Noah Webster - American Men of Letters
by Horace E. Scudder
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Dr. Belknap now had an opportunity to repay his friend's favors in kind, and in acknowledging the letter just quoted he writes: "I could wish that you would take off the restriction of secrecy, so far as it relates to the intended publication of the magazine and its appendage, because I apprehend it may be in my power to set on foot a similar publication here; and the knowledge that such a design is on foot elsewhere may prove a stimulus to the undertaking." He prudently remarks that the sale made by his friend is good, "provided the purchasers do not fail in the payment." Hazard returns to the matter in his next letter: "With respect to the MSS. I made a pretty safe bargain, and yet much will depend on the success of the publication as to the quickness of the pay.... By agreement I am to hand my papers out in monthly portions, and in chronological order. The January magazine, or rather Register, is to contain twenty-four pages of them, and as many of 'Winthrop's Journal.' The design of the intended publication is no secret now, having been advertised in the newspapers; but I write you not to say anything about what I am to have for my papers.... N. W. had printed six sheets of Winthrop, but, upon the new plan's striking him, he thought it best to publish in the new mode; and I am told he will lose his expense so far, for his paper is not so fine as the new work is to be done upon, inter nos."

Suddenly Hazard writes to Belknap that Webster is likely to call upon him, and that if he offers him a partnership in the new magazine, he is not at once to decline. It is not worth while to follow the ins and outs of the correspondence upon a scheme which finally fell through, but a full letter from Hazard to Belknap may fairly be drawn from, since it puts one into tolerably complete possession of the whole story.

"You must know that N. W. has been for some time trying to get my State Papers published, and he has generally proposed it in such a way as to have a share in them himself. Several plans were proposed, and at last the idea of the Register was started. He called on me and told me that he had been speaking with some other gentlemen about being concerned in the 'American Magazine,' and that they were to be concerned with him. He informed me of their plan, and wished me to join them, and that my papers might be published in the Register. He intimated that he had five hundred subscribers [to the 'American Magazine'] who would continue to take the new work, and that the improvement proposed would greatly increase the number of subscribers. I objected against being a partner, but had no objection against letting them have my papers for L500. After a variety of negotiations, I consented to become a partner,—and they agreed to allow me L500 for my papers, to be paid out of the profits of the publication,—if they would yield me L50 per annum, at least, clear of my share of all expenses; if not, the other proprietors were to make up that sum to me annually; and, should the work be discontinued before I was paid, they were then to pay me as much as with my profits (all expenses first deducted) would make L500. Regular written articles were drawn, and executed by all but one partner, who has not yet signed them, nor will, 'til he sees such a number of subscribers in this city [New York] and its vicinity as will defray the actual expense of the work. The profits he is willing to risque. He is a discreet, sensible man, and will be what the sailors call our main stay. After the articles were executed, some of the proprietors observed that they had given their bond to me for L500, which must be paid at all events, and that I was to run no risque, and, in fact, to pay no expense,—which was not putting matters on a fair footing with respect to them (before the time the proposals were published). They came and stated the case to me. I immediately saw the propriety of their remarks, and without hesitation agreed to a new article, that their bond for the price of my papers should not be in force immediately upon their publishing (which was the case before), but that they might publish for three months; if they then discontinued the publication, the bond was to be of no effect; if they continued it after that period, it was to be in full force; and I agreed to furnish my proportion of the State Papers, i. e., that, as there were four proprietors, the others should pay me but L375,—the remaining L125 being my proportion of the cost of the papers. Thus relief was given on equitable principles.

"In the course of our conversations, at different times, writers were talked of; N. W. mentioned you. I agreed that you would be a very suitable person, if you could be got to engage in it, but was apprehensive your situation would not admit of it. N. W. had no doubt you could be engaged, for he was very confident (or well persuaded, or something of that kind) that you wrote for the 'Columbian,' and were paid for it; and he ascribed the biographical pieces, in particular, to you. Upon my asking the reasons of his opinion, he replied that he did not know (or believe) that anybody else possessed suitable materials; but I suspect he has had more particular information in Philadelphia. It was suggested among the proprietors that Thomas's magazine[9] would interfere with us in Massachusetts, where we hope for a number of subscribers; and N. W. afterwards hinted to me the idea of a coalition, which I was pleased with. He told me he was going to the eastward, and would talk with Thomas about it. I supposed that he would talk with you too, and gave you the hint that you might be prepared. It seems he has done so; and by last post I received proposals for an union, which I have laid before the proprietors here, and they are disapproved of. Upon this plan, the Register was to be printed here, and the Magazine in Boston. One of the proprietors here was to furnish half the matter for the magazine monthly, and forward it to Boston, where N. W. was to act as editor, or engage Mr. Belknap, or some person of equal ability, to act for him; and this editor was to furnish the other half of the matter. As a compensation for my papers, I was to be a proprietor of a seventh of both publications, for they were to be separate. All expenses, bad debts, and other losses were to be divided equally among the partners. These proposals were signed by Noah Webster and Isaiah Thomas & Co. In a letter to me, N. W. sent a calculation, by which he attempted to prove that the value of a share would be near L200 per annum. Such an hint might have done for a person unacquainted with the nature of the business, but old birds want a more substantial temptation than chaff. A principal objection against the plan of union was the risque and expense of sending materials and publications backwards and forwards through so great a distance: one failure would be fatal to one month's magazine, and a repetition of such a disaster would discourage subscribers. The subscribers here would probably not be satisfied with a magazine printed elsewhere, and could not be furnished with one so early in the month; and, for my part, I am not willing to give up my papers on so precarious a chance of a recompense.

"N. W. (notwithstanding his obligation under hand and seal) confesses himself unwilling to continue the Magazine and Register on our first plan; and I am much mistaken if the other proprietors do not disappoint him by taking him at his word and releasing him from his obligations; for his being known to be concerned makes the subscription go on heavily (this inter nos). His magazine was a paltry performance, and people fear a continuation of it. We cannot find his five hundred subscribers yet. We have but about two hundred in this city, most of whom have been tempted by my papers, as is said. We agreed among ourselves not to let the proprietors be known, but N. W. has let the cat quite out of the bag. I am clear for going on without him, which I think may be done better than with him; and my plan would be that a sufficient number of literary characters should be united to make the most, if not the whole, of the magazine original. The profits upon each share (especially at first) would be but small; but so, on the other hand, would be the risque. Suppose there should be no profit for a year or two, and that the work should but barely defray the expense for that time, yet it may be presumed that, if it was conducted with spirit, the public would patronize it, being sure of original entertainment, and that at length the property would become very valuable. What do you think of this idea?"

Dr. Belknap's reply to this letter is the last reference to the project which has any interest: "The Monarch called upon me last Monday evening, when I was abroad, and left word that he should come again next day at noon, upon business. The real business was to fish out what I had heard from you. I had then received only your short letter, and told him that I had heard nothing. He talked about the magazine, and about my being a partner, and about the business of an editor, and about his being a lawyer (which, by the way, was new to me), and about the value of a share, which, as he then estimated it, would be from L50 to L100 per annum, etc., etc., but expected to hear from you and the proprietors more particularly by the next post, and then we were to have a farther conference. The next post brought me your long letter, and he has not made his appearance since. I suppose, by what you say in confidence to me, that he finds he cannot be director general, and possibly suspects that he may have very little to do. I find myself under some embarrassment with regard to this personage. However, as he is going to marry into a family with some branches of which I have long had a very agreeable connection, I must suffer myself to be in a degree of acquaintance with him, especially if (as he threatens) he should make this place [Boston] his future residence. If I cannot esteem him as a friend, I do not wish to make him an enemy, and I am very awkward in the art of Chesterfield. Hence arises my embarrassment. What he has told Thomas I know not, but I must do him the justice to say that he did not tell me the names of any of the proprietors, excepting yourself and himself; nor do I know who the others are."

