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The Man Behind the Dictionary

ISSUE:  Spring 1929


Because Noah Webster gave himself for almost thirty years to that most impersonal of all literary tasks, the preparation of a dictionary, it is easy to imagine that he was a retiring, self-effacing creature, well content to bury a vague and indefinite sort of individuality in a purely mechanical job. This is a mistake. He was never a scholar withdrawn, as many modern scholars are withdrawn, from the bustle of practical life. His temperament would have made such seclusion difficult in any age: it was almost impossible in the actual conditions under which he lived.

He was born in Connecticut in 1758—seven years before the passage of the Stamp Act—and he did not die until 1843, when John Tyler was president. Thus he came into manhood with the birth of the nation, grew up amid revolutionary enthusiasms which made vital interest in public affairs almost inevitable. After his graduation from Yale he planned at first to devote himself to the law. The call of letters came early: by 1782 he was at work on the famous spelling-book. Then, since there was no use publishing unless he could protect his work, he became almost simultaneously a publicist, beginning that long campaign for copyright laws which perhaps constitutes his most important service. From that time he was pretty continuously in the arena. Editor, author, office-holder, reformer—he employed every available channel of influence. And in all he did the personal element was marked. In “The Prompter” Webster has left us a description of himself that may help us to touch the motive behind his varied undertakings. “The writer of this little book took it into his head to prompt the numerous actors upon the great theatre of life. . .” That idea was rather steadily in his head, and he was never disposed to make any particular allowance for the possibility that other heads might contain other ideas. He had no great influence—but what of that? “As a private man, young and unknown, I could do but little; but that little I did.” He would be criticized. Well, he must bear it. “In this undertaking I submit myself to the charge of arrogance; but I am not conscious of being actuated by any improper motive.”

Finical as Webster was, this naive enthusiasm that runs all through his undertakings is rather attractive. After all there is something to be said for a man who, once he is convinced that the Bible needs revision, himself sets to work to revise it. Here again you set him against the patriotic background, see reflected in him the widespread contemporary conviction that a junior millennium was at hand, that everything might be changed and life rebuilt on a firmer, cleaner basis, if only you had the will and the energy to do it. It crops out even in connection with so mechanical a matter as simplified spelling: “The minds of the people are in a ferment, and consequently disposed to receive improvements —once let the ferment subside, and the succeeding lethargy will bar every great and rapid amendment.” So he became in effect a kind of intellectual frontiersman, as fertile of ideas as the frontiersman is fertile of mere material resources. If you really had an idea, why under heaven shouldn’t you call the attention of your contemporaries to it? Indeed, if you were governed by a keen Puritan conscience in good working order, how could you avoid placing your private notions at the disposal of the Commonwealth?

As for the quality of his ideas, it is surprising in how many instances the passing years have sustained him. Take copyright. Take his ideas about slavery and alcohol. Take his ardent protest against the budding spoils system. Take his interest in old documents, his painstaking accumulation of data. Of course he did not always quite appreciate the significance of what he was doing. His mind gloried in petty details, and sometimes it seemed enough to gather data, regardless of whether or not you could interpret them and make them significant. Still, when all allowances are made, there is a residuum.

All in all it is evident that he was something more than the “harmless drudge” which Doctor Johnson—of all men! —imaged as the lexicographer. An older scholar called him “a literary puppy.” A sincere admirer found him intolerably affected on the lecture platform. A former tutor urged him “not to be too forward in applying . . . to persons with whom you have but a slight acquaintance. . . . Such is the perverseness of human nature they will be disposed to ridicule you and perhaps set you down among those who have too high an opinion of their importance.” All such advice was useless. When there was nobody else to prompt he would prompt the very printers; and so you find him in their shops, urging that words of uncertain orthography be spelled as he desired. He must have been a figure as he stood there in his tall, erect, punctilious neatness, attired, I suppose, in the short clothes and silk stockings which he wore long after his contemporaries had cast them aside. Those keen grey, eyes and sharp clean features, that self-contained, quizzical expression which Horace Scudder described as “birdlike”—were the printers impressed by these things, I wonder, or were they only amused? And I wonder what Madison thought of the letter he received shortly before his inauguration, that letter in which Webster, desperately in need of books which were not available in America, asked to be sent abroad on a government mission. Honest Federalist! His appointment was improbable enough in the first place. Why must he proceed to make assurance doubly sure by adding a long critique of just what had been wrong with the Jefferson administration? Even here he must play the prompter.


