favoring the production of disease.” Smith also agreed with the conventional wisdom, first articulated by Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush, that blood-letting was the most effective form of treatment. In the last two chapters, Webster—who repeatedly referred to himself as the “compiler”—presented his own observations and conclusions. While Webster was unable to prove his hypothesis, which posited that the fever’s spread had something to do with the city’s grime, he nevertheless saw this scourge as a vindication of the virtues he lived by. In the book’s last lines, he implored his fellow countrymen “to pay a double regard to the duties of order, temperance and cleanliness. The most fatal effects follow from neglect in these particulars.”
Webster soon became a fierce advocate for tidying up America. Over the next year, in frequent editorials in his paper, Webster put pressure on city officials to step up efforts to water and sweep New York’s streets. In the fall of 1797, Webster followed up with a series of twenty-five letters to the Philadelphia physician William Currie, challenging his view that the disease was of foreign origin. As Webster argued, since “plagues are children of cities, camps and unwholesome places,” America was what needed to be fixed. For Webster, eliminating this public health menace required changing the “structure and arrangement” of all cities across the nation. In Webster’s utopian vision, urban planners would unite “the utility of the town with the salubrious air of the country.” “All populous towns in the United States,” he predicted in his last letter to Currie, published on December 20, 1797, “will hereafter be afflicted with malignant fevers and plague, unless a speedy and effectual stop should be put to 30 feet streets, 20 feet lots and contiguous homes.” While Webster’s letters to Currie received plaudits from many eminent medical men, including Benjamin Rush, his doomsday scenario didn’t spur anyone to action.
Though Webster couldn’t reorder America, he could change his own place of residence. In the first half of 1796, he moved his family into Corlear’s Hook, a section a mile north of downtown—near Grand Street today—which came close to his urban paradise. His detached villa, which jutted out into the East River, featured an elegant garden. The Connecticut farmboy could once again keep a horse, and he enjoyed commuting to his office at 40 Pine Street on horseback. Webster’s spacious home also became a haven for numerous stray cats that had been displaced by the pestilence. On April 6, 1797, about a year after the move, Webster’s third child, a daughter named Harriet, was born there. Elihu Smith provided medical care to the three Webster girls, and also frequently walked up from downtown for tea and lively conversation. In his diary, Smith described Webster’s “country house” as “a pleasant place.”
Smith, who remained Webster’s closest New York friend, shared both his thirst for knowledge and some of his eccentricities. The doctor’s copious diaries include “Tables of Industry,” in which he tallied up the number (and size) of the pages he read and wrote each month. Smith was the founder of a conversation society called the Friendly Club, a successor to Webster’s own Philological Society. Though not a member himself, Webster fraternized with the major figures, who included William Dunlap and Samuel Mitchill, both active in his earlier group; the lawyer James Kent; Charles Adams, the dissolute son of President John Adams; and Charles Brockden Brown, later dubbed “the father of the American novel.” The British artist James Sharples, who painted the last sitting portrait of Washington in 1796, also hovered around these literati and created pastels of most of them.
Once he moved to Corlear’s Hook, Webster’s daily life was much less harried. Though his pen still churned out copy at a furious pace—the equivalent of about five octavo volumes of prose a year, according to his own estimate—with the help of his small staff, he could often return home by late afternoon. Nevertheless, the numbness of his first few years in New York gave way to a gnawing unhappiness. The intense partisan wrangling was proving too much even for the perpetually argumentative Webster. William Cobbett, the editor of the Philadelphia newspaper Porcupine’s Gazette, repeatedly heaped abuse on him, flinging around epithets such as “a most gross calumniator, a great fool and a barefaced liar.” Moreover, Webster’s heart just wasn’t in the newspaper business any longer. He missed more probing scholarly investigations.
Artist James Sharples charged fifteen dollars for a profile and twenty dollars for a portrait. Webster chose the more expensive option, which required two hours of sitting.
Though editing kept him immersed in words, he was “growing weary of the drudgery,” using the term that his idol Samuel Johnson had famously applied to lexicography. For Johnson, the writer of dictionaries was “an unhappy mortal” who toiled “at the lower employments of life.” Not so for Webster. What had once been a chore for Johnson remained Webster’s overriding fantasy, his dream job. A decade earlier, after he had completed his tripartite Grammatical Institute, the Reverend Elizur Goodrich of Durham, a friend and Yale trustee, had suggested that Webster round out his pedagogical legacy by compiling a dictionary. Other friends and colleagues also planted this seed, such as the Maine writer Daniel George, who, after reading two of Webster’s books on language, wrote in 1790, “But, Sir, we must . . . have a Dictionary, and to YOU we must look for this necessary work.” Webster heartily agreed with such sentiments, but as long as he was struggling financially, he was forced to dismiss this massive project as impractical. In late 1796, he confided his frustration to fellow author Joseph Dennie: “I once intended to have devoted my life to literary pursuits. The cold hand of poverty chilled my hopes, but has not wholly blasted them. The necessity of attending to business to procure a living for my little family retards my projects, but they are not abandoned. My plan of education is barely begun. When I shall complete it is uncertain.” His true talent, Webster felt, was “buried.”
But not for much longer. Two years later, buoyed by a steady stream of income from his papers and books, Webster plotted his return to the literary obsessions that gave meaning to his existence. In the spring of 1798, the thirty-nine-year-old father of three handed off the management of his Pine Street office to George Hopkins, the publisher who had replaced Bunce, and moved to New Haven. Of his newspapers, he “would have no care . . . farther than to give them their political complexion.” Now free to spend his days compiling and organizing words, Webster would suddenly come smack up against a more intimidating adversary than polemical journalists: his own inner demons.