Hazard's papers were finally published by themselves, and the Magazine and Register never got beyond the proposals point. Before the collection was published, however, another magazine loomed up, for the regular failure of each venture never seemed to dampen the ardor of magazine projectors. The story of the enterprise sketched in these letters may be taken as the story of all,—sanguine literary men and inert subscribers; a class of material is reckoned upon which always seems abundant, vastly interesting to the persons who hold it, but insufficient to beguile subscribers. Mr. Hazard, with his collection of papers, expects five hundred pounds, and his associates think him not unreasonable, especially after he agrees to pay one fourth himself; and with all his prudence and shrewdness he begins to count on the profits of the magazine with something of Webster's facile hope.

Webster himself, in spite of the dislike with which Hazard and Belknap agreed to regard him, appears in an honorable light. No doubt he was consequential and eager to have a hand in what was going on, but he had the confidence and courage which seem to have been lacking in his associates. His impulsive dashes at literature and capricious excursions into the realms of language were offensive to highly conservative and orderly scholars like these correspondents, and they sniffed at him rather contemptuously; but Webster could disregard the criticism of others when he had such unbounded self-reliance and zeal. He did not count the cost carefully of what he undertook, but allowed himself the luxury of seizing at once upon what engaged his interest. The publication of "Winthrop's Journal," referred to in the correspondence, was an undertaking which a more scholarly man might have set about with greater care and deliberation. Webster never read the original. He saw a copy from it in the possession of Governor Trumbull, and, perceiving the value of the material, made haste to get it published. He employed a secretary of the governor, who made a copy of the copy, comparing it with the original, which Webster had never seen. Mr. Savage, the learned editor of the Journal in its complete form, sarcastically says: "The celebrated philologist, who in his English Dictionary triumphed over the difficulties of derivation in our etymology from Danish, Russian, Irish, Welsh, German, high or low, Sanscrit, Persian, or Chaldee fountains, might, after exhausting his patience, have reputably shrunk from encounter with the manuscript of Winthrop." But it was something for Webster to have succeeded in securing a publication of the book in 1790, and the credit due him is not lessened by the fact that he risked his whole property in the enterprise, and lost money.

He was at this time far from being settled in life. For half a dozen years he had been scrambling along as well as he could, teaching, lecturing, practicing a little law, working his books, writing for the newspapers, securing the passage of copyright laws, trying this city and that with new ventures, none of which gave him a subsistence. Meanwhile, he had met in Philadelphia a Boston lady, whom his diary shows him to have followed with the zeal of his ardent nature; and it is not to be wondered at that he carried his point here, as so often elsewhere, and settled, as he thought at the time, in Hartford, in 1789, with his wife, Rebecca, daughter of Mr. William Greenleaf, of Boston. His brief account of himself at this date was in the summary: "I had an enterprising turn of mind, was bold, vain, and inexperienced." John Trumbull, writing to Oliver Wolcott, announces that "Webster has returned, and brought with him a pretty wife. I wish him success, but I doubt, in the present decay of business in our profession [the law], whether his profits will enable him to keep up the style he sets out with. I fear he will breakfast upon Institutes, dine upon Dissertations, and go to bed supperless." The breakfast was indeed likely to prove the only substantial meal; how substantial it proved we have already noticed. No doubt Webster appeared to his friends, as half to himself, a restless, uneasy man, incapable of steady application to law, and making hazardous ventures in literature in that combined character of author and publisher which the circumstances of the time rendered almost necessary to any one who undertook to make a profession of letters.

It is a little significant of Webster's relation to literature that he moved outside of the knot of men known in our literary history as the Hartford wits. So many recent claimants for the position of democratic jester have engaged the public attention that the Hartford wits who amused our grandfathers rest their fame now rather upon tradition than upon any perennial liveliness. By their solitude in the pages of American literature their very title has acquired a certain gravity, and we are apt to regard them with respect rather than to read them for amusement. Fossil wits seem properly to be classed with the formation from which they are dug, and not with living types of the same order. Yet no picture of the times in which Webster lived would be complete without a slight reminiscence of this coterie, and the fact that Webster was the neighbor of these men and himself living by letters suggests a fresh illustration of the truth that kinship in literature is something finer and closer than mere circumstantial neighborliness. Trumbull, Hopkins, Alsop, Dwight, and the minor stars in this twinkling galaxy, were staunch Federalists, and the occasion of their joint efforts was chiefly political, but Webster's Federalism did not give him a place in the set.

The "Echo" was the title which the wits gave to a series of satires that mocked the prose of the day. If an editor published a piece of bloated writing, the bubble was pricked by the poetical version; if a politician disclosed his weakness, his words were caught up and made to turn him into ridicule. The wits were on the lookout for humbug in any quarter, but they had their pet aversions, Sam Adams and the Jacobins being oftenest pilloried. A bombastic account of a thunder-storm in Boston appears to have given occasion for the first skit, and it was scarcely necessary to do more than parody the grandiloquent newspaper language. "The clouds soon dissipated, and the appearance of the azure vault left trivial hopes of further needful supplies from the uncorked bottles of heaven. In a few moments the horizon was again overshadowed, and an almost impenetrable gloom mantled the face of the skies.... The majestic roar of disploded thunders, now bursting with a sudden crash, and now wasting the rumbling ECHO of their sounds in other lands, added indescribable grandeur to the sublime scene." The suggestion of the "Echo" came from this phrase, and the success of the first venture easily directed the writers into the use of their instrument for lashing political enemies. Two numbers were given to matters of trivial or temporary interest, and then there was a shot at a piece of fustian in the "Boston Argus" on Liberty, followed shortly after by a gibe at some correspondent of the "Argus," who frantically exclaimed, on the occasion of a town meeting refusing to hear Sam Adams: "Shall Europe hear, shall our Southern brethren be told, that Samuel Adams rose to speak in the midst of his fellow-citizens, and was silenced!" A few lines from this satire will best illustrate the vigorous treatment which the wits employed, and the gusto with which they jostled the great Democrat:—

"Shall Europe hear, shall Gallia's king be told, That Prince so spirited, so wise and bold, Whose duteous subjects, anxious to improve On common forms of loyalty and love, Took from their sovereign's hands the reins of state, For fear his royal nerves could not support the weight? And shall our worthy brethren of the South Be told Sam Adams could not ope his mouth? That mouth whence streams of elocution flowed, Like tail of saw-mill, rapid, rough, and loud, Sweet as the honey-dews that Maia pours O'er her green forests and her tufts of flowers,— That potent mouth, whence issued words of force To stun an ox, or terrify a horse. Be told that while those brats whose feeble sight But just had oped on Freedom's dawning light, Born in the nick of time that bliss to know Which to his great and mighty toils we owe, Received applause from Sages, Fools, and Boys, The mighty Samuel could not make a noise? Be told that, silenced by their clam'rous din, He vainly tried one word to dove-tail in; That though he strove to speak with might and main His voice and strivings equally were vain?

* * * * *

Hard has he toiled and richly earned his gains, Ruined his fingers and spun out his brains To acquire the right to ope his ponderous jaws, As the great champion of Sedition's cause. Once his soft words like streams of melted tar Stuck in our cars and led us on to war; But now we hear the self-same accents flow Unmoved as quails when buried up in snow. Is his voice weak? That dreadful voice, we're told, Once made King George the Third through fear turn cold, Europa's kingdoms to their centre shake, When mighty Samuel bawl'd at Freedom's stake.

* * * * *

Does his hand shake? When Sam cried out for war His potent hand spread many a coat of tar, That sinewy hand the feathers scattered o'er Till Tories' jackets made their bellies sore. Say, for whose sake has Time, that Barber gruff, O'er his wise noddle shook his powder puff? Was the task hard to hear the sage's noise? Perhaps the awful sound had frightened boys; But we, the sons of wisdom, fond to hear, With joy had held the breath and oped the ear. Did we e'en doubt that Solomon had spoke? If so, has memory vanished into smoke."

The most of the succeeding numbers had reference to politics, but room was found for excursions in other fields: "Monier's Advertisement for a School," and "Newtonian Philosophy," served as pegs from which to hang rhymed jests, and the writers would very likely have taken a wider range if there had been a wider range in public interests. But politics dominated thought, and the wits were as bitter partisans as they were clever rhymesters. The poetry of the anti-Jacobin supplied them with the suggestion of form; but there was not the lightness of touch or deft mimicry which characterized those remarkable political skits. As one reads the "Echo," and the "Green-house," and Trumbull's "McFingal," he is constantly reminded of the heaviness of the education which formed the substance of the writers' preparation for their task. The rudeness of the satire is the rudeness of a homespun society.

