LANGUAGE, n. 1. Human speech; the expression of ideas by words or significant articulate sounds, for the communication of thoughts. Language consists in the oral utterance of sounds, which usage has made the representatives of ideas. When two or more persons customarily annex the same sounds to the same ideas, the expression of these sounds by one person communicates his ideas to another. This is the primary sense of language, the use of which is to communicate the thoughts of one person to another through the organs of hearing. Articulate sounds are represented by letters, marks or characters which form words. . . . 5. The inarticulate sounds by which irrational animals express their feelings and wants. Each species of animals has peculiar sounds, which are uttered instinctively, and are understood by its own species, and its own species only.
RIVAL, n. 1. One who is in pursuit of the same object as another; one striving to reach or obtain something which another is attempting to obtain, and which one only can possess; a competitor; as rival in love; rivals for a crown. Love will not patiently bear a rival. 2. One striving to equal or exceed another in excellence; as two rivals in eloquence. 3. An antagonist; a competitor in any pursuit or strife.
It was a house that defined grandeur.
Back in 1771, its original owner built the mansion to make a statement. The two pillars on either side of the front door were meant to demonstrate that someone important lived there. So, too, were the other trappings—the white picket fence, the louvered windows, the mahogany paneling and the second outhouse. The West Indian trader, who had recently amassed a fortune, was eager to gain entrance into the upper echelons of New Haven society.
The one-acre, eighteen-perch (rod) estate at 155 Water Street, overlooking Long Island Sound where the merchant’s three ships were docked, would eventually become the most famous piece of real estate in New Haven. But not entirely for the reasons that the man—Benedict Arnold—had hoped. His infamy also helped to create its legend.
In 1782, shortly after Arnold was discovered to have “joined the enemies of the United States,” the State of Connecticut confiscated the property and sold it to the Revolutionary War hero Captain John Prout Sloan. After Sloan died in 1786, his widow, Mary, stayed on.
That was, until April 1, 1798, when the Websters moved in. The price: $2,066.66, which Webster paid in full to Mrs. Sloan a month and a half later.
For Webster, as opposed to Arnold, the two-story Georgian house represented not his entrance into society but his retreat from it. Escaping New York, Webster sought insulation from “the bustl of commerce & the taste of people perpetually inquiring for news and making bargains.” As he also noted in his diary, he was taking refuge in the familiar: “the State of Connecticut, my acquaintances, [and] my [literary] habits.” The site of his college triumphs did indeed prove welcoming to Webster, who would become a local celebrity. As one neighbor later put it, Noah and Rebecca Webster “were the most noticeable people who walked the streets [of New Haven] both for their beauty of face and elegance of carriage.”
Webster relished what stood behind the house—the stable (he would never again live without a horse) and the garden. Webster was proud of his peach and cherry trees, as well as his neatly arranged flower beds. And his neighbors in what one contemporary writer called “the Eden of the Union” were of a like mind. “The neatness of [New Haven’s] houses,” wrote Timothy Dwight, who had succeeded Ezra Stiles as Yale’s president in 1795, “is extended to everything around them. Little that is old or unrepaired meets the eye. The courts, and garden, which exist almost everywhere are prettily enclosed. Fruit trees, and ornamental trees and shrubs, abound every where.”
Over the next decade and a half, Webster would raise his rapidly expanding family in this “lovely home,” as his fifth daughter, Eliza, born there in 1803, later observed. A stickler for symmetry, Webster had hoped for ten children. “Let units be tens,” he would blurt out at the family dinner table. But he had to settle for seven. The other additions were Mary, born in 1799; William, his sole male heir, born two years later; and his last child, Louisa, who would be saddled with an unidentified mental handicap, born in 1808. Another son, Henry, born in 1806, lived just nine weeks.
The Benedict Arnold House, as Webster himself referred to the first home he ever owned, was shrouded in mystery until the day it was torn down in 1917. The large attic, which was used as a children’s playroom, contained an old scabbard said to have once covered one of Arnold’s swords. To head up the wooden stairs to play with their dolls, the Webster girls had to turn a big key, which, according to rumor, once opened a jail cell. Likewise, legend had it that Arnold built the basement vaults as a hideaway either for himself or for goods “that had not paid an entrance fee to the country.”
The second-floor study—right over the east parlor (which served as the family dining room)—with its big window seat was Webster’s sanctum sanctorum, where he found the peace he urgently sought. By the time he arrived in New Haven, Webster had difficulty coping with the stresses of daily life; and nothing was more unsettling to him than having to relate to other people. “Either from the structure of my mind or from my modes of investigation,” he would acknowledge a few years later, “I am led very often to differ in opinion from many of my respectable fellow citizens. . . . it [is] necessary for me to withdraw myself from every public concern and confine my attention to private affairs and the education of my children.”
Twenty years after finishing Yale, Webster was no longer an adventurous youth, but a chronically anxious middle-aged man who felt, as he wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1801, a need to “husband my health with the utmost care.” From his second-floor cocoon, Webster would attempt to preserve his mental equilibrium by taking on a series of scholarly projects, which all involved organizing vast amounts of information.
AFTER CAPTAIN JOHN MILES’ BOAT dropped the family off in New Haven, Webster first spent a week and a half arranging the furniture in the Arnold House; then, on April 10, 1798, as he noted in his diary, he dug in: “Begin to write my History of Epidemic Diseases, from materials which I have been three months collecting.”
