Wordsmith Noah Webster teamed with George Washington to unify a fragmented young nation.
The morning of Friday, May 20, 1785, was bright and sunny, though there was a slight chill in the air. In the early afternoon, just as the mercury hit 68 degrees, the brisk southerly wind began to calm down. But not so Noah Webster Jr. He kept beating his horse with a cane as he traipsed across the rocky roads just south of Alexandria, Va. A young man in a hurry, the gangly 6-footer with flaming red hair, a square jaw and gray eyes was dashing off to keep an important appointment. George Washington, the world-famous general considered by most of America’s 3 million denizens to be “the greatest on earth,” had invited Webster—the 26-year-old son of a poor Hartford, Conn., farmer—to his sprawling 4,000-acre Mount Vernon estate to discuss the growing sense of governmental chaos in the newly independent nation.
Today the role Webster played in the founding of the republic is largely forgotten. Even though revised and updated versions of the crowning achievement of his life—the first American dictionary—are now ubiquitous, many people mistakenly assume that the original volume was compiled by his distant cousin, the eloquent Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster. Noah Webster is rarely given his due for promoting a distinctly American sense of cultural identity, or for being one of the first founders to argue that vesting more power in the federal government under a national constitution was essential to insure the liberties won during the Revolution. Nor are many contemporary Americans aware of how closely Webster, a man of words, and George Washington, a man of action, worked together to unify America.
Not long after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 marked the formal end of hostilities with Britain, young Webster created a sensation with his instant bestseller, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (later renamed The American Spelling Book). As Americans debated what kind of ruler they should have, they also debated whether the English of King George III, their former oppressor, should be the official language of the new republic. Some proposed replacing it with German, then the country’s unofficial second language, spoken by nearly 10 percent of the population. Others advocated the even more radical idea of introducing a new language. Webster helped put a quick end to the debate by beginning to set distinctly American standards for the spelling and pronunciation of English words.
Two years later Webster found himself galloping to Mount Vernon after publishing Sketches of American Policy, in which he applied his skills for organizing an unruly language to the problem of organizing a government for an unruly nation. Webster was convinced that the Articles of Confederation, passed in haste by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, failed to unite the 13 brethren states sufficiently. In Sketches, he argued that the country needed more than a common language; it needed a strong central government. Washington wholeheartedly agreed and was eager to discuss Webster’s specific proposals for dealing with the country’s malaise.
After passing the white picket fence some 300 yards to the back of Washington’s house, Webster dismounted. Washington’s secretary, Mr. Shaw, then ushered him into the elegant central passage to meet his host. Dressed in a white waistcoat and white silk stockings, the 6-foot-2 general had to look down ever so slightly to meet Webster’s gaze. Washington motioned toward the wood-paneled west parlor, “the best room in my house,” where the two men soon sat down on mahogany chairs near the card table.
Washington was a stickler for routine—he liked to dine promptly at three and go to bed at nine—and soon it was time to eat. The table was set for four, including the general’s wife, Martha, and another houseguest, Richard Boulton, a building contractor from Charles County, Md., recently hired to make additions to the mansion.
While sipping a glass of Madeira, Webster explained his prescriptions for the fragmented nation. He believed that a weak Congress with no power to tax and no authority to enforce laws could never encourage the states to join together as a nation. The centerpiece of his plan to ward off anarchy was to transform the “Policy in Connecticut” into “American policy.” If the country as a whole could be run like his Congregationalist haven, Webster argued, it could be just as harmonious, “like nature in the planetary system.” For Webster, Connecticut’s nexus of executive, legislative and judicial authority was a model of peaceful government. “The state,” he wrote, “elects a governor or supreme magistrate and cloaths him with the whole power to make laws…. Thus the whole power of the state is brought to a single point—united in a single person.”
Webster told Washington that since each state retained the power to defeat the will of the other 12 states, “our union is but a name and our confederation a cobweb.” And he argued that it was time for the citizens of the new nation to redefine themselves: “We ought not to consider ourselves as inhabitants of a particular state only, but as Americans, as the common subjects of our great empire. We cannot and ought not to wholly divest ourselves of provincial views and attachments, but we should subordinate them to the general interests of the continent.” A stronger federal government, Webster emphasized, could improve the advantages of the American states, as provincial interest would become inseparable from national interest. Washington nodded his assent, promising Webster that he would ask his friend, the Virginia legislator James Madison, to read the entire work as soon as possible.