The authors of the "Echo," when the series came to be reissued in a volume, provided a somewhat solemn preface, in which they say: "The principal poems in this volume, under the title of the 'Echo,' owed their origin to the accidental suggestion of a moment of literary sportiveness, at a time when pedantry, affectation, and bombast pervaded most of the pieces published in the gazettes, which were then the principal vehicles of literary information. Willing to lend their aid to check the progress of false taste in American literature, the authors conceived that ridicule would prove a powerful corrective, and that the mode employed in the 'Echo' was the best suited to this purpose.... But the ridicule of a vitiated mode of writing was not long the sole object of the 'Echo.' The important political changes which soon after occurred, not only in Europe, but in America, produced a corresponding change in the republic of letters; and some of the principal gazettes of this country exhibited a disgusting display, not only of a perversion of taste in composition, but a still greater perversion of principle, in that hideous morality of revolutionary madness, which, priding itself in an emancipation from moral obligation, leveled the boundaries of virtue and vice, while it contemptuously derided the most amiable and sacred feelings of our nature. Disgusted with the cruelties exhibited by the French Revolution at a very early stage of its progress, and viewing it as a consuming fire, which, in the course of its conflagration, threatened to destroy whatever was most valuable in society, the authors wished to contribute their efforts in stemming the torrents of Jacobinism in America, and resolved to render the 'Echo' subservient to that purpose. They therefore proceeded to attack, as proper objects of satire, those tenets, as absurd in politics as pernicious in morals, the visionary scheme of equality, and the baleful doctrine that sanctions the pursuit of a good end by the most flagitious means."

Webster's judgment of the condition of literature in the country at a time when he was seeking to live by it is contained in a frank statement which he makes in one of his letters to Dr. Priestley. That philosopher had addressed certain letters to the inhabitants of Northumberland, in which he undertook to lecture them as a philosophical and wise Englishman might properly lecture the citizens of a young and inexperienced republic. Webster replied in ten letters and a postscript, which were collected into a pamphlet and published at New Haven, in 1800. He contends throughout that Dr. Priestley did not know his countrymen, and especially that he was ignorant of New England; he corrects his political judgments, but admits the force in general of his social and literary criticisms. The picture which Webster draws of the condition of America at the beginning of the century is instructive, and explains, indeed, much of his own career:—

"I agree with you fully that our colleges are disgracefully destitute of books and philosophical apparatus, and that a duty on books without discrimination is highly impolitic. Very many of the best authors cannot be printed in the United States for half a century or more; and I am ashamed to own that scarcely a branch of science can be fully investigated in America for want of books, especially original works. This defect of our libraries I have experienced myself in searching for materials for the history of Epidemic Diseases.

"In regard to the state of learning in general, your remarks are not sufficiently discriminating. You say there is 'less knowledge in America than in most of the countries of Europe.' The truth seems to be that in the Eastern States knowledge is more diffused among the laboring people than in any country on the globe. The learning of the people extends to a knowledge of their own tongue, of writing and arithmetic sufficient to keep their own simple accounts; they read not only the Bible and newspapers, but almost all read the best English authors, as the 'Spectator,' 'Rambler,' and the works of Watts, Doddridge, and many others. If you can find any country in Europe where this is done to the same extent as in New England, I am very ill informed.

"But in the higher branches of literature our learning is superficial to a shameful degree. Perhaps I ought to except the science of law, which, being the road to political life, is probably as well understood as in Great Britain; and ethics and political science have been greatly cultivated since the American Revolution. On political subjects I have no hesitation in saying that I believe the learning of our eminent statesmen to be superior to that of most European writers, and their opinions more correct. They have all the authors on these subjects, united with much experience, which no European country can have had. This has enabled our statesmen to correct many of the theories which lead astray European writers.

"But as to classical learning, history, civil and ecclesiastical, mathematics, astronomy, chymistry, botany, and natural history, excepting here and there a rare instance of a man who is eminent in some one of these branches, we may be said to have no learning at all, or a mere smattering. And what is more distressing to me, I see everywhere a disposition to decry the ancient and original authors, which I deem far superior to the modern, and from which the best modern writers have drawn the finest parts of their productions.

"There is another circumstance still more afflictive to a man who is attached, as I am, to a republican government, and one that I perceive has not occurred to you. This is that the equal distribution of estates and the small property of our citizens, both of which seem connected with our form of government, if not essential to it, actually tend to depress the sciences. Science demands leisure and money. Our citizens have property only to give their sons a four years' education, a time scarcely sufficient to give them a relish for learning, and far inadequate to wide and profound researches. As soon as a young man has closed this period of study, and while he is at the beginning of the alphabet of science, he must betake himself to a profession, he must hurry through a few books,—which, by the way, are rarely original works, but compilations and abridgments,—and then must enter upon practice, and get his living as well as he can. And as to libraries, we have no such things. There are not more than three or four tolerable libraries in America, and these are extremely imperfect. Great numbers of the most valuable authors have not found their way across the Atlantic.

"But if our young men had more time to read, their estates will not enable them to purchase the books requisite to make a learned man. And this inconvenience, resulting from our government and the state of society, I know not how to remedy. As this, however, is the government to which you are attached, you will certainly do us a great service if you can devise a plan for avoiding its disadvantages. And I can further inform you that any application to legislatures for money will be unsuccessful. The utmost we can do is to squeeze a little money occasionally from the public treasuries to furnish buildings and a professor or two. But as to libraries, public or private, men who do not understand their value will be the last to furnish the means of procuring them. Besides, our rage for gain absorbs all other considerations; science is a secondary object, and a man who has grown suddenly from a dunghill, by a fortunate throw of the die, avoids a man of learning as you would a tiger. There are exceptions to this remark, and some men of taste, here and there scattered over our country, adorn the sciences and the moral virtues....

"If the Americans are yet in their leading-strings as to some parts of literature, there is the more room for improvement; and I am confident that the genius of my fellow-citizens will not be slack in the important work. You will please to recollect, sir, that during one hundred and sixty years of our childhood we were in our nonage; respecting our parent and looking up to her for books, science, and improvements. From her we borrowed much learning and some prejudices, which time alone can remove. And be assured, Dr. Priestley, that the parent is yet to derive some scientific improvements from the child. Some false theories, some errors in science, which the British nation has imbibed from illustrious men, and nourished from an implicit reliance on their authority, are to be prostrated by the penetrating genius of America."

It is plain that Webster, aware of the deficiencies of his country in learning, was not rendered entirely submissive by his knowledge, and was not at all disposed to accept the relation of pupilage as a permanent one. He worked with such material as he had, and as a part of the intellectual movement of the day brought for his contribution both industry and an elastic hope.


[5] Belknap Papers, v., Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc. iii.

[6] Life of Timothy Pickering, i. 479, 480.

[7] Nothing in these periodical ventures seems so certain as their uncertainty.

[8] It was now in its last number for the year.

[9] The Massachusetts Magazine, shortly after commenced by Isaiah Thomas.



We have seen that a man who made a spelling-book could be a patriot in making it; it is easy to believe that a patriot in Webster's day could be a very active participant in public affairs. There was as yet no marked political class; every man of education was expected to write, talk, and act in politics, and Webster's temperament and education were certain to make him interested and active. He began very early to have a hand in those letters to newspapers which preceded the editorial article of the modern newspaper. The printer of a newspaper was substantially its editor, and was likely to be a man engaged in public affairs, but his paper was less the medium for his own views than a convenient vehicle for carrying the opinions and arguments of lawyers, ministers, and others.

