Noah Webster - American Men of Letters
by Horace E. Scudder
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We have already observed Webster's interest in political discussion, and have tried to disclose something of his temper when viewing questions of public policy. "The Prompter" was written with reference to the conduct of life in individuals, but, as in the paper copied above, there is constant regard to the American character, and to the manner in which one should conduct himself in the new conditions of American life. The general subject of Americanism was one upon which he was constantly writing. We shall see later the length to which he carried his views in relation to the American language; here we may note some of the directions which his thought took when dealing with what may be called the greater morals of national life. In his "Remarks on the Manners, Government, and Debt of the United States," an odd combination of subjects, apparently, but very closely connected in Webster's mind, he undertakes to discover the cause of some of the political evils of the day, and is led by his subject into regions lying outside of politics.

"A fundamental mistake of the Americans has been that they considered the revolution as completed, when it was but just begun. Having raised the pillars of the building, they ceased to exert themselves, and seemed to forget that the whole super-structure was then to be erected. This country is independent in government, but totally dependent in manners, which are the basis of government. Men seem not to attend to the difference between Europe and America in point of age and improvement, and are disposed to rush with heedless emulation into an imitation of manners for which we are not prepared....

"The present ambition of Americans is to introduce as fast as possible the fashionable amusements of the European courts. Considering the former dependence of America on England, her descent, her connection and present intercourse, this ambition cannot surprise us. But it must check this ambition to reflect on the consequences. It will not be denied that there are vices predominant in the most polite cities in Europe which are not only unknown, but are seldom mentioned, in America, and vices that are infamous beyond conception. I presume it will not be denied that there must be an amazing depravation of mind in a nation where a farce is a publication of more consequence than Milton's poem, and where an opera dancer, or an Italian singer, receives a salary equal to that of an ambassador. The facts being known and acknowledged, I presume the consequence will not be denied. Not that the charge is good against every individual; even in the worst times there will be found many exceptions to the general character of a nation....

"In some Asiatic countries people never change their mode of dress. This uniformity, which continues for ages, proceeds from the same principles as the monthly changes in England and France; both proceed from necessity and policy. Both arise from good causes which operate in the several governments; that is, the manners of each government are subservient to its particular interest. The reverse is true of this country. Our manners are wholly subservient to the interest of foreign nations. Where do we find, in dress or equipage, the least reference to the circumstances of this country? Is it not the sole ambition of the Americans to be just like other nations, without the means of supporting the resemblance? We ought not to harbor any spleen or prejudice against foreign kingdoms. This would be illiberal. They are wise, they are respectable. We should despise the man that piques himself on his own country, and treats all others with indiscriminate contempt. I wish to see much less jealousy and ill-nature subsisting between the Americans and English. But in avoiding party spirit and resentment on the one hand, we should be very careful of servility on the other. There is a manly pride in true independence which is equally remote from insolence and meanness,—a pride that is characteristic of great minds. Have Americans discovered this pride since the declaration of peace? We boast of independence, and with propriety. But will not the same men who glory in this great event, even in the midst of a gasconade, turn to a foreigner, and ask him, 'What is the latest fashion in Europe?' He has worn an elegant suit of clothes for six weeks; he might wear it a few weeks longer, but it has not so many buttons as the last suit of my Lord ——. He throws it aside, and gets one that has. The suit costs him a sum of money; but it keeps him in the fashion, and feeds the poor of Great Britain or France. It is a singular phenomenon, and to posterity it will appear incredible, that a nation of heroes, who have conquered armies and raised an empire, should not have the spirit to say, We will wear our clothes as we please.

"Let it not be thought that this is a trifling subject, a matter of no consequence. Mankind are governed by opinion; and while we flatter ourselves that we enjoy independence because no foreign power can impose laws upon us, we are groaning beneath the tyranny of opinion,—a tyranny more severe than the laws of monarchs; a dominion, voluntary, indeed, but, for that reason, more effectual; an authority of manners, which commands our services, and sweeps away the fruits of our labor.

"I repeat the sentiment with which I began,—the Revolution of America is yet incomplete. We are now in a situation to answer all the purposes of the European nations,—independent in government, and dependent in manners. They give us their fashions; they direct our taste to make a market for their commodities; they engross the profits of our industry, without the hazard of defending us, or the expense of supporting our civil government. A situation more favorable to their interest or more repugnant to our own they could not have chosen for us, nor we embraced."

* * * * *

"Every man in New England is a theologian," says Webster in the passage quoted at the head of this chapter, and Webster himself was no exception to his statement. He published in "The Panoplist," and afterward in pamphlet form, "The Peculiar Doctrines of the Gospel Explained and Defended," an apology for Calvinism, which drew out an answer by "An Old-fashioned Churchman." With more direct reference to his special pursuits, he published "Mistakes and Corrections in the Common Version of the Scriptures, in the Hebrew Lexicon of Gesenius, and in Richardson's Dictionary."

The most considerable venture which Webster made in this field was in his edition of the Bible. He was a Revision Committee of one, and went to work with his customary self-confidence not to retranslate the Bible, but to correct and improve its English, "with amendments of the language," the title-page declares. His reasons for undertaking the work and his principles of revision are given in the preface to his edition, which was published at New Haven in 1833:—

... "In the present [King James] version, the language is, in general, correct and perspicuous; the genuine popular English of Saxon origin; peculiarly adapted to the subjects; and in many passages uniting sublimity with beautiful simplicity. In my view, the general style of the version ought not to be altered. But in the lapse of two or three centuries changes have taken place, which in particular passages impair the beauty, in others obscure the sense, of the original languages. Some words have fallen into disuse; and the signification of others, in current popular use, is not the same now as it was when they were introduced into the version. The effect of these changes is that some words are not understood by common readers, who have no access to commentaries, and who will always compose a great proportion of readers; while other words, being now used in a sense different from that which they had when the translation was made, present a wrong signification or false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had when introduced, and different from that of the original languages, they do not present to the reader the Word of God. This circumstance is very important, even in things not the most essential; and in essential points mistakes may be very injurious. In my own view of this subject, a version of the Scriptures for popular use should consist of words expressing the sense which is most common in popular usage, so that the first ideas suggested to the reader should be the true meaning of such words according to the original languages. That many words in the present version fail to do this is certain. My principal aim is to remedy this evil....

"In performing this task I have been careful to avoid unnecessary innovations, and to retain the general character of the style. The principal alterations are comprised in three classes:—

"1. The substitution of words and phrases now in good use for such as are wholly obsolete, or deemed below the dignity and solemnity of the subject.

"2. The correction of errors in grammar.

"3. The insertion of euphemisms, words and phrases which are not very offensive to delicacy, in the place of such as cannot, with propriety, be uttered before a promiscuous audience."