It was a seductive business, this prompting, the more so for Webster since his weakness as well as his strength impelled him to it. That he did not suffer from want of self-esteem is well-known. With this in mind, you can begin with that youthful entry in his diary—”Did nothing worthy of particular notice”—and run the gamut of all his undertakings. There were his educational activities: “I have contributed in a small degree to the instruction of at least four million of the rising generation; and it is not unreasonable to expect that a few seeds of improvement, planted by my hand, may, germinate and grow and ripen into valuable fruit, when my remains shall be mingled with the dust.” With regard to his own capabilities he says in general: “A foreigner ushered in with titles and letters, with half my abilities, would have the whole city in his train.” Finally, he declares of one of his writings that there is not “in the English language an article which contains more important political truth within the same compass.”

Naturally his earnestness accentuated this tendency to magnify his own importance. Like all men who lack humor, he saw his projects as vastly more important than they were, and he could not understand why other men should not accept his estimate. Especially was this true when a moral question was involved—and for Webster a moral question was nearly always involved. Sometimes you are tempted to feel that his very speciality, his career as an educator, was due simply to this ethical passion; so prominent is moral training in his educational program. Such a statement is not wholly fair to Webster: he did love learning for its own sake; he had that passion for books and study without which the scholar’s life becomes the merest drudgery. Still the constant harping on the moral element is undeniably a little tiresome. It is “the business of education to restrain and direct the passions to the purpose of social happiness.” The object of his school reader is “to improve the minds and refine the taste of youth.” The spelling-book oozes morality: the very fox in the brambles is made to philosophize. In the innocency of his heart, Webster actually believed that children enjoyed it. Indeed, he said that the prime deficiency of other books then in use was that they were “destitute of the moral, philosophical, and practical remarks, which are necessary to enliven a narrative of facts, and by uniting the attractions of delight with the labor of study, to allure the minds of youth along the difficult road to knowledge.”

Sometimes, of course, this moral passion is all to his honor. It finds noble expression in his hatred of gaming and duelling, in his denunciation of a licentious press and a corrupt legislature, in his constitutional aversion to smutty stories. Sometimes, however, it fosters nothing better than a fussy decorum. One of the reasons why he found Johnson’s Dictionary inadequate was that it contained “some vulgar and obscene words.” In revising the Bible: “The insertion of euphemisms, words and phrases which are not very offensive to delicacy, in the place of such as cannot with propriety be uttered before a promiscuous audience” was a very important part of the task. At one time he planned a carefully expurgated edition of the English poets. Back of the whole business, there seems, oddly enough, the somewhat nasty assumption that vice is necessarily seductive. “Every exhibition of vice weakens our aversion for it.” Strange and suggestive confession! Had he found it so himself, or was it theory, springing from the Calvinist’s peculiar estimate of human nature?

With many earnest men, the strain of continual moral striving is relieved by temporary and recreative forgetfulness and self-absorption in some of the lighter manifestations of art or of nature. This does not seem to have been true of Webster. There were sports, but their brutality disgusted him. Hunting was as reprehensible as cock or bull fighting: he shuddered over the spectacle of “a man, a rational being, and a company of dogs, chasing a little, timorous, helpless animal!” As for horse-racing—well, from the strictly rational point of view, this is perhaps the ideal description of horse-racing: “Go to the race-ground, and behold whole counties collected to see which of two horses can run a few feet or a few inches further than the other in a given time.”