Webster began contributing to the "Connecticut Courant," published in Hartford, as early as 1780, his first contribution being some remarks on Benedict Arnold's letter of October 7th to the inhabitants of America. He wrote again the next week on Arnold's treason, and for the next four or five years was an occasional contributor upon subjects of finance, banking, the pay of soldiers, congressional action, events of the war, and copyright. "In 1783," he writes of himself, "the discontents in Connecticut, excited by an opposition to the grant of five years' extra pay to the officers of the army, became alarming, and two thirds of the towns sent delegates to a convention in Middletown to devise measures to prevent the resolve of Congress from being carried into execution. I then commenced my career as a political writer, devoting weeks and months to support the resolves of Congress.... Of the discontents in Connecticut in 1783, which threatened a commotion, there is no account in any of the histories of the United States,—not even in Marshall's,—except a brief account in my history; the present generation being entirely ignorant of the events. The history of this whole period, from the peace of 1783 to the adoption of the Constitution, is, in all the histories for schools, except mine, a barren, imperfect account; although it was a period of great anxiety, when it was doubtful whether anarchy or civil war was to be our fate."[10]

This was written in 1838, when Webster was eighty years old. The character of that interregnum of 1783-1789 is more generally recognized now; and it is interesting to see how an old man, recalling his earliest entrance into public life, emphasizes the service which he rendered upon the side of good government. By early associations, and by the predilections of a mind which inherited a large share of Anglo-Saxon political sense, Webster was from the first a Federalist in politics. In 1785 he published a pamphlet entitled "Sketches of American Policy," which he always claimed was the first public plea for a government to take the place of the Confederation, under which the war had been carried on. He held a correspondence with Mr. Madison, in 1805, for the purpose of substantiating this claim, since it had recently been asserted that the federal government sprang from Hamilton's thought. Mr. Madison very temperately and sensibly wrote to Webster:—

"The change in our government, like most other important improvements, ought to be ascribed rather to a series of causes than to any particular and sudden one, and to the participation of many rather than to the efforts of a single agent. It is certain that the general idea of revising and enlarging the scope of the federal authority, so as to answer the necessary purposes of the Union, grew up in many minds, and by natural degrees, during the experienced inefficacy of the old Confederation. The discernment of General Hamilton must have rendered him an early patron of the idea. That the public attention was called to it by yourself at an early period is well known."

We are not especially concerned with Webster's claim except as it illustrates his character and activity. He was a busy-body, if I may recover to better uses a somewhat ignoble word. We have seen him traveling back and forth, visiting the state capitals and public men in behalf of his "Grammatical Institute," lecturing and writing, projecting magazines, and putting himself into the midst of whatever was going on. The air was full of political talk, and Webster was the conductor that drew off some of it. He rushed eagerly into pamphlet-writing, both because he had something to say, and because he never stepped back to see if any one else was about to say it. He had no public character to preserve, and he issued his pamphlet as he delivered his sentiments upon many subjects,—to whomever he might catch. He carried it to Mount Vernon and put it into the hands of General Washington, and Madison saw it there. The nickname of the Monarch, which Belknap and Hazard gave him, fitted a young man of aggressive self-confidence, who saw no reason why he should not have his say upon the subject which was upper-most in men's minds, and used the means most natural to him and most convenient.

Alexander Hamilton was but a year older than Noah Webster, and was indeed a much younger man when he first took part in the discussion of public affairs. Hamilton was a man with a genius for statesmanship; in Webster we see very significantly marks of political common sense, the presence of which in the American mind at that day made Hamilton's leadership possible. It would be hard to find a better illustration of the average political education of Americans of the time than is shown by Webster in this pamphlet and in other of his writings. We are accustomed sometimes to speak of the Constitution as a half-miraculous gift to the American people, and to look with exceptional reverence upon the framers of that instrument. Well, that mind is on the whole quite as sound as the contemptuous tone taken by Von Holst when he affirms that "the Constitution had been extorted from the grinding necessity of a reluctant people."[11] In these words, however, Von Holst himself scarcely does justice to his own convictions, and they are rather an extreme form of protest against an extravagant adulation of the Constitution. Better instruments on paper have been drawn and applied to conditions of society which were fatal to their efficacy; but the calling of the convention, the framing of the Constitution, and the final adoption were possible because in the community at large the ideas of freedom and of self-government had already been formulated in local institutions for generations, and for generations had been moulding the character of the popular thought. The towns, the parishes, the boroughs, of the early colonies were the inheritors of communal ideas which had filtered from Germanic free communities through English parishes; under the favoring conditions of a new world and its unchecked enterprise they had become political units of great integrity. The colonies, with their local government, modified rather than controlled by royal or proprietary influence, had already learned many lessons of autonomy: the period of the war had confirmed these several powers, and the conclusion of the war found them still in possession of their interior organic life, and lacking only that sovereignty which they had resisted and overthrown. But the state life was incomplete: there was an absence of a solid sovereignty in which the States could rest, and the political thought of the independent colonies required for its final fulfillment the depositary of national consciousness which the King and Parliament had been, but could no longer be. It was the working out of this practical political thought which issued in the Constitution and central government, and it was possible to be worked out only because there had been generations of Americans trained in political life.

Webster was one of these men. He was the product of the forces which had been at work in the country from the earliest days. English freedom, which had forced its ways to these shores, had grown and increased under the fostering care of self-government and native industry. He had been born and brought up in a New England country village, the type of the freest and most determinate local government; he had been educated at a democratic college; he had shouldered his musket in a war for the defense not of his State alone, but of his country, vague and ill defined though its organic form might be. When, therefore, the war was over, and the country was free and compelled to manage its own affairs, he was qualified to take part in that management, and his temper led him to look for fundamental grounds of conduct.

His "Sketches of American Policy" thus interests us as the political thinking of a young American, of lively disposition, candid mind, and rash confidence. It could not help being a reflection of other literature and thought; but its best character is in its sturdy and resolute assertion of English freedom as requiring a central authority in which to rest. It is curious, in the opening pages, to see how, in his theories of government, he is led away by the popular and alluring philosophy of Rousseau and Rousseau's interpreter, Jefferson. When he undertakes to explain the rationale of government he is a young man, captivated by the current mode; when he reaches the immediate, practical duty he is an Englishman, speaking to the point, and lighting upon the one unanswerable demand of American political life at the time. In the earlier pages of his "Sketches" he lays down his Theory of Government, which is, in brief, that of the contrat social, but presented in a homely form, which brings it nearer to the actual life of men; he concludes his observation with a definition of the most perfect practicable system of government as "a government where the right of making laws is vested in the greatest number of individuals, and the power of executing them in the smallest number." "In large communities," he adds, "the individuals are too numerous to assemble for the purpose of legislation: for which reason, the people appear by substitutes or agents,—persons of their own choice. A representative democracy seems, therefore, to be the most perfect system of government that is practicable on earth." He finds no such government on the Continent of Europe, or in history; but when he comes to America he views with satisfaction a state of things which renders possible the actual fulfillment of his ideal. "America, just beginning to exist, has the science and the experience of all nations to direct her in forming plans of government." There is an equal distribution of landed property, freed from the laws of entail and primogeniture; there is no standing army, and there is freedom from ecclesiastical tyranny; education is general; there is no artificial rank in society, and from necessity Americans are not confined to single lines of industry; but various occupations will meet in one man. "Knowledge is diffused and genius roused by the very situation of America."