In late 1797, just as he was finishing up the last of his twenty-five letters to Dr. Currie, Webster had started to write the definitive work on epidemics. Eager to uncover the root causes of yellow fever, Webster felt it necessary to “trace back the history of such diseases as far as the records of history extend.” In early 1798, he scoured the new nation’s major research libraries in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and New Haven. On March 17, as he was preparing to leave New York, he issued a circular in his paper seeking subscribers for his new book. “The facts collected,” Webster insisted, “will enable me to demonstrate that many of the common ideas respecting pestilential epidemics are unfounded or extremely incorrect.” With few readers willing to shell out the two dollars he requested, Webster wasn’t able to publish the volume that summer as originally intended. But though the public balked, Webster did continue to receive encouragement from fellow scholars. In late April, Benjamin Rush wrote from Philadelphia, “Go on—go on with your inquiries. Cause physicians to blush, and instruct mankind to throw off their allegiance to them. Posterity will do you justice. The man who . . . persuades the world to conform to it [the truth], will deserve more of the human race than all the heroes, or statesmen that ever lived.” The challenge appealed to Webster’s grandiosity. This die-hard contrarian relished the chance to contradict—if not demolish—the authorities behind the conventional wisdom.
That spring, Webster also started compiling facts of another kind. Delighted to be back in his home state, he suddenly felt a compelling need to do a complete inventory. On May 7, 1798, he drafted yet another circular, which he addressed to the state’s clergymen: “Gentlemen . . . I have some leisure and great inclination to be instrumental in bringing forward a correct view of the civil and domestic economy of this state, and if you will furnish me with the materials, I will arrange and publish them in a form that will . . . supply the present defect of such a work.” Webster was seeking factoids that he had monitored before, such as house and church counts as well as death statistics. His questionnaire also asked about “mode of cultivation, as to order of crops; species of manure used; produce of crops by the acre.” To prepare for this undertaking, Webster himself began tallying various bits of statistical information about Connecticut—its number of oxen, horses, coaches, chaises and the like.
But few of the clergymen seemed to share Webster’s passion for number-crunching. Only Reverend Frederick William Hotchkiss of Saybrook responded, and his remarks were often imprecise. Next to climate, for example, Reverend Hotchkiss wrote “good.” A frustrated Webster had no choice but to give up. But, as he later noted on his copy of this 1798 questionnaire, “This project was never carried into effect, but it may have had an influence in exciting other gentlemen to form the Connecticut Academy.” In fact, in 1799, Timothy Dwight became the founding president of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, a literary and scientific group. And in early 1800, with the help of its corresponding secretary, Noah Webster, Jr., the CAAS sent off its own thirty-item questionnaire, a reworking of Webster’s 1798 version, to all of Connecticut’s 107 towns. The so-called statistical account project resulted in several detailed town histories—replete with statistics—such as a hundred-page one by Dwight on New Haven, published in 1811.
ON JULY 4, 1798, Webster was the featured speaker of New Haven’s Independence Day celebration at the Brick Meeting House. This honor bestowed by the town’s elders signified that Webster had arrived. The following year, Webster would become a member of New Haven’s Common Council; and within a few years, he was also serving both as a justice of the peace and as a representative in the Connecticut state legislature.
However, it was not Webster’s official Independence Day oration but rather his second set of remarks that afternoon, a short impromptu speech given on top of a banquet table, that had the bigger impact on his new neighbors.
On the morning of the Fourth, all New Havenites were roused out of bed at precisely 4 a.m., when bells were rung and cannon balls discharged. But the break in the heat wave made getting up less of a chore; for the first time in days, the thermometer wouldn’t reach the mid-90s. At nine, Webster joined a long and well-choreographed procession that moved from the “new township” (near today’s Wooster Square) up Chapel Street, before snaking its way over to the Green, which, like the Yale chapel, was draped in red, white and blue. At the head marched the Governor’s Guard and several artillery companies. Webster paraded near the front along with Timothy Dwight. Right behind the two speakers trailed the state’s judges and New Haven’s mayor.
After a military review, Webster and the other marchers walked into Center Church. Soon New Haven’s inhabitants filed in; while men found spots on the ground floor, the ladies, wearing cockades in their hats, headed to the galleries. In the pews of the 75-by-55-foot church, filled to its capacity of nine hundred, were also seated both clergymen and residents from neighboring towns.
Dwight gave his sermon first. He began by reading from the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation (“Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.”) and then advised his fellow citizens to avoid France’s slide into atheism. Noting that “Sin is the nakedness and shame of the scriptures and righteousness the garment which covers it,” Dwight moved many to tears. As the reporter for The New York Gazette put it, Dwight’s sentiments merited “being written in letters of gold and affixed to every conspicuous place.”
After Dwight finished leading a series of prayers, Webster stepped toward the pulpit at the west side of the church. In his prepared remarks, Webster, too, would focus on the most pressing political issue of the day—the growing tension between America and France, then close to the boiling point. Since the passage of the Jay Treaty, which had strengthened America’s bond with England, the French had cast a wary eye across the Atlantic. Routinely seizing American trading ships, the French refused to seat the American ambassador. The “XYZ Affair,” revealed by President John Adams a few months earlier, in which French agents had demanded a substantial bribe in return for resuming negotiations, was just the latest in a long string of overtly hostile acts toward America.
While most Americans shared Webster’s frustration with French perfidy—in fact, just three days later Congress would officially rescind existing treaties and gird the nation for war—Webster’s sense of outrage knew no bounds. He launched into an assault on all things French, including those very ideas that had helped launch the American Revolution. “Such are the inevitable consequences,” Webster asserted, “of that false philosophy which has been preached by Rousseau, Condorcet, Godwin and other visionaries who sit down in their closets to frame systems of government, which are as unfit for practice, as a vessel of paper for the transportation of men on the troubled ocean.”