All this has a most familiar sound to-day, and when Webster goes on with a plea for consideration and a doubt as to how his necessary work will be received, we seem to hear again the apologies and defenses with which the press has of late been filled. People have used the Bible so long, Webster observes, that they have acquired a predilection for its quaintnesses. "It may require," he continues, "some effort to subdue this predilection; but it may be done, and for the sake of the rising generation it is desirable.... As there are diversities of tastes among men, it is not to be expected that the alterations I have made in the language of the version will please all classes of readers. Some persons will think I have done too little; others, too much. And probably the result would be the same, were a revision to be executed by any other hand, or even by the joint labors of many hands. All I can say is that I have executed this work in the manner which, in my judgment, appeared to be the best.... In this undertaking I subject myself to the charge of arrogance; but I am not conscious of being actuated by any improper motive. I am aware of the sensitiveness of the religious public on this subject, and of the difficulties which attend the performance. But all men whom I have consulted, if they have thought much on the subject, seem to be agreed in the opinion that it is high time to have a revision of the common version of the Scriptures; although no person appears to know how or by whom such a revision is to be executed. In my own view, such revision is not merely a matter of expedience, but of moral duty; and as I have been encouraged to undertake this work by respectable literary and religious characters, I have ventured to attempt a revision upon my own responsibility. If the work should fail to be well received, the loss will be my own, and I hope no injury will be done. I have been painfully solicitous that no error should escape me."

It is not difficult to understand Webster's attitude. He is a school-master in this business, squaring Elizabethan English to suit the regularity and uniformity of language which have been the dream of all school-masters. Rules without exceptions represent the unattainable ideal of mechanical minds. Webster, vainly endeavoring to reduce language to an orderly system, was also moved to secure propriety and decorum. He seems, therefore, to have gone through the book with his pen, transposing words into a more formal order, removing quaintnesses, changing old forms into current ones, putting on fig leaves, and, so far as he dared, shaving the language to fit the measure of the speech of his day. But he did not undertake the work as a scholar, aiming at a more exact version, and his emendations, where the sense would be at all affected, were very inconsiderable. He changed, to be sure, take no thought into be not anxious, as the Revisers have done, and he incorporated into the text the marginal reading to them for by them in the passage, Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old times. He substituted demons for devils, as the American Committee preferred; he tried to put hell in its proper place, and in some trivial instances he was more exact in his use of prepositions, but one would look in vain for any sign of Hebrew or Greek scholarship beyond the most rudimentary.

Nor in respect of English did he seem to have any conception of style or color; he patched clauses with words of his time, when he desired to remove an obsolete expression, without any sense, apparently, of incongruousness, and he removed words which were still perfectly clear in meaning, only because they would not in his day so be used. He was very much disturbed by what he regarded as inelegance, and picturesque phrases or words were likely to give way to more commonplace ones. He did not like gather together and substituted the more rotund assemble, collect, or convene; three score he wrote sixty; he hustled out the strong phrase gave up the ghost, and put in its place the "elegant" expire; peradventure yielded to perhaps or it may be; laugh to scorn he wrote deride. A good example of his indifference to racy English is in his substituting in health for safe and sound in the clause, because he hath received him safe and sound. "This is another instance," he writes in his Introduction, "in which the translators have followed popular use instead of the original Greek, which signifies simply well or in health."

Some of his alterations were in the direction of greater intelligibility. He used button instead of tache, capital for chapiter, and made Hebrew proper names in the New Testament conform to the usage of the Old. "This will prevent illiterate persons, who compose a large part of the readers of the Scriptures, from mistaking the characters. Every obstacle to a right understanding of the Scriptures, however small, should be removed, when it can be done in consistency with truth." Like the American Committee he preferred Holy Spirit to Holy Ghost, and was willing to drop the title Saint from the names of the evangelists, and having all the authority necessary he made these changes. In other instances there appears an interesting agreement between this independent American reviser of 1833 and the American Committee of the present year; number VII. of the classes of passages recorded at the close of the Revised version, as preferred by the American Committee, reads: "Substitute modern forms of speech for the following archaisms, namely, who or that for which when used of persons; are for be in the present indicative; know, knew, for wot, wist; drag or drag away for hale," and Webster's corrections upon the same plan are uniform. It is unquestionably due to Webster that the American Committee had this preference, not to the Webster who revised the Bible, for it is scarcely likely that his revision was used for reference, but to the Webster who early proposed such changes in the use of language and never ceased to urge them upon every occasion. So, too, both agree in dropping thy way from the phrase go thy way; in saying urgent for instant. The variations, however, of the American Committee from the English have reference largely to readings.

The great bulk of Webster's emendations were of the most trivial and innocent character. Whosoever and whatsoever he always cut down by the omission of the second syllable; unto and until he changed to to and till; wherein and its fellows he usually rendered by in which, on which, in that or this; ate he preferred to did eat, and yes to yea. It was in general a picayune revision, sufficient to annoy those who had an ear for the old version, and really offering only such positive helps in interpretation as were generally in the possession of fairly educated men. That he should have done the work at all and have done it so faintly is what surprises the reader. As a commercial undertaking it was no mean matter, and it was followed by the publication of an edition of the New Testament alone. What a strange miscalculation of forces it appears to have been! It implied that readers generally were as much martinets in language as the editor, and it did not take into account the immense inertia to be overcome, when a single man should undertake to set aside the accumulated reverence of two centuries. The revision of the Bible by Webster was in singular confirmation of traits of character which have already been noted. He had unlimited confidence in himself, an almost childish ignorance of obstacles, a persistence which was unembarrassed by the indifference of others, and, from his long continued occupation, a habit of magnifying the trivial. He had not, in such a work as this, the qualifications of a scholar; he had simply the training of a school-master; he was ignorant of what he was undertaking, and his independent revision of the Bible failed to win attention, not because it was audacious, but because it was not bold enough; it offered no real contribution to Biblical criticism.

He secured for it, indeed, a certain endorsement. A testimonial, signed by the president and the most distinguished members of the faculty of Yale College, recites cautiously: "Dr. Webster's edition of the Bible, in which the language of the translation is purified from obsolete, ungrammatical, and exceptional words and phrases, is approved and used by many clergymen and other gentlemen very competent to judge of its merits," an ingenious form of words which, I hope, satisfied Dr. Webster. Others, chiefly his neighbors in New Haven, signed more elaborate documents, intended, apparently, to meet objections and prejudices against a changed Bible. Webster himself declared to the editors of a religious paper, whom he suspected to be unfriendly to his design, "I consider this emendation of the common version as the most important enterprise of my life, and as important as any benevolent design now on foot; and I feel much hurt that my friends should discountenance the design." This was written a few months after the publication of the work. Eight years later, when he was in the eighty-fourth year of his age, he still clung to the hope that his work might be accepted and put to general use; he had already in his will bequeathed to each of his grandchildren a copy of the book "handsomely bound," the only one of his publications thus marked by his favor, and the letter which at this time, a year before his death, he addressed to the Members of the Eastern Association, in New Haven County, shows no abatement in his faith.

"NEW HAVEN, May 19, 1842.