From these considerations he proceeds to lay down a "Plan of Policy for improving the Advantages and perpetuating the Union of the American States." This union, he shows, cannot depend upon a standing army, upon ecclesiastical authority, or upon the fear of an external force; it must find its reason in the constitutions of the States, and he sees, therefore, the need of a supreme head, in which the power of all the States is united. "There must be a supreme head, clothed with the same power to make and enforce laws respecting the general policy of all the States, as the legislatures of the respective States have to make laws binding on those States respecting their own internal police. The truth of this is taught by the principles of government, and confirmed by the experience of America. Without such a head the States cannot be united, and all attempts to conduct the measures of the continent will prove but governmental farces. So long as any individual State has power to defeat the measures of the other twelve, our pretended union is but a name, and our confederation a cobweb." He illustrates his point by the analogy of the Constitution of Connecticut. It is clear that by the head of the Union he meant the combined executive and legislative force, which in the Constitution was vested in the President and Congress. He recognizes the necessity of an authoritative head, but he had not in his own mind separated the powers of government. He clings fast to the doctrine that all power is vested in the people, and proceeds from the people, and he pleads for such a union as may be analogous to the union of towns in the State, where the power of all the towns united is compulsory over the conduct of a single member. "The general concerns of the continent may be reduced to a few heads; but in all the affairs that respect the whole, Congress must have the same power to enact laws and compel obedience throughout the continent as the legislatures of the several States have in their respective jurisdictions. If Congress have any power, they must have the whole power of the continent. Such a power would not abridge the sovereignty of each State in any article relating to its own government. The internal police of each State would be still under the sole superintendence of its legislature. But in a matter that equally respects all the States no individual State has more than a thirteenth part of the legislative authority, and consequently has no right to decide what measure shall or shall not take place on the continent. A majority of the States must decide; our confederation cannot be permanent unless founded on that principle; nay, more, the States cannot be said to be united till such a principle is adopted in its utmost latitude. If a single town or precinct could counteract the will of a whole State, would there be any government in that State? It is an established principle in government that the will of the minority must submit to that of the majority; and a single State or a minority of States ought to be disabled to resist the will of the majority, as much as a town or county in any State is disabled to prevent the execution of a statute law of the legislature. It is on this principle, and this alone, that a free State can be governed; it is on this principle alone that the American States can exist as a confederacy of republics. Either the several States must continue separate, totally independent of each other, and liable to all the evils of jealousy, dispute, and civil dissension,—nay, liable to a civil war, upon any clashing of interests,—or they must constitute a general head, composed of representatives from all the States, and vested with the power of the whole continent to enforce their decisions. There is no other alternative. One of these events must inevitably take place, and the revolution of a few years will verify the prediction."

In answering possible objections to the scheme, he rests in the power of the people, who "forever keep the sole right of legislation in their own representatives, but divest themselves wholly of any right to the administration." He refuses to believe that there is any danger from centralization so long as the people use the power which is vested in them. "These things," he concludes, "demand our early and careful attention: a general diffusion of knowledge; the encouragement of industry, frugality, and virtue; and a sovereign power at the head of the States. All are essential to our peace and prosperity, but on an energetic continental government principally depend our tranquillity at home and our respectability among foreign nations. We ought to generalize [that is, delocalize] our ideas and our measures. We ought not to consider ourselves as inhabitants of a particular State only, but as Americans, as the common subjects of a great empire. We cannot and ought not wholly to divest ourselves of provincial views and attachments, but we should subordinate them to the general interests of the continent. As a member of a family every individual has some domestic interests; as a member of a corporation he has other interests; as an inhabitant of a State he has a more extensive interest; as a citizen and subject of the American empire he has a national interest far superior to all others. Every relation in society constitutes some obligations, which are proportional to the magnitude of the society. A good prince does not ask what will be for the interest of a county or small district in his dominions, but what will promote the prosperity of his kingdom. In the same manner, the citizens of this New World should inquire, not what will aggrandize this town or that State, but what will augment the power, secure the tranquillity, multiply the subjects, and advance the opulence, the dignity, and the virtues, of the United States. Self-interest, both in morals and politics, is and ought to be the ruling principle of mankind; but this principle must operate in perfect conformity to social and political obligations. Narrow views and illiberal prejudices may for a time produce a selfish system of politics in each State; but a few years' experience will correct our ideas of self-interest, and convince us 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."

It will be seen that Webster, though confused sometimes in his phraseology, and weak in his philosophy, did see with an English freeman's political instinct the practical bearings of his subject, and in his broad, comprehensive survey disclosed that large American apprehension of freedom and nationality which underlay the best thought of his time. His pamphlet is not a piece of elegant writing, and it is introduced by superficial theorizing; but the practical value is great. Thoughts which have so entered into our political consciousness as to be trite and commonplace are presented as the new possession of a young man lately from college, and it is fair to judge of the current speculation of his time by the results here gathered into logical order. Webster, as I said before, may be taken in this pamphlet as an admirable example of the American political thinker, who has worked out, under the new conditions of this continent, ideas and principles which his ancestors brought from England. He thinks he has invented something new, but the worth of his thought is in its experience. In a period when every one was engaged in rearranging the universe upon some improved plan of his own, it is not surprising that those who thought they had a brand-new nation on their hands should have made a serious business of nationalizing themselves. They thought they were starting afresh from a purely philosophical basis, and they were greatly concerned about their premises; as a matter of fact, their premises were often highly artificial, while their conclusions were sound, for these really drew their life from the historic development of free institutions, and the nation which was formally instituted had long had an organic process. Webster himself, twenty years after, when referring to this pamphlet, had the good sense to say, "The remarks in the first three sketches are general, and some of them I now believe to be too visionary for practice; but the fourth sketch was intended expressly to urge, by all possible arguments, the necessity of a radical alteration in our system of general government, and an outline is there suggested." He adds, "As a private man, young and unknown, I could do but little; but that little I did."

In the autumn of 1786 he went to Philadelphia at the invitation of Franklin, and stayed there a year. He maintained himself in part by teaching, being master of an Episcopal academy; but his interest centred upon the debates of the Constitutional Convention, then in session, and a month after it rose he published "An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution," which was, in effect, a popular defense of the work of the Convention, especially as regards the division of the legislature into two houses. The paper shows rather zeal and fervor than acuteness, and seems to have been hastily written to serve some special and temporary purpose. It has a magniloquence not elsewhere found in his writings, as when he says: "This western world now beholds an aera important beyond conception, and which posterity will number with the age of the Czar of Muscovy, and with the promulgation of the Jewish laws at Mount Sinai. The names of those men who have digested a system of constitutions for the American empire will be enrolled with those of Zamolxis and Odin, and celebrated by posterity with the honors which less enlightened nations have paid to the fabled demi-gods of antiquity.... In the formation of our Constitution the wisdom of all ages is collected; the legislators of antiquity are consulted, as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, it is an empire of reason." In all this there is a flurry of enthusiasm which was not confined to Webster.

Later still, in 1793, he was placed in a more responsible position, as editor of a new daily newspaper in New York. He had been writing under the signature of Candor in the "Courant" upon the French Revolution, taking a somewhat Gallican position, when he chanced to meet Genet at dinner in New York. Conversation with that gentleman caused a change in his views, and it was during this visit to New York that Mr. James Watson proposed to him to establish a newspaper there in the defense of Washington's administration. With his ardent attachment to Washington, and his adhesion generally to the federal party, he accepted the invitation, and established the "American Minerva," which subsequently became the "New York Commercial Advertiser." In conducting the paper he introduced an economical device, which was novel at the time, but has since become an established mode with daily newspapers: he issued a semi-weekly paper, called the "Herald," which was made up from the columns of the daily "Minerva" without recomposition of type.

The political situation which led to the establishment of the "Minerva" was that created by the intrigues of Citizen Genet, and by the bitter hostility to Washington's administration on the part of the French sympathizers. Washington had issued his proclamation of neutrality, and the Jacobin clubs had opened upon him with their newspapers and pamphlets and public addresses in the most virulent manner. It is scarcely too much to say that the animosity between the French and anti-French parties in the United States was keener—it certainly was madder—than that which had existed between Americans and Englishmen during the war which had so lately closed. The earlier movements of the French Revolution had called out in America even more than in England the liveliest expectations of a golden age. Americans, flattered by the French alliance and by the reputation in which their young republic was held, were intoxicated with vanity, and filled also with an eager hope that principles of which they were standard-bearers were to be dominant in Europe. The theoretical and doctrinaire views which seemed for the time to be justified by the success of the American people came to stand for universal principles of reason, capable of bearing all the weight of human experience, and of serving in the place of religion. The most enthusiastic, beholding a new era, were only a few steps in advance of more cautious men, and the new regime in France received the sympathy not only of Jefferson and Madison, but of Washington and Hamilton. It was only when the flood-gates were opened that the uniform sentiment was broken in upon, and parties were formed of "Gallo-maniacs" on one side, as their enemies called them, and anti-Gallicans on the other. But this split into two parties had occurred before Genet arrived, and the breach was only widened by that head-strong minister's action. There can be little doubt that the prudence of Washington, aided by the conservative Hamilton and the unwilling Jefferson, saved the country at the time from committing itself to the insanity of active cooperation with the raging French republic.