But Webster didn’t stop there. Included in his rebuke were all Americans who expressed opposition to Federalist policies, and no one more so than their ringleader, Jefferson, whom he compared unfavorably to the subject of his current book project—the yellow fever. As he stated, “In all ages of the world, a political projector or system-monger of popular talents has been a greater scourge to society than a pestilence.” Webster refused to let go of his outdated concept of American unity, which saw political parties as inherently dangerous. Equating open debate with chaos, Webster preached obedience to authority: “Let us never forget that the cornerstone of all republican governments is that the will of every citizen is controlled by the laws or the supreme will of the state.” Like Dwight, within just two decades this veteran of the Battle of Saratoga had gone from revolutionary to counterrevolutionary.
After Webster concluded, the procession regrouped and headed next door to the state house. In the open hall on the third floor, Webster was among the three hundred and fifty gentlemen who feasted on a sumptuous dinner. The President of the Day, Isaac Beers the bookseller, led a total of sixteen toasts, beginning with “the United States” and ending with “the Day.” The town’s ladies congregated separately for tea under a bower in the New Gardens, where the men joined them later that afternoon.
The whole crowd sang “Hail, Columbia,” America’s unofficial national anthem, whose lyrics Joseph Hopkinson had penned earlier that year. Then suddenly Webster’s former classmate Josiah Meigs, who had recently returned to Yale as a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, jumped up on a table. A firm supporter of the French Revolution, Meigs was outside of the political mainstream in Federalist Connecticut. His words silenced the crowd: “In 1793, the bones of multitudes of our fellow citizens lay unburied on Long Island exposed to the summer’s sun. I insisted that they ought to be buried.” By harking back to British atrocities committed during the Revolution, Meigs was underlining the distastefulness of allying with Britain against France. Beers then remarked as to how the social mirth of the day had been interrupted.
Seizing the opportunity, Webster himself leaped up onto the table and passed by Meigs. “True it is,” he shouted, “many of our fellow citizens perished in the revolution and their bones might have been exposed. No man regrets or honors the brave men more than I. But I pledge my word to lay my own bones with them sooner than surrender the independence of my country to the French!” A thunderous applause rang out, along with calls for Webster to drop his hat. Removing the flowers that hung on their breasts, the ladies created a garland, which they placed around Webster’s hat. The “Presidente” [sic] of the ladies, Mary Clap Wooster, the wife of the Revolutionary War hero Major General David Wooster, then had the great pleasure to crown Webster. After proposing a toast to General Wooster, Webster led the crowd in another chorus of “Hail, Columbia”:
Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.
Though not typically exuberant, on this occasion Webster had filled the hearts of those around him with joy. “The spirits of the company which had been damped by the first intrusion were,” The New York Gazette reported, “re-animated and the evening passed off with great mirth and social glee.”
THE HEAT WAVE resumed shortly after Independence Day and lasted through the end of September. One day in August, when Webster stuck his trusted thermometer (which he used to make daily calculations of the temperature in his garden) into the sand on the highway near his house, it registered a sweltering 118 degrees.
Just as Webster returned to his research on yellow fever, the fever itself came back with a vengeance. “The disease assumes,” Webster wrote in his diary, “this year, in Philadelphia and New York more of the characteristics of the plague, is contagious and fatal beyond what has been known in America for a century.” By September, Webster’s paper reported, New York was losing nearly sixty people a day. In his diary, Webster kept close track of the epidemic, which ended abruptly with the arrival of a severe frost and some snow in early November:
Number of deaths in Phil.—3436
d° [ditto] in N York—about 2000
d° in Boston 200
d° in Wilmington 252
d° in New London 80
Included in those disturbing totals were some familiar faces, such as his former New York neighbor, Dr. Elihu Smith, who died in late September. Webster feared that he, too, might be reduced to a statistic. On August 20, as he was finishing up a short stay in New York, during which he saw Smith for the last time, Webster himself was struck down with the same bilious fever that ended up killing several other Connecticut visitors. The cause, he assumed, was breathing poison from the New York air. Miraculously, in Webster’s case, the symptoms were not severe, and by November, he was fully cured. Still, this close call left him shaken. Webster later recorded in his memoir, “From this he recovered; but he had two or three relapses in which the disease took the form of a regular tertian [parasite]. These left him in terrible health, which continued several months. This was the only instance of his being affected with severe disease, after the age of twenty years.” Though physically he was drained, Webster’s mind remained as sharp as ever. On September 26, he published a notice in The Connecticut Journal expressing dissatisfaction with the responses to his query about disease statistics: “But I am sorry to say that the communications do not answer to my views, for want of more precision. The statements will be useless to me unless they specify the year when a particular epidemic prevailed.”
By the end of 1798, Webster finished his Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases with the Principal Phenomena of the Physical World Which Precede Them and Accompany Them and Observations Deduced From the Facts Stated. The title was a misnomer—his two-volume treatise ran to more than seven hundred pages. Due to lackluster interest, Webster delayed publication until the following December. And despite much critical praise in the literary and scientific community, the book never did gain a following among the general public. It sold just a fraction of the thousand copies, leaving Webster out nearly eight hundred dollars.
The first volume traced epidemics throughout history, moving from biblical accounts (namely, chapter five of the Book of Exodus) to medical reports, beginning with the Greeks and going up to the late eighteenth century. In the second volume, Webster provided analysis. Its first chapter, composed entirely of charts, featured bills of mortality for a half-dozen cities (London, Augsburg, Dresden, Paris, Boston and Dublin) over the previous two centuries. After covering this historical turf, Webster tried to explain why his fellow Americans had been dying at such an alarming rate. However, he wasn’t able to refine his thinking beyond the vague environmental causes—dirt, pollution and the like—that he had identified in his earlier book on the subject. Wedded to the empirical method, Webster was forced to acknowledge the tentative nature of his findings: “More materials are necessary to enable us to erect a theory of epidemics which shall deserve full confidence.”