"GENTLEMEN: My edition of the Bible, with emendations of the language of the common version, has been before the public about eight years. I have heard no objection to the manner in which the work has been executed, and, as far as my information extends, the work is generally approved by those who have examined it, among whom are many clergymen, whose special duty it is to guard the sacred text from corruption. The body of the language in the common version was introduced by Tyndale more than three hundred and twenty years ago. In the great length of time that has since elapsed, the language has suffered many material changes, some of which affect the sense of passages, rendering it obscure or unintelligible to the unlettered part of readers. Some passages are perverted by the use of wrong words, the grammatical errors are numerous, and many passages are expressed in language which decency forbids to be repeated in families and the pulpit. For these reasons it appears to me that a due regard to the interest of religion requires a revision of the common version. Indeed, all men seem to agree that amendments are wanted, but who shall undertake the work? So numerous are the denominations of Christians that no one would undertake it without the concurrence of others, unless for sectarian purposes, and there is no probability that a concurrence of all could be obtained. For these reasons it seems to be obvious, that if any improvement is to be made in the version, the work must be done by an individual. It is my desire that the association shall take into consideration the propriety of rendering me their active aid in prompting the use of the amended copy of the Bible in families and schools. I am, gentlemen, with much respect, your obedient servant,


His judgment has been partially confirmed, partially set aside. One denomination did undertake a revision and failed; but contrary to Webster's belief it has been found possible to obtain the concurrence of different bodies of men for a revision which comes with weight, and receives an attention not to be secured by testimonials of county associations. There was a wide difference between Webster's conception of a revision and that entertained by the distinguished scholars who carried forward the recent one. I wonder if one of those scholars who signed the non-committal endorsement of Webster's Bible may not, in the midst of his recent labors, have contrasted in his mind the learned company to which he belonged with the school-master who offered a Bible "purified from the numerous errors."



It is not an uncommon experience by which a young man strikes at once the note of his career, then appears to wander or experiment, and returns more surely to his original expression, following that steadily to the end. It was thus with Webster. His "Grammatical Institute," inclosing the perennial speller, was his first declaration; then he made ventures in different directions, but returned to studies in language, and finally embodied the results of his life-time in his great Dictionary. In reading biography, we wish to get at the ruling passion of the man; how often the man himself seems bewildered in his search for it, groping in this direction and in that, uncertain, to use Dr. Bushnell's vigorous phrase, if he has yet grasped the handle of his being. It cannot be said that Webster ever laid aside his special studies and resumed them after long intervals. His earliest and most characteristic work, "A Grammatical Institute," was always by him, and the Speller, which emerged from it, became of so much pecuniary importance that it could not fail to determine in many ways his occupation. The "Minerva" from the first had constant advertisements both of "A Grammatical Institute" and of the early volume of "Dissertations"; there were frequent announcements of new editions of the Spelling-Book, and of the rate at which it could be had in quantities. Country merchants began to lay in supplies of Webster's Spelling-Book, when they came to the nearest trading town, as confidently as they bought West India goods or English tools. Webster gave lectures, as he traveled north and south, upon the English language. His reputation was forming upon this line, and it is not unlikely that his partial failure in political and journalistic work was due to his identification with the occupation of a school-master. A more complete account would be that he did not do these things thoroughly well, because his strongest attraction was in another direction. He seems, through the twenty years or more which followed the first publication of his Spelling-Book, to have his hand close by the throttle-lever without knowing it. The practical demands of self-support no doubt controlled his inclinations, and forced him into one situation after another where his choice would not send him, and he spent these years in a struggle for maintenance. Then he was an impulsive, a generous, and an ambitious man. He loved society; he liked the stir of men and the bustle of management. As we have already seen, he was ready to venture all he had upon the stakes which his ardor set up. He took risks in publishing, which could be justified only by his own enthusiasm, and entertained himself with speculations in literature which were agreeable to contemplate, but often disastrous to realize. There is a half-despairing letter to Josiah Quincy[13] which discloses the hard lines of his practical life. Trumbull had jested at Webster's slight capital for house-keeping, and Webster himself reached points in his career where even Institutes and Dissertations seemed to fail him. The letter is dated at New Haven, February 12, 1811. He writes with some irritation, "My name has been so much bandied about that I am quite willing it should be seen and heard no more at present," and then passes to the more important matters in his mind: "I am engaged in a work which gives me great pleasure, and the tracing of language through more than twenty different dialects has opened a new and before unexplored field. I have within two years past made discoveries which, if ever published, must interest the literati of all Europe, and render it necessary to revise all the lexicons—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—now used as classical books. But what can I do? My own resources are almost exhausted, and in a few days I shall sell my house to get bread for my children. All the assurances of aid which I had received in Boston, New York, etc., have failed, and I am soon to retire to a humble cottage in the country. To add to my perplexity, the political measures pursuing render it almost impossible to sell property, or to obtain money upon the best security. A few thousand dollars, for which I can give security, would place me in a condition in the country to live with comfort and pursue my studies; but even this cannot be obtained till the measures of Congress assume a more auspicious aspect. Adieu, dear sir. The little Band will no doubt do their duty, but what can be done against the army of slaves? Alexander Wolcott!! We must drink the cup of disgrace to the dregs! Yours, in low spirits,


If the letter was an indirect appeal to Mr. Quincy to advance a few thousand dollars on good security, it does not seem to have effected its purpose, and a man with money to lend would not have his confidence in the borrower's capacity to repay it increased by knowing that the time of the loan was to be occupied in making astonishing discoveries in the roots of language. It has often been stated that Dr. Webster supported himself and large family, during the twenty or thirty years he was employed in the preparation of his great Dictionary, mainly by a copyright of one cent or less on his Spelling-Book, and it is quite certain that the several other enterprises in which he engaged never supported him while they were going on, and often resulted in losses. But what a picture the letter presents of an impecunious scholar, bewitched by his pursuit, and sure that it was to end in some vast result! He writes like an inventor who needs but little to enable him to perfect a machine which is to revolutionize labor.

It was only a few years after the first publication of the Spelling-Book, and while Webster was still unmarried and trying his hand at various occupations, that he published "A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings on Moral, Historical, Political, and Literary Subjects." The short-tailed word on the title-page is an oddity intended probably to attract the reader's attention and lead him to look within. The contents embrace thirty essays, originally written or published between the years 1787 and 1790, but before the reader comes upon the table of contents he is likely to stop at the Preface with its antics of spelling. We are tolerably used by this time to reformed spelling, but Webster was a pioneer, and his contemporaries must have looked with some amazement at what they could only think of as deformed spelling. Here they could be told soberly:—

"During the course of ten or twelv yeers I hav been laboring to correct popular errors, and to assist my yung brethren in the road to truth and virtue; my publications for theez purposes hav been numerous; much time haz been spent, which I do not regret, and much censure incurred, which my hart tells me I do not dezerv. The influence of a yung writer cannot be so powerful or extensiv az that of an established karacter; but I hav ever thot a man's usefulness depends more on exertion than on talents. I am attached to America by berth, education, and habit; but abuv all, by a philosophical view of her situation, and the superior advantages she enjoys, for augmenting the sum of social happiness....