To the seductions of natural beauty he does not seem to have been any more responsive. Take this for rapturous appreciation of Versailles: “You would be delighted to ramble in the gardens of the palace. . . . But I presume all the kinds of plants or nearly all are to be found in the large gardens in New York and Philadelphia.” The whole test is utilitarian. Of a city he asks only, “Is it planned and constructed for the greatest possible convenience? If so, it is completely beautiful.” And again, “A plow has not the least intrinsic beauty,; but when we attend to its use, we are constrained to consider it a beautiful instrument, and such a view of it furnishes us with agreeable sensations.”

It is much the same with Webster when he confronts art, that creative phase of human activity in which, as it seems to some of us, man comes closer to God than in any other manifestation. Take the theatre. “Before I can believe the stage to be a school of virtue, I must demand proof that a single profligate has ever been reformed, or a single man or woman made Christian by its influence.” So also with music. In his early days he once had a great time with a flute. “What an infinite variety of methods have mankind invented to render life agreeable! And what a wise and happy design in the organization of the human frame that the sound of a little hollow tube of wood should dispel in a few moments, or at least alleviate, the heaviest cares of life!” But here is a more characteristic utterance: “Most people consider music merely as a source of pleasure. . . . But it should be regarded as an article of education, useful as well as ornamental.”

Literature, even, might easily become a dangerous thing. For his understanding, his appreciation of it, you need only refer to his notion that “the writings that marked the Revolution . . . are perhaps not inferior to the orations of Cicero and Demosthenes.” Could anything be more conclusive than that? “Man has but little time to spare for the gratification of the senses and the imagination. I would therefore caution you against the fascination of plays, novels, romances.” . . . All in all, his attitude toward the arts is summed up in one priceless quotation, his description of Cambridge University: “The colleges are mostly old stone buildings, which look very heavy, cold and gloomy to an American, accustomed to the new public buildings in our country.”


Still, despite his limitations, there was that one great constructive work that colored all his life. And to appreciate his spirit here, you must take into account the conditions under which he worked. Even in ideal circumstances, it takes stamina to devote oneself to a single work for a generation. But with him circumstances were far from being ideal. Of the prime requisites for such a work as he did— money, encouragement, energy—he had only energy.

As for money, it is from the dictionary-maker’s vantage-point that he seems mainly to have regretted its absence. Sometimes it did seem that if only he had a little to put into a speculation, large rewards might be forthcoming. But to that loss he was ready to resign himself: what was hard to accept was the curtailment of activity, of research that lack of funds compelled. Otherwise he does not seem greatly to have cared. Certainly he was always ready to risk what he had in publishing ventures.

There was, to be sure, a large family, and Webster supported it somehow, and seems to have supported it well. Here the success of the spelling book was a happy accident: for years they lived off its proceeds at a copyright of less than one cent a copy. Here too, it must not be forgotten, the heaviest share of the burden fell on the wife, and much of the credit must go to her. It is suggestive that her estimate of her husband’s business capacities does not seem to have been high. When he is abroad she writes to him: “I fear you suffer people to take you in, and do not keep a good look out, but I suppose the French cheat with so much politeness and civility that you have no disposition to complain.” She cannot divest herself of anxiety on his account: “You know what a worldly minded creature I am in spite of my better resolutions.” I have no doubt she needed to be.

So he toiled on, sustained by hope, by that invincible energy which was a thing of the spirit rather than the body. The body must have been good enough, since it served him for over eighty years; but even in youth, illness of one kind and another is the subject of fairly continuous notes in his journal. And in old age he wrote home from England of “my indispositions from which I am rarely, free.” The energy, of course, was temperamental: one of his daughters recorded that she never once saw him reclining until the day that he died. But however great it was, he needed it all, just as he needed his optimism. The man simply did not know how to be discouraged, whether in public affairs or in private. When things are at their worst, he gets no farther than this along the road to despair: “My name has been so much bandied about that I am quite willing it should be seen and heard no more at present.” Is not the “at present” a delicious afterthought? And in the end he staked everything upon the great undertaking. In 1823 he wrote: “My Dictionary has cost me twenty-six years of labor and about $30,000. If I succeed, I shall reimburse myself and be able to compensate all my friends for their advances. If I should fail, I shall be left in my old age with small means for subsistence.”