Not sure exactly how to combat this frightening public health menace—he opposed quarantines—Webster looked for a silver lining in the idea that disaster is a necessary tonic, writing, “The natural evils that surround us . . . lay the foundation for the finest feelings of the human heart, compassion and benevolence.” In the long and mostly positive review in his literary journal, The Monthly Review, Charles Brockden Brown found this fatalistic turn puzzling: “The work is concluded with certain moral reflections which are indeed of an equivocal and hazardous kind. . . . The tendencies of the universe and the motives of its maker are to this observer extremely evident.” Webster, Brown felt, was being a bit presumptuous when he concluded that God was using the plague to send a message.
While Webster didn’t pinpoint the cause of the disease, he did help fill a gaping hole in the scholarly literature. Few writers, he aptly noted, had ever attempted systematic studies of medical conditions such as the fever: “In respect to useful history . . . modern compilers appear to have written for fame or money. . . . These observations have arisen out of my enquiries, relative to pestilential diseases. I have discovered that many of the histories or rather abridgements and compilations . . . are very incomplete.” In the final analysis, Webster managed to put public health on a scientific footing. The Johns Hopkins professor Dr. William Osler, a giant of late nineteenth-century medicine, later described Webster’s book as “the most important medical work written in this country by a layman.”
Like most of America’s city dwellers, for the next few years Webster would live in constant fear of another outbreak. “We are well; although we have had slight indispositions, especially of the throat,” he reported to his brother-in-law Daniel Greenleaf a few months after publishing his treatise. “Five or six cases of fever have occurred in New Haven with anomalous symptoms and in August, would be called yellow. But if you read my books, you will see that I am not surprised at this—Don’t say from this that yellow fever is in New Haven. Names are terrible things.” The fever did return intermittently throughout the nineteenth century, but never again with the same intensity as in 1798. Nearly a century later, scientists finally solved the puzzle; the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes.
JUST AS WEBSTER RELEASED his History of Pestilence (the abbreviated title mentioned in newspaper advertisements), he was leveled by some disturbing news out of Virginia. “On the 14th of December 1799,” he recorded in his diary, “died the Great and Good Washington in the 68th year of his age, of a cynaneche tonsillaris, after 24 hours illness. All America mourns.” Since his retirement two years earlier, “the Hero of the Age” had been enjoying robust health; his sudden death left Webster, like the rest of America, nearly speechless with grief. As Webster’s Commercial Advertiser lamented on December 20, “When WASHINGTON IS NO MORE . . . let not the voice of eulogy be heard, lest the weakness of talents, and the deficiency of language do injustice to the lustre and fame of the deceased.” But before too long, Webster sought to become Washington’s biographer. Three months later, he wrote to his longtime friend Timothy Pickering, then secretary of state, for help in currying favor with Judge Bushrod Washington, the late president’s nephew, who held the family papers. “If I had the materials,” Webster stated, “it would be my great pleasure to make the best use of them that my abilities would permit.” In the end, Judge Washington chose John Marshall, the future chief justice, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
After Washington’s death, Webster’s attitude toward national politics changed markedly. For Webster, the chance to serve Washington, his surrogate father whom he never stopped idealizing, had been a unique pleasure. He didn’t feel the same level of commitment to other Federalists. While Webster was a steadfast supporter of John Adams, he was not in awe of the second president. In the fall of 1800, as Adams faced a tough reelection battle against his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, Webster praised the president for his “pure morals,” “firm attachment to republican government” and “inflexible integrity and patriotism.” He also called Adams “the best read statesman that the late Revolution called into notice.” Family connections played a role in Webster’s emergence as an “Adamite”; after all, his brother-in-law William Cranch was Adams’ nephew, and Webster would spend time in Adams’ hometown of Quincy when visiting the Greenleafs in Massachusetts. But Webster could also acknowledge Adams’ faults, such as his “occasional ill humour at unreasonable opposition and hasty expressions of his opinion.”
Webster’s support for Adams’ reelection put him at loggerheads with his former ally, Alexander Hamilton, who throughout the 1790s penned editorials in Webster’s paper. By the election of 1800—which ran from April until October as states held separate votes—Hamilton, who had recently resigned from his post as a major general in the army, had grown disgruntled with Adams. That fall, Hamilton published a fifty-four-page pamphlet that attacked Adams’ character and conduct. While Hamilton recalled with fondness the president’s service during the early stages of the Revolution and offered a lukewarm endorsement of his candidacy, the tone was harsh. After airing his personal grievances (such as the president’s reluctance to name him commander of the army after Washington’s sudden death), Hamilton went on the attack. Alluding to Adams’ “disgusting egotism” and “eccentric tendencies,” the general painted the sitting president as emotionally unstable: “It is a fact that he is often liable to paroxysms of anger which deprive him of self-command and produce very outrageous behavior.”
Not surprisingly, Hamilton’s tirade about Adams’ peevishness enraged Webster, who feared, as did other Federalists, that Hamilton had just handed Jefferson the presidency. Under the pen name “Aristides,” Webster published a letter to Hamilton that addressed the general’s pamphlet about Adams. Webster stressed the personal over the political: “It avails little that you accuse the President of vanity. . . . were it an issue between Mr. Adams and yourself which has the most, you could not rely on an unanimous verdict in your favor. The same remark is applicable to the charge of self-sufficiency.” “Vanity” and “self-sufficiency” were epithets often hurled at Webster, and the fact was that the two men shared the same combustible temperament. And once they began heaping insults upon each other, their relationship was beyond repair. Saving his biggest dart for last, Webster added that if Adams were to lose the election, “your conduct will be deemed little short of insanity.”