The support of the administration was to be looked for not only in legislatures, but in the public press, which was rapidly becoming a power in the country. Certainly the flames of passion and prejudice were fanned most persistently by such journalists as Freneau and Bache on one side, and Cobbett on the other, and it was evident that the war over the question was to be fought largely in the columns of newspapers. Webster's federalism was staunch, so was his personal loyalty to Washington; but I think he was asked to manage the new paper chiefly because in his writings thus far, both upon political and general topics, he had shown himself to have that direct and homely style which makes itself understood by the people because it is in the dialect of the people. At any rate, he began at once vigorously to write and print articles bearing upon the great question of the day. He informed himself of the historical process of the French Revolution, but whatever he wrote was in reference to the effect upon the United States. Webster's patriotism was the best education for a true regard of public affairs in France. His instinct for unity, his conception of the future of the United States, his unbounded faith in American ideas, all served to make him fight any proposal which would complicate the United States with foreign powers.

His hand is seen in various parts of the paper for the five years during which he was connected with it. The French Revolution and all the complications growing out of it were treated with steadfast reference to the interests of the United States, and blows were dealt unceasingly upon the democratic party, as the anti-Federalists were beginning to call themselves. Webster digested the foreign news, wrote articles and paragraphs, and used the machinery which belonged to a paper of that day. It is not unlikely that he wrote letters to himself; it is certain that he wrote a series of essays entitled "The Times," pithy, forcible homilies and comments, expressed generally in a colloquial form, and intended, evidently, to be driven home sharply and positively. I give an extract from one as indicating something of the manner of these conciones ad populum:—

... "Our government is a government of universal toleration. The freedom of America, its greatest blessing, secures to every citizen the right of thinking, of speaking, of worshiping and acting as he pleases, provided he does not violate the laws. The only people in America who have dared to violate this freedom are the democratical incendiaries, who have proceeded to threaten violence to tories and aristocrats and federal republicans; that is, to people not of their party. Every threat of this kind is an act of tyranny; an attempt to abridge the rights of a fellow-citizen. If a man is persecuted for his opinions, it is wholly immaterial whether the persecution springs from one man or from a society of the people,—when men are disposed to persecute. Power is always right; weakness always wrong. Power is always insolent and despotic: whether exercised in throwing its opposers into a bastile; burning them at the stake; torturing them on a rack; beheading them with a guillotine; or taking them off, as at the massacre of St. Bartholomew, at a general sweep. Power is the same in Turkey as in America. When the will of man is raised above law, it is always tyranny and despotism, whether it is the will of a bashaw or of bastard patriots."

The articles which Webster contributed in reviewing the historical movement of the French Revolution were worked over into a pamphlet, which he published in 1794. There were other questions belonging to this time which grew out of the relations between the young republic and European nations. In running over the files of the "Minerva," one is struck with the predominating influence of Europe in American affairs. Every change which took place abroad was watched with reference to its influence on home politics. The habit of regarding America as dependent upon Europe, which underlay so much of the thought of the time, was not easily laid aside, and the tests applied to the conduct of American affairs were of European precedents. The secretary of state was then and long after the leading man of the Cabinet. It is indeed only lately that his comparative importance has been lessened, and that of the secretaries of the treasury and of the interior increased.

Webster's pen was employed on the great questions which arose on the rights of neutral nations, and especially on the policy contained in Jay's Treaty. In vindication of this treaty he published a series of papers, under the signature of Curtius, twelve in all, but the sixth and seventh were contributed by James Kent, afterward Chancellor Kent. The papers came out at the same time with the series signed Camillus, written by Hamilton and King.[12] When the first number of Curtius appeared, Jefferson wrote of it to Madison: "I send you by post one of the pieces, Curtius, lest it should not have come to you otherwise. It is evidently written by Hamilton, giving a first and general view of the subject, that the public mind might be kept a little in check, till he could resume the subject more at large from the beginning, under his second signature, Camillus.... I gave a copy or two, by way of experiment, to honest-hearted men of common understanding, and they were not able to parry the sophistry of Curtius. I have ceased, therefore, to give them. Hamilton is really a colossus to the anti-republican party.... For God's sake, take up your pen, and give a fundamental reply to Curtius and Camillus." But Madison did not yield to Jefferson's entreaty. In these papers Webster reviewed the treaty article by article, and kept closely to his text, in the last number only enlarging upon the insidious character of much of the opposition to the treaty, as connected with the machinations of the French party. It was not without reason that Mr. King expressed the opinion to Mr. Jay "that the essays of Curtius had contributed more than any other papers of the same kind to allay the discontent and opposition to the treaty;" assigning as a reason that they were peculiarly well adapted to the understanding of the people at large.

Webster had the newspaper faculty, and was as omniscient as any editor need be. A consideration of his general labors belongs elsewhere, but it ought to be noted here that he was prompt to see the perils which underlay American slavery. He discussed the subject, indeed, chiefly in its industrial relations, but he regarded these as affecting parties and national well-being. As early as 1793 he delivered an address before the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom "On the Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry," and shortly afterward expanded the address into a treatise. His work bristles with historical illustrations, for it was the habit then more than later to draw inferences from foreign facts; there had not yet accumulated that great swelling volume of home testimony which made reference to experience outside of America unnecessary and rather impertinent. His remedy for the existing evil is the elevation of slaves to the rank of tenants, not in a sudden emancipation, but in the gradual selection of the most capable, and he finds his most satisfactory example in the experiment made thirty years before by the Chancellor of Poland. The appeal is not greatly to the conscience, but to the interest of men. He sums up the argument at the close with the words: "The industry, the commerce, and the moral character of the United States will be immensely benefited by the change. Justice and Humanity require it; Christianity commands it." He had not long been conducting the "Minerva" before he took up the subject again, reminding the public of this treatise. "In that pamphlet," he says, "I endeavored to show by arguments and facts that the labor of slaves is less productive than that of freemen. A doctrine of this kind, if clearly and incontrovertibly established, will perhaps go farther in abolishing the practice of enslaving men than any declamation on the immorality and cruelty of the practice." He then takes up the statistics which had accumulated since the publication of his pamphlet, showing in a forcible manner that the Northern Free States were steadily gaining on the Southern Slave States, and carries forward the argument with great acuteness. "What," he asks, "has produced this difference in the productiveness of the labor in the Northern division? Peace and good markets have been common to both divisions; and the laboring people in the Northern States were as free before the year 1791 as since. What, then, has stimulated the industry of the free laborers since that period? The answer is obvious. An augmentation of capital operating upon their free labor. It is probable there has been an augmentation of capital throughout the United States, though I am convinced that augmentation has been much greater in the Northern than in the Southern. But my general remark is that an increase of capital must be felt by the laboring people themselves to produce its full effect in stimulating industry. The benefits of capital and good markets in the Northern States are experienced by the men who labor; in the Southern States this is not the case among the slaves, who make a great proportion among the laborers. It is of little consequence to a slave whether his master employs in business ten thousand or one thousand, or whether he gets four dollars or two for a hundred of tobacco. In both cases he plods on at his task with the same slow, reluctant pace. A freeman, on the other hand, labors with double diligence when he gets a high price for his produce; and this I apprehend to be a principal cause which has in the last two years occasioned such a surprising difference of exports in favor of the Northern States."

Webster's connection with the "Minerva" continued for about five years, when he abandoned it as unprofitable; but his industry may be inferred from the fact that his writings upon the paper, inclusive of translations from foreign languages, would amount to twenty octavo volumes.