"The reeder will obzerv that the orthography of the volum iz not uniform. The reezon iz, that many of the essays hav been published before, in the common orthography, and it would hav been a laborious task to copy the whole, for the sake of changing the spelling.

"In the essays ritten within the last yeer, a considerable change of spelling iz introduced by way of experiment. This liberty waz taken by the writers before the age of Queen Elizabeth, and to this we are indeted for the preference of modern spelling over that of Gower and Chaucer. The man who admits that the change of housbonde, mynde, ygone, moneth into husband, mind, gone, month, iz an improovment, must acknowledge also the riting of helth, breth, rong, tung, munth, to be an improovment. There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it will proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors."

This passage from the Preface, as well as those papers in the volume which follow the same style of orthography or rather cacography, will illustrate well enough the unprincipled character of the reform as it lay in Webster's mind. He acted upon the merest empiricism apparently, without any well-considered plan, making the spelling occasionally conform to the sound, but allowing even the same sounds to have different representation in different words. Indeed, in the extract given above, he appears to be rather a timid reformer, attacking such defenseless little words as is, and respectfully passing by would and offered. The general appearance of those essays in the volume which are printed after Webster's own heart leads one happening upon them nowadays into some disappointment, since they are by no means to be ranked with the humorous writings of later mis-spellers, who have contrived to get some fun out of venerable words by pulling off their wigs and false teeth and turning them loose in the streets.

It is very likely that Webster's first impulse to reform our spelling was given by Dr. Franklin's writings on the subject. As is well known, that philosopher went so far as to devise new characters for compound letters such as th, sh, ng, anticipating many of the later experiment in phonic writing. Webster entered with zeal into the notion, and held a correspondence with Franklin, in which the young man showed himself so ardent a disciple of the old as to win for himself a certain place as the doctor's residuary legatee in ideas. "This indefatigable gentleman," says Webster of Franklin, "amidst all his other employments, public and private, has compiled a Dictionary on his scheme of a reform, and procured types to be cast for printing it. He thinks himself too old to pursue the plan; but has honored me with the offer of the manuscript and types, and expressed a strong desire that I should undertake the task. Whether this project, so deeply interesting to this country, will ever be effected, or whether it will be defeated by indolence and prejudice, remains for my countrymen to determine." The last clause, with all its obscurity, may be taken as a threat rather than as a self-reproach. The entire correspondence between Webster and Franklin is interesting as setting forth a certain excess of experimenting ardor in Franklin and an unlooked-for degree of conservatism in Webster. Franklin was the older man, but he was the more daring. One should credit him, however, with a certain amount of humor in his whims. He played with the English language, somewhat as he amused himself with conferring legacies at compound interest, to take effect in two hundred years, and giving away gravely millions of money by the immediate planting of a few hundreds.

If the first impulse came from Franklin, the controlling reason must be looked for in Webster's patriotism. It was no trifling desire to put into practice an engaging theory, but a conviction of public gain which moved Webster to proclaim his reform. He has left abundant testimony to this effect. After giving a brief historical sketch of the changes to which the English language had been subjected, in the Appendix to his "Dissertations," he proceeds:—

"The question now occurs: ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniences in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the AMERICAN TONGUE?" He throws all the emphasis possible upon these words by the use of large type, and then sketches the nature of the proposed reform, returning in the conclusion to his favorite position of the influence upon national speech and manners.

The whole statement is so interesting, especially when taken into comparison with the recent declarations of war by eminent American philologists, that I transfer it to these pages.

"Several attempts were formerly made in England to rectify the orthography of the language.[14] But I apprehend their schemes failed of success rather on account of their intrinsic difficulties than on account of any necessary impracticability of a reform. It was proposed, in most of these schemes, not merely to throw out superfluous and silent letters, but to introduce a number of new characters. Any attempt on such a plan must undoubtedly prove unsuccessful. It is not to be expected that an orthography, perfectly regular and simple, such as would be formed by a 'Synod of Grammarians on principles of science,' will ever be substituted for that confused mode of spelling which is now established. But it is apprehended that great improvements may be made, and an orthography almost regular, or such as shall obviate most of the present difficulties which occur in learning our language, may be introduced and established with little trouble and opposition. The principal alterations necessary to render our orthography regular and easy are these:

"1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as a in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and, much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.

"2. A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak, grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion a moment's trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and ie, having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for grief; kee for key; beleev for believe; laf for laugh; dawter for daughter; plow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for prove; blud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives should be changed into k; for the English ch has a soft sound as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, colic, architecture, should be written karacter, korus, kolic, arkitecture, and were they thus written no person could mistake their true pronunciation. Thus ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh; machine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer, and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.

"3. A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point, would distinguish different sounds without the substitution of a new character. Thus a very small stroke across th would distinguish its two sounds. A point over a vowel in this manner, ȧ or ȯ or [=i], might answer all the purposes of different letters. And for the diphthong ow let the two letters be united by a small stroke, or both engraven on the same piece of metal, with the left hand line of the w united to the o. These, with a few other inconsiderable alterations, would answer every purpose, and render the orthography sufficiently correct and regular.

"The advantages to be derived from these alterations are numerous, great, and permanent.

"1. The simplicity of the orthography would facilitate the learning of the language. It is now the work of years for children to learn to spell; and after all, the business is rarely accomplished. A few men, who are bred to some business that requires constant exercise in writing, finally learn to spell most words without hesitation; but most people remain all their lives imperfect masters of spelling, and liable to make mistakes whenever they take up a pen to write a short note. Nay, many people, even of education and fashion, never attempt to write a letter without frequently consulting a dictionary. But with the proposed orthography, a child would learn to spell, without trouble, in a very short time, and the orthography being very regular, he would ever after find it difficult to make a mistake. It would, in that case, be as difficult to spell wrong as it is now to spell right. Besides this advantage, foreigners would be able to acquire the pronunciation of English, which is now so difficult and embarrassing that they are either wholly discouraged on the first attempt, or obliged, after many years' labor, to rest contented with an imperfect knowledge of the subject.

"2. A correct orthography would render the pronunciation of the language as uniform as the spelling in books. A general uniformity thro the United States would be the event of such a reformation as I am here recommending. All persons, of every rank, would speak with some degree of precision and uniformity. Such a uniformity in these States is very desirable; it would remove prejudice, and conciliate mutual affection and respect.

"3. Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of books is an advantage that should not be overlooked.