The following year, after Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, the conflict between Webster and Hamilton reached new heights. No longer able to use Webster’s newspaper as his personal mouthpiece, Hamilton decided to start his own. In the spring of 1801, Hamilton met with a group of influential New York Federalists at the “country house” of Scottish merchant Archibald Gracie—today the official residence of New York City’s mayor—to plan this rival paper, which he would call the New York Evening Post. Now known simply as the New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, America’s longest-running daily has its roots in Hamilton’s falling-out with Noah Webster, Jr., a little more than two centuries ago.
Just as he heard of Hamilton’s intention to launch the Evening Post, Webster embarked on another scholarly fact-finding mission. Having attempted an inventory of his state, he now moved on to one of his livelihood, the newspaper business. Webster first got interested in the history of American journalism when John Eliot, a Boston pastor, contacted him in 1799 for assistance with an article for the Massachusetts Historical Society on the emergence of New England newspapers. As Eliot noted in his acknowledgments, Webster provided “a very accurate list of Connecticut newspapers to the present time.” “To collect authentic facts respecting the origin and progress of the public prints in the United States,” Webster drafted another survey, which in mid-June he sent out to newspaper editors in every state except Connecticut. For a given town, his questionnaire included such items as the year the first paper was established, the number of papers and the frequency of their publication. Over the next six months, Webster received only about a dozen replies, and he was forced to abandon this project, too. However, Webster’s efforts were not entirely in vain. Two years later, in a thousand-page tome covering worldwide advances in science and culture, curiously entitled A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, the Reverend Samuel Miller did come up with an official tally—America had two hundred different newspapers (seventeen of which were dailies), approximately thirteen million copies circulated annually—and he appears to have relied at least in part on statistical information supplied by Webster.
By the fall of 1801, Webster turned his full attention to Hamilton’s machinations. In a letter dated September 11, 1801, a nervous Webster confided his fears to Benjamin Rush: “At this time I have more than usual calls on me to counteract the designs of my Federal friends, who are establishing two papers precisely on the principles of mine and calculated to interfere with both in a manner that carries with it strong evidence of a design to ruin mine.” (Hamilton was also planning a second weekly paper, which he called The New York Herald, the original name of Webster’s weekly.) In early October, Webster trekked off to New York to find out for himself exactly what was going on. The journey carried some risk, as the yellow fever was back. Though the outbreak wasn’t as serious as in 1798, some residents living near the East River had to be evacuated from their homes. After speaking with his contacts in Manhattan, Webster learned that “a secret enmity to me for the part I took in the controversy between Mr. Adams and General Hamilton” was indeed the reason that Hamilton had appointed William Coleman, an erudite lawyer from Greenfield, Massachusetts, as editor of the Evening Post. Upon returning to New Haven on October 13, Webster wrote Oliver Wolcott that he wouldn’t back down from a battle with Hamilton, whom he considered ungrateful: “No man in America has labored so incessantly to oppose anarchy as I have done from the peace of 1783 to this hour. I can show more columns written for this purpose than any twenty men in the United States. I have spent the best portion of my life and with little pecuniary reward, and an attempt to deprive me and my family of subsistence at this period of life, too late to renew my profession, is a proof of an unfeeling heart in any man who can deliberately make the attempt.”
Webster had indeed been America’s most prolific journalist, but Hamilton didn’t owe him anything. The general, too, had a right to publish a paper. This was an ideological battle rather than a purely personal one. But still traumatized by his father’s abandonment twenty-five years earlier, Webster viewed Hamilton as another rejecting authority figure who failed to recognize his self-worth. Webster and his dreaded foe, Jefferson, would end up sharing one common belief—both considered Hamilton “the evil genius of his country.”
Over the next couple of months, Webster kept deliberating about what to do. He initially thought about luring Coleman away from Hamilton—either by hiring him as his editor or selling him his papers outright. But this scheme didn’t pan out, and Coleman would serve as Hamilton’s amanuensis until Aaron Burr’s pistol ended the general’s life in 1804. Coleman never much liked Webster; he once wrote of his wish to give “that pedant . . . Webster . . . a rousing box on the ears. . . . I can never forgive this man for his infamous and unprincipled attack on the great and good Hamilton.” To combat Coleman, Webster hired as his new associate editor Samuel Bayard, a young lawyer from a prominent New York family. Bayard (who later helped found the New-York Historical Society) would work directly with Ebenezer Belden, the son of Webster’s older sister, Mercy, who had replaced George Hopkins as publisher in 1799. After learning of Webster’s appointment of Bayard, another New York paper observed, “It appears that Mr. Coleman’s intended Evening Post has given Mr. Webster a little uneasiness. . . . he trembles for its fate.” On November 13, 1801, just three days before the Evening Post began its legendary run, Webster published a brief announcement about his new colleague, which began: “The proprietor . . . having by a long course of intense application and sedentary life enfeebled his constitution so as to render some relaxation a duty to himself and those who depend on him for support, has associated himself in the superintendence of his papers a gentleman of known talents and respectability who will by his daily attention contribute to preserve their reputation and acknowledged usefulness.”
But Webster was confusing cause with effect. In truth, his sedentary life hadn’t produced his nervous condition, but was his refuge from it.
Hamilton and Webster now engaged in a vicious circulation war; the first source of contention was which Federalist could lay claim to being the fiercest critic of Jefferson, the new president whom they both detested. Alleging that he wished to give Jefferson a fair hearing, Webster waited five months into the new administration before rendering his predictably harsh verdict. In the fall of 1801, Webster published a series of eighteen anonymous letters in his paper; Hamilton would follow with his own eighteen-article series in the winter. Webster’s first piece, which ran on September 26, 1801, analyzed Jefferson’s inaugural: “Yet after a few sentences, you tell us that ‘every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle; that we are all Republicans—all Federalists.’ It follows from these declarations that in your opinion, the parties have contended not for principles, but for unimportant opinions . . . . But this concession criminates you and your friends; for unimportant concerns can never justify men in violent and animated exertions to change an administration.”