Over dessert, the conversation turned to less pressing matters, enabling Washington to bond with the young wordsmith. As pancakes were passed around, Webster refused molasses, complaining that as a New Englander, he tended to eat more than his fair share. The typically dour Washington startled his dinner companions by emitting an uncharacteristically loud laugh, stating, “I didn’t know about your eating molasses in New England.” Then looking over at Boulton, the guest from Maryland, he said: “During the Revolution, a hogshead of molasses was stove in at the town of Westchester by the oversetting of a wagon, and a body of Maryland troops being near, the soldiers ran hastily and saved all they could by filling up their hats and cups with molasses.”
After dinner, Martha Washington, whom Webster would later describe as “very social,” joined George and Noah in a game of whist. Summing up his overnight stay with the Washingtons, Webster gleefully recorded in his diary that he was “treated with great attention.”
About six months later, Webster made a return trip to Mount Vernon before heading on to Richmond to discuss his Sketches with Madison. At dinner, Washington mentioned that he was looking to hire a young man to tutor his two step-grandchildren—Nelly and Wash Custis, then living at Mount Vernon. He told Webster that he had asked a colleague in Scotland to offer recommendations. A stunned Webster shot back, “What would European nations think of this country if, after the exhibition of great talents and achievements in the war for independence, we should send to Europe for men to teach the first rudiments of learning?” Immediately grasping Webster’s point, Washington asked, “What shall I do?” But even before he had finished his question, he knew the answer. He would restrict his job search to Americans.
Most leaders of the early republic would later concede that Webster’s efforts were instrumental in shaping the contours of the new central government. In 1804, James Madison, then Jefferson’s secretary of state, wrote to Webster: “It is certain that the general idea of revising and enlarging the scope of the federal authority, so as to answer the necessary purposes of the union, grew up in many minds, and by natural degrees, during the experienced inefficacy of the old confederation…. That the public attention was called to it by yourself at an early period is well known.”
Recognizing Webster’s remarkable knack for getting Americans to think of themselves as Americans, Washington relied on him time and time again for advice and support. In May 1787, almost immediately after he was appointed the head of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington knocked at the door of Webster’s hotel room. Though bedridden with a headache, Webster was honored to offer strategic assistance. And in the fall of 1793, Washington once again turned to his savvy wordsmith to combat divisions among the American people. At Washington’s behest, Webster assumed the helm of American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper. For the next several years, his incisive editorials helped quiet the furor of those Republicans eager to join the French in their rapidly expanding war against England.
Shortly after Washington’s death in December 1799, Webster petitioned for access to the family papers in hopes of becoming America’s first presidential biographer. When that plum assignment went to John Marshall, who wrote a five-volume tome while serving as chief justice on the Supreme Court, Webster immersed himself in an even more ambitious undertaking. In the spring of 1800 he began work on his American Dictionary of the English Language. Published in 1828, the dictionary contained some 12,000 unique words and 70,000 definitions and succeeded in forever unifying the world’s most ethnically diverse nation with a common language. Webster’s insistence that his work, published at a time when America’s population totaled about 13 million, would “furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue…to the three hundred millions of people, who are destined…to adorn the vast territory within our jurisdiction” has proved remarkably prescient.
But Webster’s vast legacy extends far beyond lexicography. He wrote extensive treatises on epidemiology, which helped usher in both America’s first medical journal and the field of public health. He was an activist who championed female education, public schools, workman’s compensation and unemployment insurance. He also invented the modern book tour and drafted America’s first copyright laws. In short, Webster helped shape the whole of American culture. When the citizens of the fledgling republic were groping for a unique national identity, Webster proved an able guide who led them on a path that is as bright and shining today as it was then: “America must be as independent in literature, as she is in politics— as famous for arts as for arms.”
Adapted from The Forgotten Founding Father © 2011 by Joshua Kendall, reprinted by arrangement with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.