"4. But a capital advantage of this reform in these States would be, that it would make a difference between the English orthography and the American. This will startle those who have not attended to the subject; but I am confident that such an event is an object of vast political consequence. For,

"The alteration, however small, would encourage the publication of books in our own country. It would render it, in some measure, necessary that all books should be printed in America. The English would never copy our orthography for their own use; and consequently the same impressions of books would not answer for both countries. The inhabitants of the present generation would read the English impressions; but posterity, being taught a different spelling, would prefer the American orthography.

"Besides this, a national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character. However they may boast of independence, and the freedom of their government, yet their opinions are not sufficiently independent; an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners, are still prevalent among the Americans. Thus an habitual respect for another country, deserved indeed and once laudable, turns their attention from their own interests, and prevents their respecting themselves."

He supposes various objections to this reform: that it would oblige people to relearn the language; that it would render present books useless; that it would injure the language by obscuring etymology; that the distinction between words of different meanings and similar sound would be destroyed; that it was idle to conform the orthography of words to the pronunciation, because the latter was continually changing. All these objections he considers and meets with arguments more familiar to us than they were to men of his day, and then concludes:—

"Sensible I am how much easier it is to propose improvements than to introduce them. Everything new starts the idea of difficulty, and yet it is often mere novelty that excites the appearance; for on a slight examination of the proposal the difficulty vanishes. When we firmly believe a scheme to be practicable, the work is half accomplished. We are more frequently deterred by fear from making an attack, than repulsed in the encounter.

"Habit also is opposed to changes, for it renders even our errors dear to us. Having surmounted all difficulties in childhood, we forget the labor, the fatigue, and the perplexity we suffered in the attempt, and imagine the progress of our studies to have been smooth and easy. What seems intrinsically right is so merely thro habit. Indolence is another obstacle to improvements. The most arduous task a reformer has to execute is to make people think; to rouse them from that lethargy, which, like the mantle of sleep, covers them in repose and contentment.

"But America is in a situation the most favorable for great reformations; and the present time is, in a singular degree, auspicious. The minds of men in this country have been awakened. New scenes have been, for many years, presenting new occasions for exertion; unexpected distresses have called forth the powers of invention; and the application of new expedients has demanded every possible exercise of wisdom and talents. Attention is roused, the mind expanded, and the intellectual faculties invigorated. Here men are prepared to receive improvements, which would be rejected by nations whose habits have not been shaken by similar events.

"Now is the time, and this the country, in which we may expect success in attempting changes favorable to language, science, and government. Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal; under a tranquil general government the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time and accident will perpetually multiply.

"Let us, then, seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government. Let us remember that there is a certain respect due to the opinions of other nations. As an independent people, our reputation abroad demands that, in all things, we should be federal, be national; for, if we do not respect ourselves, we may be assured that other nations will not respect us. In short, let it be impressed upon the mind of every American, that to neglect the means of commanding respect abroad is treason against the character and dignity of a brave, independent people."

In the matter of pronunciation, Webster asserted similar principles in his earliest essays. He denounces the custom of referring to English standards for the determination of sounds. In the "Remarks on the Manners, Government, and Debt of the United States," which I quoted in the last chapter, he finds fault with his countrymen for their dependence upon England.

"This same veneration for eminent foreigners and the bewitching charms of fashion have led the Americans to adopt the modern corruptions of our language. Very seldom have men examined the structure of the language to find reasons for their practice. The pronunciation and use of words have been subject to the same arbitrary or accidental changes as the shape of their garments. My lord wears a hat of a certain size and shape; he pronounces a word in a certain manner; and both must be right, for he is a fashionable man. In Europe this is right in dress; and men who have not an opportunity of learning the just rules of our language are in some degree excusable for imitating those whom they consider as superiors. But in men of science this imitation can hardly be excused. Our language was spoken in purity about eighty years ago, since which time great numbers of faults have crept into practice about the theatre and court of London. An affected, erroneous pronunciation has in many instances taken place of the true, and new words or modes of speech have succeeded the ancient correct English phrases. Thus we have, in the modern English pronunciation, their natshures, conjunctshures, constitshutions, and tshumultshuous legislatshures, and a long catalogue of fashionable improprieties. These are a direct violation of the rules of analogy and harmony; they offend the ear and embarrass the language. Time was when these errors were unknown; they were little known in America before the Revolution. I presume we may safely say that our language has suffered more injurious changes in America, since the British army landed on our shores, than it had suffered before in the period of three centuries. The bucks and bloods tell us that there is no proper standard in language; that it is all arbitrary. The assertion, however, seems but to show their ignorance. There are, in the language itself, decisive reasons for preferring one pronunciation to another; and men of science should be acquainted with these reasons. But if there were none, and everything rested on practice, we should never change a general practice without substantial reasons. No change should be introduced which is not an obvious improvement."

Elsewhere, in a similar spirit, he writes: "Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books can annihilate differences in speaking, and preserve the purity of the American tongue. A sameness of pronunciation is of considerable consequence in a political view, for provincial accents are disagreeable to strangers, and sometimes have an unhappy effect upon the social affections.... As an independent nation our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline. But if it were not so, she is at too great a distance to be our model, and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue.... Rapid changes of language proceed from violent causes, but these causes cannot be supposed to exist in North America. It is contrary to all rational calculation that the United States will ever be conquered by any one nation speaking a different language from that of the country. Removed from the danger of corruption by conquest, our language can change only with the slow operation of the causes before mentioned, and the progress of arts and sciences, unless the folly of imitating our parent country should continue to govern us and lead us into endless innovation. This folly, however, will lose its influence gradually, as our particular habits of respect for that country shall wear away, and our amor patriae acquire strength, and inspire us with a suitable respect for our own national character. We have, therefore, the fairest opportunity of establishing a national language, and of giving it uniformity and perspicuity in North America, that ever presented itself to mankind."

His standard of pronunciation is thus defined: "The rules of the language itself, and the general practice of the nation, constitute propriety in speaking. If we examine the structure of any language we shall find a certain principle of analogy running through the whole. We shall find in English that similar combinations of letters have usually the same pronunciation, and that words having the same terminating syllable generally have the accent at the same distance from that termination. These principles of analogy were not the result of design; they must have been the effect of accident, or that tendency which all men feel toward uniformity. But the principles, when established, are productive of great convenience, and become an authority superior to the arbitrary decisions of any man or class of men. There is one exception only to this remark: When a deviation from analogy has become the universal practice of a nation, it then takes place of all rules, and becomes the standard of propriety. The two points, therefore, which I conceive to be the basis of a standard in speaking are these: universal, undisputed practice, and the principle of analogy. Universal practice is generally, perhaps always, a rule of propriety; and in disputed points, where people differ in opinion and practice, analogy should always decide the controversy.

"There are authorities to which all men will submit; they are superior to the opinions and caprices of the great, and to the negligence and ignorance of the multitude. The authority of individuals is always liable to be called in question; but the unanimous consent of a nation, and a fixed principle interwoven with the very construction of a language, coeval and coextensive with it, are like the common laws of a land, or the immutable rules of morality, the propriety of which every man, however refractory, is forced to acknowledge, and to which most men will readily submit."