Webster still equated the opposition of Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans to the Federalist administration of John Adams with disloyalty to America. Much to Webster’s surprise, the president himself never responded directly to this “candid estimation” of his job performance. But in a letter to Secretary of State James Madison, Jefferson did reveal what he was thinking: “I view Webster as a mere pedagogue of very limited understanding and very strong prejudices and party passions.” The obtuse Webster, however, never did figure out that Jefferson didn’t want anything to do with him. When his first dictionary came out several years later, he sent the president a copy, asking him to “give it such encouragement as you may think it deserves.” Jefferson left that letter unanswered, too.
As Webster ceded more and more editorial control to Bayard, he fought less and less with his two archenemies, Jefferson and Hamilton. But this longtime partisan scribe was not just losing his stomach for heated political debate; he was also losing his feeling for his fellow man. Isolated in the relative tranquility of the Arnold House, Webster turned increasingly antidemocratic. Teetering on paranoia, he saw opponents everywhere. As he wrote to Benjamin Rush, “As to mankind, I believe the mass of them to be ‘copax [sic] rationis.’ They are ignorant, or what is worse governed by authority & the authority of men who flatter them instead of boldly telling them the truth.” This harsh view of human nature led Webster to endorse wildly reactionary ideas. “It would be better for the people,” the middle-aged writer continued in this jeremiad to Rush, “they would be more free and more happy, if all were deprived of the right of suffrage until they were 45 years of age, and if no man was eligible to an important government office until he is 50, that is, if all powers of government were vested in our old men.” Apparently, Webster didn’t see anything paradoxical in both inveighing against blind obedience to authority and asking his fellow Americans to place all their trust in their elders. But soon he would give up his fantasy of restoring order to America through political change; he would increasingly focus on organizing words rather than people.
By the second half of 1803, Webster began preparing to unload his papers. The following year, the initial fourteen-year federal copyright for his speller was due to expire, and he sensed that reissuing the book could be a financial bonanza. (He turned out to be right. The American Spelling Bookwould sell a staggering two hundred thousand copies a year—one for every thirty Americans—netting Webster, who earned a penny a copy, an annual revenue stream of two thousand dollars.) Webster could now afford to exit the newspaper business. On October 15, 1803, he published his last article as a newspaper editor, an angry epistle to William Coleman, in which he charged the Evening Post editor with twisting the core ideas of his work on the plague. Webster’s sign-off was dramatic: “With a gentleman of candour and fairness, discussion might be attended with pleasure and productive of mutual benefit. With you, sir, I disdain to pursue the controversy.” Two weeks later, Webster and his nephew sold the business to Zachariah Lewis. New York’s first daily paper would live on in various incarnations until 1923, when as The Globe, it was folded into The Sun.
In the same issue of The Commercial Advertiser in which Webster penned that farewell letter to Coleman, he wrote a long article under the pen name “Rusticus”—the Latin word for country-dweller—on a totally different subject, literary history. “It has been a subject of controversy whether intense application [italics mine] of mind,” began Webster, repeating the same phrase he had earlier used to describe the putative cause of his enfeebled constitution, “tends to shorten life. Opinions on this point are various; and perhaps we may throw light on it by an appeal to the facts.” This controversy was, of course, largely of interest to “Rusticus” himself; it was the obsession that consumed his mind, not those of his readers. For Webster, understanding the health effects of a sedentary life was a pressing concern, as he was then deciding whether to throw himself into the dictionary.
To arrive at a definitive answer, Webster gathered four sets of data, which he presented in chart form. Each one was a bill of mortality for a famous group of writers—those from ancient Greece, ancient Rome, modern Europe and England. For the Greek and Roman authors, Webster mentioned the age and year of death. While the Greek list featured the great philosophers and scribes of the age—Plato, Socrates, Thales, Euripides and the like—it also included some obscure names such as Xenophilius, who was placed at the top because he supposedly had lived to the age of 169.
For modern writers, Webster’s charts also contained the year of birth. Here are a few of the English writers he selected—all personal heroes since his undergraduate days—listed in the same order as in the newspaper:
Webster didn’t perform any elaborate statistical analysis. For each of the four groups, he just tallied up how many writers died after ninety, eighty, seventy and sixty. (In the case of the English list, which at thirty-one names was the longest, those figures came out to three, eleven, seventeen and twenty-seven, respectively.) Satisfied that this far-from-scientific survey showed a link between literary greatness and longevity, Webster offered these tentative conclusions: “It is probable . . . that the unusual proportion of learned men who live to a great age may be in part ascribed to their temperate habits of life—and to an original firmness of constitution.” Webster was now convinced that he had the right stuff to rank up there with his icons. And in the hope of one day being at the top of a new list—that of American literary immortals—he became a full-time lexicographer.
BY 1803, WEBSTER had already cemented his reputation as an obsessive definer. In an 1802 satiric play, Federalism Triumphant by Leonard Chester, a character based on his friend John Trumbull thus mocks him, “If he [brother Noah] should get angry, he’ll oppose my favorite scheme of augmenting the number of judges of the superior court and come into the house and spend three days on the word augmentation, as he did on shews.”
After finishing his book on epidemics, Webster had purchased the eighth edition of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 masterpiece, published in London in 1799, and began combing through these two quarto volumes, line by line. (Webster’s copy, complete with all his marginalia, has been preserved in the rare-book room of the New York Public Library.) Curiously, in his memoir, Webster was vague about this bit of personal history: “At what particular time, N.W. began to think seriously of attempting the compilation of a complete dictionary of the English language, is not known. But it appears that soon after leaving New York in 1798, he began to enter particular works and authorities on the margin of Johnson’s Dictionary, to be used, if occasion should offer.” This lapse in memory is surprising, given the precision with which Webster recorded so many other key events in his literary career. Regardless of the exact date he began thinking about his magnum opus, by early 1800 Samuel Johnson, the idol whom Webster had worshipped since adolescence, became the father figure whom he sought to slay. It was high time, Webster believed, for Americans to entrust defining to one of their own.