It must not be supposed that it was all mere drudgery for him. For all the labor and all the sacrifice, he loved it, loved it as men always love the work which they came into the world to do. “I finished writing my dictionary in January 1825, at my lodgings in Cambridge, England. When I had come to the last word, I was seized with a trembling which made it somewhat difficult to hold my pen steady for writing. The cause seems to have been the thought that I might not then live to finish the work, or the thought that I was so near the end of my labors. But I summoned strength to finish the last word, and then walking about the room a few minutes I recovered.” It sounds more like a poet than a dictionary-maker—does it not? Webster was far from being a poet, but you remember we said something at the outset about Revolutionary enthusiasms.


But life cannot be all work, even if you are a maker of dictionaries. In Webster’s case the primary interests are easily determined, for his were the fundamental loyalties. Family and country and God—these, together with his work, claimed all that he had to give. With all of them, his work was, of course, closely connected. Steadily, he thought of it as a personal service to his country, a task performed under the direct surveillance of his Maker, an enterprise which could not fail, if it were faithfully performed, to bring honor to his family.

For family life he was well prepared, if interest in women affords such preparation. Quite the liveliest passages in that rather dull diary come just here. “Divide my time between ladies and books.” “Mortified to find my eyes too weak to study. But if I cannot devote my time to books, I can to the ladies.” Sometimes he was bewildered.

“If there were but one pretty girl in town, a man could make his choice—but among so many I one’s heart is pulled twenty ways at once. The greatest difficulty, however, is that after a man has made his choice, it remains for the lady to make hers.” Once he went to a Quaker meeting and experienced emotions worthy of Samuel Pepys at divine service: “Very attentive to the silent exhortations of a pretty girl of sixteen. Such blushes, such lips made one feel devotion.”

But it must not be supposed that, even in youth, there were any Pepys-like flirtations. He thought he understood women: in one of his essays he set out gravely—incorrigible prompter!—to advise them concerning virtue and conduct, the choice of a husband, and kindred subjects. For himself he found that “love refines the heart, and renders it more susceptible and more capable of social virtue.” Of course, a man must marry. “A married man, especially a father, is a better citizen than a bachelor.” But, if possible, he counsels, marry a lady, of virtue and religion.

Of Webster’s patriotism I have already spoken, as the natural result of Revolutionary ardors. Steadily he kept before himself—this prompter, so much obsessed with petty details—something of a vision of the expanding empire of America. He never believed in democracy in the sense in which Thomas Jefferson believed in it. Eager to trust the authority of the people in matters of language, he was rather inclined to distrust it in the affairs of government. “All history testifies that the people, when they possess uncontrolled power, often use that power as tyrannically as kings and nobles.” His own faith was in the classes rather than the masses. “The opinion that the rich are the enemies and oppressors of the poor . . . and the opinion that all incorporated companies are aristocratic in their tendency are among the false and most pernicious doctrines that ever cursed a nation.”

Still, there was one noteworthy thing about his patriotism, and that was that he habitually attached his loyalties to the largest possible entities. “We ought not to consider ourselves as inhabitants of a particular state only, but as Americans, as the common subjects of a great empire.” What need then of smaller units? Indeed, “there is a species of bigotry in every society on earth—and indeed in every man’s own particular faith.” How shall we combat the influence of foreigners? “If foreigners find peace, liberty, and safety in our country, they will hardly give themselves the trouble of subjecting us to other governments.” How shall we deal with the Jews? “The character of the Jews, as sharpers, is derived from the cruel and villainous proscriptions which they have suffered from the bigotry of Christians in every part of Europe.”