Here is the doctrine of majorities, and it will be seen that Webster's conception of usage is not the usage of the most cultivated, but the general usage of a people. It was the democratic principle carried to its utmost length, and yet the notion of an inhering law was quite as strongly held. Our interest in this portion of his work is in the examples which he gives of the usage of his day. He points out a number of instances in which the different sections of the Union were at variance, and some of these characteristics have certainly disappeared. Webster's memoranda may be taken with some confidence, for he was a minute observer, and his opportunities of comparison were excellent.

In the Eastern States he finds a good many people saying motive; in the Middle States some who say prejudice. E before r is often pronounced like a, as marcy for mercy, an error which he refers rather illogically to the practice of calling the letter r ar, so that in his Spelling-Book he writes its sound er; "in a few instances," he says, "this pronunciation is become general among polite speakers, as clerk, sergeant, etc." In calling attention to the New England custom of preferring the sound of i short or e before the diphthong ow, as in kiow for cow, Webster gravely refers the disagreeable peculiarity "to the nature of their government and a distribution of their property." Let the reader reflect a moment before he reads Webster's philosophical explanation, and see if his own cogitations lead him in the right direction. "It is an undoubted fact that the drawling nasal manner of speaking in New England arises almost solely from these causes. People of large fortunes, who pride themselves on family distinctions, possess a certain boldness, dignity, and independence in their manners, which give a corresponding air to their mode of speaking. Those who are accustomed to command slaves form a habit of expressing themselves with the tone of authority and decision. In New England, where there are few slaves and servants, and less family distinctions than in any other part of America, the people are accustomed to address each other with that diffidence, or attention to the opinion of others, which marks a state of equality. Instead of commanding, they advise; instead of saying, with an air of decision, you must; they ask, with an air of doubtfulness, is it not best? or give their opinions with an indecisive tone; You had better, I believe. Not possessing that pride and consciousness of superiority which attend birth and fortune, their intercourse with each other is all conducted on the idea of equality, which gives a singular tone to their language and complexion to their manners.... Such are the causes of the local peculiarities in pronunciation which prevail among the country people in New England, and which, to foreigners, are the objects of ridicule. The great error in their manner of speaking proceeds immediately from not opening the mouth sufficiently. Hence words are drawled out in a careless lazy manner, or the sound finds a passage thro the nose."

This may have the merit of ingenuity, but in connection with it Webster makes a sounder observation when he compares New England perpetuating old English idioms because of her isolation, to an internal village contrasted with a city. "New England has been in the situation of an island; during one hundred and sixty years, the people, except in a few commercial towns, have not been exposed to any of the causes which effect great changes in language and manners."

To continue these notes: he finds the use of w for v prevalent in Boston and Philadelphia, as weal for veal, but unknown in Hartford. "Vast numbers of people in Boston and the neighborhood use w for v; yet I never once heard this pronunciation in Connecticut." He regards this use as the survival of old custom, but since the nation in general had made a distinction, every person should resign his peculiarities for the sake of uniformity. "The words either, neither, deceit, conceit, receipt, are generally pronounced by the Eastern people ither, nither, desate, consate, resate. These are errors; all the standard authors agree to give ei in these words the sound of ee. This is the practice in England, in the Middle and Southern States, and, what is higher authority, analogy warrants the practice." He hesitates between oblige and obleege, the weight of authority being equally divided, but analogy persuades him to the former. Analogy also requires European, though modern fashionable speakers have been introducing the innovation of European. "In the Middle and Southern States fierce, pierce, tierce, are pronounced feerce, peerce, teerce. To convince the people of the impropriety of this pronunciation, it might be sufficient to inform them that it is not fashionable on the English theatre.... The standard English pronunciation now is ferce, perce, terce, and it is universal in New England." He arraigns the fashionable world for pronouncing heard as herd, instead of by its true sound of heard, in analogy with feared. "Beard is sometimes, but erroneously, pronounced beerd. General practice, both in England and America, requires that e should be pronounced as in were, and I know of no rule opposed to the practice." He objects to the innovation of woond for wound, and enters upon a long discussion of the pronunciation of nature, finally falling back upon his countrymen's natur.

Webster inculcated his views on orthography and pronunciation upon all occasions. He wrote, he lectured, he pressed home his doctrines upon persons and assemblies. He was one of the first to perceive the importance of getting his principles adopted in printing-houses. Long after the time of which I am writing he continued to act as a missionary in philology. The present printer of "Webster's Dictionary" remembers that when he was a boy of thirteen, working at the case in Burlington, Vermont, a little pale-faced man came into the office and handed him a printed slip, saying, "My lad, when you use these words, please oblige me by spelling them as here: theater, center," etc. It was Noah Webster traveling about among the printing-offices, and persuading people to spell as he did: a better illustration could not be found of the reformer's sagacity, and his patient method of effecting his purpose.

His contemporaries were obliged to take sides when so aggressive a spirit was among them. His doctrines were discussed in society and in print. The [Greek: Ph B K] Society at Yale debated upon the adoption of Webster's orthography, deciding in 1792 in favor of it, and reversing their decision in 1794. Webster, by the way, was not unmindful of his college. In 1790, as an encouragement to the study of the English language, he made a foundation for an annual prize to be given to the author of the composition which should be judged best by the faculty; but the foundation does not appear to have been permanent. Just as later he went to the printing-offices to secure a conformity to his orthography, so in the earlier years he had directed his arguments at the schools. In 1798 he published "A Letter to the Governors, Instructors, and Trustees of the Universities, and other Seminaries of Learning in the United States, on the Errors of English Grammar," from which I have already quoted; and appeals to these men, who are to give direction to the education of the young, to free themselves from a slavish dependence upon England. "It will be honorable to us as a nation, and more useful to our native tongue and to science, that we examine the grounds of all rules and changes before we adopt them, and reject all such as have not obvious propriety for their foundation or utility for their object."

Webster's studies had thus been gravitating toward lexicography, and the habits of mind which had been confirmed in his various pursuits were precisely such as would serve best the purpose which he was gradually forming. Dr. Chauncey Goodrich, in the memoir which is prefixed to the Dictionary, remarks upon certain habits formed by him early in life, which, becoming fixed principles, were of inestimable advantage in his labors afterward. While his memory was tenacious, he was a great hoarder of documents and marker of books; he was a careful methodizer of his knowledge; he accustomed himself to a great variety and to unceasing diligence in literary toil, and he was perpetually going back of facts to the principles which he thought to underlie them.