But Webster didn’t get started in time to become America’s first lexicographer. Another Connecticut Federalist—who just happened to have the perfect name for an up-and-coming lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, Jr.—had already beaten him to the punch. No relation to the Dr. Johnson of Lichfield, England, this Samuel Johnson, born a year before Webster, was a teacher in nearby Guilford. In 1798, Johnson Jr. published A School Dictionary, which offered “an easy and concise method of teaching children the true meaning and pronunciation of the most useful words in the English language.” In contrast to Webster, the Connecticut Johnson hadn’t attended college and lacked lofty ambitions. He sought to Americanize not the comprehensive work by his British namesake, but rather The Royal Standard English Dictionary by William Perry, a Scottish schoolteacher. Johnson’s two-hundred-page text was largely an abridgement of Perry’s pronouncing dictionary, originally published in London in 1775 and in America a decade later. Most of Johnson’s four thousand entries were lifted directly from Perry’s thirty thousand, but this new American product had one twist; in contrast to Perry, Johnson divided up words according to the principles laid out in Webster’s Grammatical Institute. In fact, in his introduction, Johnson Jr. fawned over the pedagogical trilogy by “the ingenious Mr. Webster.” Webster was thus a big supporter, and he was one of a half-dozen subscribers listed in the Connecticut Journal ads.
Johnson Jr.’s 1798 dictionary sold out within several months, and by the middle of 1799, he resolved to put out a revised version. This time, Johnson enlisted a collaborator, Yale-educated John Elliott, the pastor in neighboring East Guilford (now Madison). In May 1800, Elliott—the reverend was listed as first author—and Johnson published A Selected Pronouncing and Accented Dictionary. Webster, who had seen a draft a year earlier, supplied the following endorsement, “I have not time to examine every sheet . . . but have read many sheets in different parts of it; your general plan and execution I approve of.” Also designed for schools, this volume aimed to help students keep up with a changing world: “Custom is daily introducing new words into our language, many of which are frequently used, and their signification important to be known.” Containing about five thousand more words than its predecessor, this dictionary was the first to include Americanisms such as “President,” “federal,” “Capitol” and “freshet.” Elliott and Johnson also added American-Indian words (“tomahawk” and “wampum”) and recently coined scientific terms such as “telegraph.”
Under the stewardship of the devout Reverend Elliott, whom one parishioner described as “a man of upright constancy,” this school dictionary also attempted to purify the English language. “To inspire youth with sentiments of modesty and decency,” the authors wrote in the preface, “is one of the principal objects of early instruction; and this object is totally defeated by the indiscriminate use of vulgar and indecent words.” While the new volume removed “tosspot” (a synonym for drunkard) and “whore,” it also overreached; such supposedly saucy entries as “diabetes” (defined in 1798 as “involuntary discharge of urine”) and “obstetric” were also axed. It also toned down some definitions; for example, “rouge” evolved from “red paint used on the face of prostitutes” to “red paint used on the face,” and “voluptuous” no longer had anything to do with the sensual, but now was defined simply as “extravagant.” Curiously, despite all these moves in the direction of chastity, the authors left in the French F-word, “foutra”—defined as “a scoff, insult or gibe”—which had appeared in both Johnson’s 1755 and Johnson Jr.’s 1798 volumes. Calling this expression “unprintable,” an irate writer in the American Review and Literary Journal noted in 1801, “we cannot soil our page with the transcription of it; it is to be found under the letter F and is called French, but we are sure no French dictionary would admit a word so shockingly indecent and vulgar.”
On Wednesday, June 4, 1800, just a few weeks after the publication of Elliott and Johnson’s school dictionary, Webster announced his ambitions in The Connecticut Journal:
Mr. Webster of this city, we understand, is engaged in completing the system for the instruction of youth, which he began in the year 1783. He has in hand a Dictionary of the American Language, a work long since projected, but which other occupations have delayed till this time. The plan contemplated extends to a small Dictionary for schools, one for the counting-house, and a large one for men of science. The first is nearly ready for the press—the second and third will require the labor of years.
But Webster soon abandoned this school dictionary. The precise reason is unclear. In his memoir, he offered an incomplete explanation: “the plan not pleasing him, he [N.W.] destroyed the manuscript.” In contrast to his two Connecticut neighbors, Webster would focus solely on the adult marketplace and go far beyond just incorporating Americanisms. As he also noted in this initial press release, “A work of this kind is absolutely necessary, on account of differences between the American and English language. New circumstances, new modes of life, new laws, new ideas of various kinds give rise to new words. . . . The differences in the languages of the two countries will continue to multiply and render it necessary that we should have Dictionaries of the American Language.” Though a political reactionary, Webster was a linguistic revolutionary. He proposed to create an entirely new language, an American version of English. His dictionary would thus make obsolete the work of both Johnson and Johnson Jr.