His withdrawal from the conduct of a daily newspaper did not mean his indifference to public affairs. Near the close of his stay in New York he wrote "A Letter on the Value and Importance of the American Commerce to Great Britain, addressed to a Gentleman of Distinction in London." His aim was to emphasize the judgment that the commercial interests of the two countries were closely interwoven, and that in the complication of European politics the United States, if compelled to make any alliance, was most naturally related to England. In 1802 he published his laborious and learned "Essay on the Rights of Neutral Nations," in which he took a position at variance on a single point with that which he held when vindicating Jay's Treaty a few years before. In that treaty Great Britain had stipulated that naval stores should be prohibited as contraband of war, and Webster, in common with others, assumed with reluctance that such prohibition was in accordance with the general law of nations, although admitting that this was the most vulnerable article of the treaty. Further investigation satisfied him of his error, and he frankly avowed it in the later essay, where he says: "For the honor of my country, and the essential interests of her commerce, I regret that the administration, in the very commencement of the national government, has consented to abandon ground which the nations of Europe had, for more than a century, been struggling to obtain and to fortify. I have no hesitation in declaring that no considerations of public danger can justify a commercial nation in consenting to enlarge the field of contraband; nor can there be an apology for the renewal of the clause in the compact, by which our true interests and essential rights have been surrendered." Following the maxim that "Free ships make free goods," he establishes himself on the proposition that "neutrals have a better right to trade than nations have to fight and plunder." Webster argued strenuously in maintenance of rights which were in jeopardy, and the disregard of which by Great Britain had much to do with the War of 1812-1814. He was writing at the beginning of Jefferson's first administration, with all the distrust which the federalist party felt of the President's foreign policy, but it cannot be said that his examination of the subject is other than fair and impartial.

How bitterly he could write as a partisan is shown by the long "Address to the President of the United States on the subject of his Address," published in 1802, and called out by Jefferson's inaugural, then six months old. The principles laid down in that address, in the midst of much fine rhetoric, had begun to be shown in practice, and Webster employs argument and invective to lay bare the falseness of Jefferson's professions. His longest and sharpest attack is upon the policy pursued by the President in rewarding his followers with office,—a policy in accord with the principles laid down in the inaugural. We are accustomed nowadays to strong statements of the viciousness of the spoils system, but no advocate of civil service reform has attacked the full-grown system of party rewards with any more vigor than Webster showed at the beginning of the system. "No, sir!" he exclaims indignantly, "no individual or party has a claim or right to any office whatever;" and he shows with exceeding clearness the tendency of such a doctrine. In his subsequent occasional addresses one finds frequently the note of alarm here struck. Webster was a fervid Federalist, and the accession of the democratic party to power was a shock to his confidence in the perpetuity of the Union from which he never wholly recovered. When the election for President occurred in 1832, and it was clear that Jackson would be returned, Webster refused to go to the polls; he sent away the carriage which came for him. Of what use was it to vote? But the next year, when his son-in-law, Judge Ellsworth, was a candidate for the governor's place, his faith revived a little, and he found it possible to vote.

Webster's federalism had one significant expression in the preliminary measures which led to the Hartford Convention. In January, 1814, Judge Joseph Lyman, of Northampton, wrote to him at Amherst, where he was then living, and proposed a meeting of the most discreet and intelligent inhabitants of the county of Hampshire, for the purpose of a free and dispassionate discussion respecting public concerns. A meeting was held in Northampton, January 19th, at which Webster proposed that the several towns in the vicinity should call a convention of delegates from the legislatures of the Northern States, to agree upon and urge certain amendments to the Constitution for the restoration of the equilibrium between the North and the South. He and two others were appointed to draft a circular letter, and this circular, written by Webster, was sent out under Judge Lyman's name. In consequence of the appeal, a number of towns sent petitions to the General Court of Massachusetts asking for such a convention. It was not judged expedient to call one at that session; but in October of the same year Harrison Gray Otis reintroduced the measure, and Mr. Webster, then a member of the legislature, supported it in a speech. The Hartford Convention thereupon was called, and while Mr. Webster was not a member of it, he was so far involved in its organization that he afterward published a sketch of these earlier steps, though he did not there state in full his own intimate connection with the movement.

Webster's federalism was something more than a partisan sentiment. In following his political thought, it is easily perceived that his creed of party was subordinate to his larger belief in the American Republic. His writings upon public affairs, which are very considerable, constantly reveal this dominant thought. The very vagaries—which, as we have seen, and shall see again, rendered some of his ideas amusing and vain-glorious—were but the disorderly and ill-regulated whims of a sincere patriotism. Americanism in literature and language may become fantastic, but in politics there is pretty sure to be room for the most ardent love of country to expand itself without becoming a bubble, and it is certain that Webster's political writings were marked by a largeness of conception and a clear understanding of national lines which redeem them from insignificance. They had their influence upon his contemporaries, yet they were, after all, ephemeral. Had he concentrated his powers upon political themes, it is not impossible that he should have been a journalist, for instance, of influence and even celebrity. But there was a weakness on this side. He did not bring to the discussion of great public questions that weight of learning and breadth of argument which will sustain political writings when the immediate occasion has passed. Whether writing pamphlets or newspaper articles, he was essentially a writer of the day, of importance in pressing home arguments calling for immediate results, but lacking the art of literature and the commanding thought of a statesman. He had a true sentiment in politics, and he was able also to see practical issues clearly; but his mind was analytical rather than constructive, and his restlessness of life was indicative of a certain instability of temper which kept him uneasily employed about many things rather than steadfast and single-minded. It would be too much to say that he failed as a political writer, and fell back on his philological and school-master studies; yet it is very likely that, in the various excursions which he made into politics and general literature, he discovered by successive trials that there was one pursuit more than all which really belonged to him, and the constancy with which he followed it is in singular contrast with the multitudinous experiments which seemed to occupy the period of his life between 1785 and 1802.


[10] Letter to L. Gaylord Clark, Lippincott's Magazine, April, 1870.

[11] Constitutional History of the United States, i. 63.

[12] The statement that King assisted Hamilton is made by H. C. Lodge, in The Life and Letters of George Cabot, p. 84.



In one of his political papers Webster sketches the average American of his time: "He makes a variety of utensils,—rough, indeed, but such as will answer his purpose; he is a husbandman in summer and a mechanic in winter; he travels about the country; he converses with a variety of professions; he reads public papers; he has access to a parish library, and thus becomes acquainted with history and politics, and every man in New England is a theologian." I have already intimated that Webster dissipated his strength, and it is only fair to state the facts in the light of the conditions under which he lived. In the unorganized and fluent state of society there was little room for a specialist; or, to change the phrase for a more exact one, there was too much room. Every educated man was called upon to occupy himself with a great variety of tasks. The demand made by the republican experiment was very great. People had practiced local self-government under monarchical supervision for a long time; now they were bound to extend the sphere of their political activity, and in the adjustment of the new machinery there was abundant opportunity for all the ingenuity and wit of the educated class to exercise itself. Then there was a great impetus given by politics to the democratizing of the nation, and, in the rapid social changes of the day, the educated class found itself well shaken up with the mechanic. The terms which Webster employs of the average American may easily be applied to all classes. Nice distinctions of rank and occupation could not easily be maintained in a country where there was vastly more land than could be tilled, where enterprise of every kind was limited only by lack of labor, and where every citizen had his hand on the wheels of government.

In a conventional way Webster would be classed amongst the educated men of the country: he had received his diploma at one of the chief colleges; his occupations were intellectual; his profession was the liberal one of the law. Yet in a more real way he was a farmer's son, and though he ceased early from manual labor his mental affiliations were with the plain people rather than with the intellectual ones. He seized all subjects by their practical side, and his instinct was to apply the rough-and-ready rules of common sense to all questions, whether of politics, theology, or philology. Such men as Belknap and Hazard looked with disdain upon him; they felt rather than said that Webster was not one of them. So, when living in Hartford, Webster was not identified with the circle of Hartford wits. His mind was not subtle or graceful; he had not the faculty of creating, nor, so far as I can discover, of appreciating literature; but he had an uncommonly active manufacturing mind, and in his intellectual workshop he made, as he said of his average American, "a variety of utensils,—rough, indeed, but such as will answer his purpose."

He had much in common with Franklin, to whom he was strongly drawn. He had Franklin's eminent common sense and homeliness, by which he gained a hearing from plain men and women; but he had not Franklin's crystal style, his instinct for the fewest and best words, his happy use of a language which seemed made for his thoughts. We noticed that in the spelling-book he displayed a fondness for the wisdom of proverbs and familiar sayings, and among his earliest writings were a series of pithy homilies to the people upon questions of morals and manners, published first in the Connecticut "Courant," but early collected into a volume entitled "The Prompter;" a little book which one may trace to a good many different printing-offices and to various sections of the country, certainly the most widely spread of Webster's writings, after his text-books, and the most worthy of a repeated life. If I am not mistaken, it is even now making its little mark on character.