It had been his custom for many years to jot down words which he met in reading, and failed to find in dictionaries, and his labors upon the Spelling-Book and Grammar had familiarized him with the task of discriminating and defining, and had also disclosed to him the deficiencies in that respect of current dictionaries. In 1806 he published "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," in which he announced, with an amusing foretaste of the larger claims of the "Unabridged," that it contained five thousand more words than were to be found in the best English compends. The Dictionary was rendered still more useful by taking under its protection various tables of moneys and weights, an official list of all the post-offices in the United States, the number of inhabitants in the several States, and new and instructive chronological tables. This, by the way, was the first occasion, I think, when a word-book had departed from the customary boundaries of such literature. I have been able to find but one precedent, Dyche and Pardon's Dictionary, which, published a few years before, had contained a supplementary list of persons and places, arranged alphabetically, and apparently only as a museum of curiosities. This Dictionary had, however, as a part of its regular text the several market towns in England and Wales, with a general description of the places, their situation, market-days, government, manufacture, number of representatives sent to parliament, and distance from London. The encyclopaedic features of a dictionary are clearly of American addition, growing out of the more general and exclusive use of the Dictionary as a book of reference, and increased by the suggestions of competition. The Dictionary proper was an enlargement of Entick, and in this preliminary work Webster exercised very little authority in deviating from the generally accepted orthography. The extent of his changes is indicated in his preface:—

"In a few instances I have preferred the orthography of Newton, Prideaux, Hook, Dryden, Whiston, etc., to that of Johnson, as being more analogical and purely English, as scepter, sepulcher. In omitting u in honour and a few words of that class I have pursued a common practice in this country, authorized by the principle of uniformity and by etymology, as well as by Ash's Dictionary. In omitting k after c [as in public] I have unequivocal propriety and the present usage for my authorities. In a few words, modern writers are gradually purifying the orthography from its corruptions. Thus, Edwards in his 'History of the West Indies,' and Gregory in his 'Economy of Nature,' Pope, Hoole, etc., restore mold to its true spelling; and it would be no small convenience to revive the etymological spelling of aker. Cullen, in his translation of 'Clavigero,' follows Bacon and Davenport in the true Saxon orthography of drouth; and the elegant Blackstone has corrected the orthography of nusance and duchy. The diphthongs in words borrowed from the Latin language have gradually been sinking into desuetude for a century; the few which remain I have expunged."

Dr. Johnson was the Magnus Apollo of lexicographers then, and his bulky fame still casts a large shadow over the world of words. To rebel against his autocratic rule at the beginning of this century was to write one's self down an audacious and presuming sciolist. It is not surprising, therefore, that Webster's criticism of Johnson in this Dictionary and in other places should have exposed him to censure. Dr. Ramsay of Charleston, a man of consequence in his day, wrote him that the "prejudices against any American attempts to improve Dr. Johnson were very strong in that city." The letter gave Webster his opportunity, and he at once wrote and published his vigorous pamphlet respecting the "Errors in Johnson's Dictionary and other Lexicons," which is addressed to Dr. Ramsay. He takes a very lofty view of the situation. "The intelligence," he writes, of this resentment in Charleston, "is not wholly unexpected, for similar prejudices have been manifested in some parts of the Northern States. A man who has read with slight attention the history of nations, in their advances from barbarism to civilization and science, cannot be surprised at the strength of prejudices long established and never disturbed. Few centuries have elapsed since many men lost their lives or their liberty by publishing NEW TRUTHS; and not two centuries have past since Galileo was imprisoned by an ecclesiastical court, for defending the truth of the Copernican System, condemned to do penance for three years, and his book burnt at Rome, as containing dangerous and damnable heresies. This example is cited as one of a multitude which the history of man presents to our view; and if it differs in degree, it accords in principle, with the case now before the American public."

He then, after admitting the value of Johnson's ethical writings, but distrusting his philological attainments, makes good his objections by detailed specifications. He condemns the insertion of a multitude of words which do not belong to the language, mentioning such unnaturalized foreigners as adversable, advesperate, adjugate, agriculation, abstrude, injudicable, spicosity, crapulence, morigerous, tenebrosity, balbucinate, illachrymable, etc., words to which the reader may, if he knows Latin, attach some sort of meaning, but which he would be slow to introduce into his speech or writing. Then he condemns Johnson's reference to writers of the seventeenth century who buried their thoughts beneath cumbrous piles of Latinized English, as in such passages as:—

"The intire or broken compagination of the magnetical fabric;" "The effects of their activity are not precipitously abrupted, but gradually proceed to their cessations;" "Some have written rhetorically and concessively, not controverting, but assuming, the question, which, taken as granted, advantaged the illation;" "Its fluctuations are but motions subservient, which winds, shelves, and every interjacency irregulates;" passages given as illustrative of the words italicized. "From a careful examination of this work, and its effect upon the language, I am inclined to believe that Johnson's authority has multiplied instead of reducing the number of corruptions in the English language. Let any man of correct taste cast his eye on such words as denominable, opiniatry, ariolation, assation, ataraxy, clancular, comminuible, conclusible, dedentition, deuteroscopy, digladiation, dignotion, cubiculary, discubitory, exolution, exeuterate, incompossible, incompossibility, indigitate, etc., and let him say whether a dictionary which gives thousands of such terms as authorized English words is a safe standard of writing.... In the 'English-Dutch Dictionary' of Willcocke, we find the compiler has translated ariolation, clancular, denomiable, comminuible, etc., into Dutch. In Bailey's 'Fahrenkruger,' we see digladiation, dignotion, exeuterate, etc., turned into German. These, or similar words, are by Neuman translated into Spanish, and where the mischief ends it is impossible to ascertain. And what must foreigners think of English taste and erudition, when they are told that their dictionaries contain thousands of such words which are not used by the English nation!"

Webster's next point is that Johnson has exceeded the bounds of legitimate lexicography by the admission of vulgar and cant words. "It may be alleged that it is the duty of a lexicographer to insert and define all words found in English books: then such words as fishify, jackalent, parma-city, jiggumbob, conjobble, foutra, etc., are legitimate English words! Alas, had a native of the United States introduced such vulgar words and offensive ribaldry into a similar work, what columns of abuse would have issued from the Johnsonian presses against the wretch who could thus sully his book and corrupt the language!" He criticises the accuracy with which Johnson has discriminated the different senses of the same word, and words nearly synonymous. The illustrative quotations which bear so much of the praise bestowed upon Johnson's Dictionary he declares to be one of the most exceptionable features, both because no small number of the examples are taken from authors who did not write the language with purity, and because a still larger number throw no light upon the definitions, and are frequently entirely unnecessary. He cites on this last point the passages under the word alley, five in all, from Spenser, Bacon, Milton, Dryden, and Pope. "Does any reader of English want all these authorities to show the word to be legitimate? Far from it, nineteen twentieths of all our words are so common that they require no proof at all of legitimacy. Yet the example here given is by no means the most exceptionable for the number of authorities cited. The author sometimes offers thirty or forty lines to illustrate words which every man, woman, and child understands as well as Johnson. Thirty-five lines of exemplification under the word froth, for example, are just as useless in explaining the word as would be the same number of lines from the language of the Six Nations."