For him, at least, patriotism meant cooperation. He had confidence that a few years’ experience would show “that a selfishness which excludes others from a participation of benefits is, in all cases, self-ruin, and that provincial interest is inseparable from national interest.” There were times when he doubted the very principle of nationalism itself. “It may well be questioned whether, as society, is now constituted, the partialities of men, originating in distinctions, national and local; political and religious; do not contract the benevolent principles of our nature, within much narrower limits than is consistent with Christian morality.” And about war he was not doubtful at all: “What an enormous amount of money is annually appropriated to purchase arms and provision, and to hire men to destroy lives and property—to slaughter, impoverish, subdue or enslave those who are brethren of the same family!” And again: “It is not easy to conceive how men, in any state of society, could reconcile war and plunder to the principles of justice.”

Finally, beyond—and above—country, there was God. Webster himself was sure that his great religious awakening came in the winter of 1807-1808 when, together with his daughters, he was convicted of sin, and united with the Congregational Church. In the account of his religious experience which, at the time, he wrote for a friend, he does his best to add a chapter to “Grace Abounding,” but without marked success. The truth of the matter beyond question is that while he was always seriously, interested in religion, he did not until this time accept the peculiar doctrines of Calvinism. Intellectually, then, his conversion meant that he put himself into a strait-jacket, but that is not its whole significance. For while there is never any particularly lyric exaltation about his faith, you do get a steady impression of consistent and utterly sincere piety, of a deepened current of spiritual life. From then on at least, the advancement of God’s Kingdom upon earth was to him the most important of causes. As for the dictionary, we have already seen that making a dictionary was his way of serving God, just as certainly as dancing before the altar was the jongleur’s method of paying homage to the Virgin. Certainly. Webster relied for every step of the way on “the Being whose favor I desire to seek in the way which he has prescribed and which I trust I value above any temporal good.”

Perhaps he never did quite reconcile Calvinism with reason: at least there is a curious hint in his saying that it is inexplicable to him “how predestination and free will consist,” to which he immediately adds, “I am very humble at my own blindness.” At least he continued, whenever he could, to use his reason. It is interesting that he doubted the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and of the Book of Job and that he did not hesitate to sav so. “It is to be regretted that the champions of revelation take untenable ground; for by this means, they rather weaken than strengthen the cause they endeavor to defend.” And there is this refreshing utterance on the most popular of all the heroes of religious controversy: “Divines and politicians agree in this, to father all evil upon the devil; but the effects ascribed to this prince of evil spirits, both in the moral and political world, I ascribe to the wickedness and ignorance of the human heart.” The same common sense distinguishes his more practical religious activities. So confirmed a publicist could not well avoid giving to the world a statement of his “Reasons for Accepting the Christian and Calvinistic Scheme,” but once that was done he went back to philology, resisting the efforts of zealous brethren to draw him into theological controversy. And once in Amherst his daughter found a child who had no shoes or stockings and asked her father if she might knit on Sunday. “Certainly, my, child. It is a work of necessity and mercy.”


So in the end you strike the note of simple humanity. To estimate Noah Webster as a scholar does not come within the province of this paper. His devotion to his task we have already considered, and other scholarly qualities belonged to him also. He had loyalty to truth, genuine honesty, the passion for accuracy, the open mind. “I will examine subjects for myself and endeavor to find the truth and defend it. . . .”

Yet, as I say, it is better to end on the personal note, for the scholar has passed, as all scholars do. Others have builded on his foundation; and though the dictionary still bears his name, he could hardly recognize it as his own. He himself pronounced his valedictory: “I have struggled with many difficulties. Some I have been able to overcome, and by some I have been overcome. I have made many, mistakes, but I love my country, and have labored for the youth of my country, and I trust no precept of mine has taught any dear youth to sin.” Take him for all in all, he was an eager, sincere man who did much good and very little harm. If only he had not “prompted” so much!


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