The sub-title of the book is "A Commentary on Common Sayings and Subjects, which are full of Common Sense,—the best sense in the world;" and in the preface, explanatory of the purpose of the book, Webster's manner as a popular writer is well shown. "A Prompter," he remarks of the happy title, "is the man who, in plays, sits behind the scenes, looks over the rehearser, and with a moderate voice corrects him when wrong, or assists his recollection when he forgets the next sentence. A Prompter, then, says but little, but that little is very necessary, and often does much good. He helps the actors on the stage at a dead lift, and enables them to go forward with spirit and propriety. The writer of this little book took it into his head to prompt the numerous actors upon the great theatre of life; and he sincerely believes that his only motive was to do good. He cast about to find the method of writing calculated to do the most general good. He wanted to whip vice and folly out of the country; he thought of 'Hudibras' and 'McFingal,' and pondered well whether he should attempt the masterly style of those writings. He found this would not do, for, like most modern rhymers, he is no poet, and he always makes bungling work at imitation.

"The Prompter thought of the grave diction of sober, moral writers, and the pompous, flowing style of modern historians. Fame began now to prick up his vanity to try an imitation of the great Dr. Robertson, Dr. Johnson, and Mr. Gibbon, those giants of literature. He thought if he could muster dollars enough to buy a style-mill, which those heroes of science undoubtedly used to cut out sentences for their works, he should succeed to a tittle. But then it occurred to him that when he had cut and shaped his periods into exact squares, diamonds, pentagons, parallelograms, and other mathematical figures, they might not contain very clear, precise, definite ideas; one half of his readers would not understand him. The style-mill, then, or, as some people contemptuously call it, the word-mill, would not answer the Prompter's purpose of doing as much good as possible by making men wiser and better.

"At length he determined to have nothing to do with a brilliant flow of words, a pompous elegance of diction; for what has the world to do with the sound of words? The Prompter's business is with the world at large, and the mass of mankind are concerned only with common things. A dish of high-seasoned turtle is rarely found; it sometimes occurs at a gentleman's table, and then the chance is it produces a surfeit. But good solid roast beef is a common dish for all men; it sits easy on the stomach, it supports, it strengthens and invigorates. Vulgar sayings and proverbs, so much despised by the literary epicures, the Chesterfields of the age, are the roast beef of science. They contain the experience, the wisdom, of nations and ages compressed into the compass of a nutshell. To crack the shell and extract the contents to feed those who have appetites is the aim of this little book."

The several essays are expansive of the familiar sayings or proverbs which stand for their titles, as, "It will do for the present," "I told you so," "He is sowing his wild oats," "He would have his own way," "A stitch in time saves nine," "Any other time will do as well," "He has come out at the little end of the horn." The papers are all short, and no time is wasted in coming at the point; indeed, there is a succession of thrusts in each paper, and the reader is prodded more or less efficiently at each step. Here, to give a single example, is Number XVIII.: "What is everybody's business is nobody's."

"The consequence is that everybody and nobody are just the same thing,—a truth most pointedly exemplified in the kitchen of a Southern nabob. 'Phil!' says the mistress, with the air of an empress. Phil appears. 'Go tell Peg to tell Sue to come along here and pick up a needle.' 'Yes, ma'am,' answers Phil, and waddles back like a duck. 'Peg, mistress says you must tell Sue to go to her and pick up a needle.' Peg carries the message to Sue, but Sue is busy cleaning a candlestick. 'Well,' says Sue, 'I will go as soon as I have done.' The mistress wants the needle; she waits ten or fifteen minutes, grows impatient. 'Phil, did you tell Peg what I told you?' 'Ye—s, ma'am,' says Phil, drawling out her answer. 'Well, why don't the jade do what I told her? Peg, come here, you hussy! Did you tell Sue what Phil told you?' 'Yes, ma'am.' 'Well, why don't the lazy trollop come along? Here I am waiting for the needle! Tell the jade to come instantly!'

"Risum teneatis? Hold, my readers don't know Latin; but can you help laughing, my friends? Laugh, then, at the Southern nabob, with twenty fat slaves in his kitchen,—laugh well at him, for there is cause enough; then come home and laugh.

"You want a good school, perhaps, and so do your neighbors. But whose business is it to find a teacher, a house, etc.? 'John, I wish you would speak to William to ask Joseph to desire our friend Daniel to set about getting a good school. We want one very much; it is a shame to us to be so negligent.' This is the last we hear of the good school. What is everybody's business is nobody's.

"You want to collect the public taxes into the treasury of the State. The towns choose constables or collectors of taxes. No security is taken for a faithful discharge of the trust, but a law is passed, which says, like the mistress to her wenches, Treasurer, do you tell the constable to collect and pay over the taxes. The collector, like the nabob's slave, has no motive for diligence; he gets not half enough for collecting to pay for his horse-flesh. He lounges about a year or two, squanders away the money, and where is his bondsman? The town! Right, the town is his bondsman. The law says, Treasurer, do you issue your execution against the sheriff, and command him to levy upon the constable, who is not worth a farthing; get a return of non est inventus; then levy upon his bondsman, the town; take the estate of everybody, post it for sale, get it receipted and not delivered; sue the receipts-man, get the money, make the town pay it twice,—27,000l. in arrears! It is a shame! Oh, such a bustle with Mr. Everybody, and all to pick up a needle! The State is like the nabob's family. 'Phil, tell Peg to tell Sue to pick up the needle.'

"Now in fact it is a very easy thing to pick up a needle, but if one cannot stoop to pick it up another ought to be paid for it. One servant who is paid for his work will pick up more needles than twenty fat, lounging slaves that think it a drudgery and get nothing for it.

"It would be a good thing for a State to know that everybody's business is nobody's. Every man in Connecticut is responsible for a faithful collection of public money; then it is nobody's business. The Prompter never saw a watch with two mainsprings, much less with two hundred. One spring is enough, and that government, the executive of which depends on many springs, will jar, clash, stop, and be always out of order,—27,000l. in arrears.

"Appoint one collector, the treasurer; make him answerable for the collection of the whole state revenue. Let him appoint his deputies; let them be few, but let them be paid. All the difficulty will vanish; one spring will move the whole; the state treasury, like the federal, will be supplied; no arrears then, no levying executions on towns."

* * * * *

This happens to have its application to public affairs; most of the twenty-eight papers have their special point in personal character. The writing is not elegant; it is sometimes ungrammatical; but it is intelligible, and with its bluntness could hardly fail to make itself felt. It is when one compares it with similar work of Franklin's, as "The Whistle," for example, that one is reminded of its inartistic form. But Webster was always busy over subjects directly connected with the well-being of the people. His philological work had its origin in this motive, and in his miscellaneous writings he displayed his practical philosophy and philanthropy. He wrote frequently upon banks and banking; his "Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases" is pronounced by an authority to have great historical value; he was one of the founders of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences; and in the numerous list of his writings one comes upon such oddly assorted subjects as an account of a tornado in Wethersfield, a cure for cancer, upon white-washing, the mental arithmetic of a negro, on winds, upon female education, on the decomposition of white-lead paint, a dissertation on the supposed change in the temperature of winter, upon names of streets in New York, on yellow fever, on the age of literary men, and one article with the suggestive title "Number of Deaths in the Episcopal Church in New York in each Month for Ten Years." He had a passion for statistics which took an odd turn. In his diary one constantly finds an enumeration of the houses in the town which he happens to be visiting. "During his brief residence in New York," says one biographical sketch, "Mr. Webster numbered the houses in the city, and found that they were thirty-five hundred." He would count up one side of a street and down the other, and place the results in his note-book. I think he published in some paper the record of this individual census as applied to a number of houses and villages. There must have been in his constitution an inordinate love of detail, intensified, perhaps, by much contemplation of those battalions of words which make his spelling-book pages look like spiritual armies marching against ignorance.

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