The revelation that one of America’s foremost men of letters had officially entered the lexicography business was national news. However, the swift verdict rendered on Webster’s new vocation, which was nearly unanimous, was: ridiculous. Both Federalists and Republicans responded with contempt. Just three days later, a columnist in The Gazette, one of Philadelphia’s leading Federalist papers, advised Webster “to turn his mind from language-making to something really useful. . . . there is nothing I am more desirous to avoid than God’s curse in a confusion of tongues.” A generation after the Revolution, most Americans, including Webster’s Federalist allies, saw the linguistic status quo as sacred. In an article, “On the Scheme of an American Language,” published in his journal, The Monthly Magazine and American Review, that summer, Charles Brockden Brown traced this mainstream view back to the Hebrew scriptures, which had taught that “diversity of language” was an “evil.” As Brown argued, Webster was heading in the wrong direction: “This evil, like other evils inflicted by heaven, we are permitted to repair and diminish in some degree.” After all, in the preface to his dictionary, Samuel Johnson had also railed against the “caprices of innovation” in language. The lexicographer’s job, as Johnson defined it, was to create order out of chaos, and Webster, according to his critics, proposed to do just the opposite.
Likewise, on June 12, Joseph Dennie—the editor of Philadelphia’s other prominent Federalist paper, The Gazette of the United States, who four years earlier had written Webster a fan letter about The Prompter—also lambasted him. Dennie’s weapon of choice was a half page of missives from faux readers exemplifying the chaos that might ensue should Webster’s new publishing venture succeed. The following letters illustrate two potentially new forms of debased English:
To Mr. noab Wabstur
by rading all ovur the nusspaper I find you are after meaking a nue Merrykin Dikshunary; your rite, Sir; for ofter looking all over the anglish Books, you wont find a bit Shillaly big enuf to beat a dog wid. so I hope you’ll take a hint, a put enuff of rem in yours, for Och ’tis a nate little bit of furniture for any Man’s house so it ’tis.
Instead of I keant keatch the keow, an English man or a town bred american would say, I cannot Catch the Cow, but you being a brother Yankey will be sure to spell right in your new Yankey dictionary
N.B. mind and give us a true deffinition of bundling.
Describing himself as “An Enemy to Innovation,” Dennie also added to the barrage: “If as Mr Webster asserts, it is true that many new words have already crept into the language of the United States, he would be much better employed in rooting out the noxious weed than in mingling them with the flowers. Should he, however, persist in his attempt to erect a revolution in our language, I trust that a system fraught with such pernicious consequences will meet with the contempt it deserves from all the friends of literature.”
Twenty-five years after Lexington and Concord, Webster’s plan to replace the King’s English had few takers; his linguistic revolution would be a lonely one.
The equally fierce Republican opposition was actually the more surprising. Though Republican editors had been vilifying Webster’s political views for nearly a decade, they might have been expected to embrace his “bottom-up” approach to lexicography. After all, Webster the wordsmith was a compiler, not a prescriber; in the dictionary, as in the speller, he championed the words of the common man—language as it was, not as it ought to be. But that June, Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of Philadelphia’s Republican paper, the Aurora, smeared Webster, calling him “this oddity of literature.” For Bache, in contrast to the Federalist editors, Webster’s whole career—not just his recent turn to lexicography—was an embarrassment:
After involving the question of the yellow fever in deeper obscurity, and producing nothing but the profit by the sale of the work, he now appears as a legislator and municipal magistrate of Connecticut; writes nonsense pseudo-political and pseudo-philosophical for his newspapers at New York, and proposes to give to the American world no less than three dictionaries! . . . The plain truth is . . . that he means to make money by a scheme which ought to be and will be discountenanced by every man who admires the classic English writers.
But Bache was just heaping abuse on Webster. In reality, Webster had already made his money. For Webster, as opposed to his idol, Samuel Johnson, dictionary-making was not a means, but an end in itself.
Even Connecticut Federalists had nothing kind to say. In the fall of 1801, Warren Dutton—dubbed “a pupil of the Connecticut pope” because he had studied divinity under Timothy Dwight at Yale—repeatedly attacked Webster in his “Restorator” columns in the New England Palladium, a new Federalist paper out of Boston. On October 2, Dutton, who worked as assistant editor under Webster’s longtime friend Jedidiah Morse, mocked “the great lexicographer” for planning to add a bunch of silly words to the English language. Dutton didn’t think much of the locally grown “happify” (which Webster had used in his recent editions of his speller), “lengthy” or “belittle.” According to Dutton, Webster would be creating not an American dictionary but rather one solely of “the vulgar tongue in New England.” Noting that the explorer Sebastian Cabot had first discovered the eastern states, Dutton wondered, “Would it not be better to prefix to it [the dictionary] the epithet Cabotian?” In his November 2 column, “the Restorator” published an inflammatory letter by “Aristarchus” (the pen name of the Boston pastor John Gardiner). Concerned that Webster had not yet been “subdued,” Gardiner hoped to prevent the Connecticut lexicographer from injecting “barbarisms . . . into books.” “But if he will persist,” Gardiner lamented, “in spite of common sense, to furnish us with a dictionary which we do not want, in return for his generosity, I will furnish him with a title for it. Let, then, the projected volume of foul and unclean things bear his own Christian name and be called NOAH’s ARK.”
Webster felt betrayed. On November 10, he fired back with a letter to the Palladium in which he accused Dutton of attempting “to vilify a fellow citizen . . . whose whole life has been devoted to . . . the honor and . . . the rights of his country.” Webster replied that it was reasonable to add many well-established words to English lexicons; all that mattered was that the new definitions were “correct.” To put Dutton in his place, Webster clarified the meaning of his pseudonym: “As the word Restorator is the least known in this country, I might take the liberty of defining it according to the sense it bears in the gentleman’s own writings, viz, a man who . . . retails ordinary fare.”
One of the few sympathetic voices was William Rind, editor of the Washington Federalist, who expressed his hope that Webster, “heedless of the sarcasms of those who are fond of belittling every thing American. . . . will bestow on his mediated undertaking all that attention and investigation which have marked his former writings.” But even without any encouragement, Webster was prepared to go on. This loner was used to fighting against the rest of the world. Though nothing could stop him now, completing his two planned dictionaries would prove much more difficult than he ever imagined.