His final charge rests on the inaccuracy of the etymology. "As this has been generally considered the least important part of a dictionary the subject has been little investigated, and is very imperfectly understood, even by men of science. Johnson scarcely entered the threshold of the subject. He consulted chiefly Junius and Skinner; the latter of whom was not possessed of learning adequate to the investigation, and Junius, like Vossius, Scaliger, and most other etymologists on the Continent, labored to deduce all languages from the Greek. Hence these authors neglected the principal sources of information, which were to be found only in the north of Europe, and in the west of Ireland and Scotland. In another particular they all failed of success; they never discovered some of the principal modes in which the primitive radical words were combined to form the more modern compounds. On this subject, therefore, almost everything remains to be done.... I can assure the American public that the errors in Johnson's Dictionary are ten times as numerous as they suppose; and that the confidence now reposed in its accuracy is the greatest injury to philology that now exists. I can assure them further that if any man, whatever may be his abilities in other respects, should attempt to compile a new dictionary, or amend Johnson's, without a profound knowledge of etymology, he will unquestionably do as much harm as good."

A few years later Webster found an opportunity to attack the general subject of lexicography from another side, and one intimately connected with his special work. In 1816 Hon. John Pickering published "A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America. To which is prefixed an Essay on the Present State of the English Language in the United States;" he had cited Webster upon various words and plainly was aiming at him in his preface, when he declared that "in this country, as in England, we have thirsty reformers and presumptuous sciolists, who would unsettle the whole of our admirable language, for the purpose of making it conform to their whimsical notions of propriety." Webster at once addressed a letter in print to Pickering, and took up weapons, offensive and defensive, with alacrity and confidence.

"This is a heavy accusation, Sir, from a gentleman of your talents, liberality, and candor," he writes. "Sciolists we may have in multitudes; but who are the men who would unsettle the whole of our language? Can you name the men, or any of them, either in this country or in England? Surely the finger of scorn ought to be pointed at the men who are base enough to wish, and sottish enough to attempt, to unsettle a whole language. I am confident, Sir, that deliberate reflection will induce you to retract a charge so injurious to your fellow-citizens. It certainly becomes you, and the character you maintain in society, to learn the distinction between an attempt to find what the language is, and an attempt to unsettle its principles. Whether you number me with the thirsty reformers and presumptuous sciolists is a fact which I shall take no pains to discover, nor, if known, would the fact give me the smallest concern." Webster's hand trembles evidently with suppressed anger, but he grows firmer as he goes on. "My studies have been sometimes directed to philology, for the exclusive purpose of ascertaining and unfolding its principles, correcting abuses, and supplying the defect of rules in our elementary treatises. In the course of my researches I have discovered a multitude of errors and false principles, and numerous defects in such treatises; and as I have pushed my inquiries probably much farther than any other man, I am satisfied that the evidence I can lay before the public will convince you that there is a rich mine of knowledge to be opened on this subject that your English friends have never yet discovered." He takes up Pickering's Vocabulary and rapidly criticises the several entries; he renews his criticism upon Johnson and Lowth, but the most interesting part of the pamphlet is his stout advocacy of the claim of Americans to make and accept changes of language which grow out of their own conditions. The English language was a common inheritance in England and America, and in the necessary growth of a spoken language, Americans had equal right with Englishmen to contribute to the growth; nay, that the American was not a dialect of the English, but a variation; not a departure from a standard existing in contemporary England, but an independent branch from a common stock.

"New words should not be introduced into a copious language without reason, nor contrary to its analogies. But a living language must keep pace with improvements in knowledge, and with the multiplication of ideas. Those who would entirely restrain the practice of using new words seem not to consider that the limit they now prescribe would have been as just and rational, a thousand or two thousand years ago, as it is at this period. If it should be said, we have words enough to express all our ideas, it may be truly answered, so had our ancestors when they left the plains of Germany; or when they first crossed the Hellespont; or when they left the soil of Persia. And what then? Would the words they then used be now sufficient for our purpose. And who can define the bounds of future improvement? Who will venture to allege that men have not yet as much to learn as they have already learnt? The smallest acquaintance with the history of human society and improvement ought to silence the critics on this subject.

"Nor are we to believe that two nations inhabiting countries separated by a wide ocean can preserve a perfect uniformity of language. If a perfect uniformity cannot be produced or preserved in two distant counties in England, how is this object to be effected between the English in Great Britain and their descendants in America, India, or New Holland? Let history answer the question. The art of printing, interchange of books, and commercial intercourse will retard the progress of mutation and diversities; but no human means can prevent some changes, and the adaptation of language to diversities of condition and improvement. The process of a living language is like the motion of a broad river, which flows with a slow, silent, irresistible current." He turns the tables on a writer who points out American barbarisms by showing a number of English barbarisms which had been creeping into use, and declares that in the use of language one nation as well as the other will commit these errors, but he returns again and again to his position that Americans in their use of language are not to wait passively upon English authority.

"I venerate," he says, "the men and their writings; I venerate the literature, the laws, the institutions, and the charities of the land of my fathers. But I deprecate the effects of a blind acquiescence in the opinions of men, and the passive reception of everything that comes from a foreign press. My mind revolts at the reverence for foreign authors, which stifles inquiry, restrains investigation, benumbs the vigor of the intellectual faculties, subdues and debases the mind. I regret to see the young Hercules of genius in America chained to his cradle.... I left college with the same veneration for English writers, and the same confidence in their opinions, which most of my countrymen now possess, and I adopted their errors without examination. After many years of research, I am compelled to withdraw much of that confidence, and to look with astonishment upon the errors and false principles which they have propagated; some of them of far more consequence than any which have been mentioned in the preceding remarks. I wish to be on good terms with the English; it is my interest and the interest of my fellow-citizens to treat them as friends and brethren. But I will be neither frowned nor ridiculed into error, and a servile imitation of practices which I know or believe to be corrupt. I will examine subjects for myself, and endeavor to find the truth, and to defend it, whether it accords with English opinions or not. If I must measure swords with their travelers and their reviewers, on the subject under consideration, I shall not decline the combat. There is nothing which, in my opinion, so debases the genius and character of my countrymen as the implicit confidence they place in English authors, and their unhesitating submission to their opinions, their derision, and their frowns. But I trust the time will come when the English will be convinced that the intellectual faculties of their descendants have not degenerated in America; and that we can contend with them in LETTERS with as much success as upon the OCEAN.

"I am not ignorant, Sir, of the narrowness of the sphere which I now occupy. Secluded, in a great measure, from the world, with small means, and no adventitious aid from men of science; with little patronage to extend my influence, and powerful enmities to circumscribe it; what can my efforts avail in attempting to counter-act a current of opinion? Yet I am not accustomed to despondence. I have contributed in a small degree to the instruction of at least four millions of the rising generation; and it is not unreasonable to expect that a few seeds of improvement, planted by my hand, may germinate and grow and ripen into valuable fruit, when my remains shall be mingled with the dust." A note is added, in which Webster with grave banter offers a suit of clothes to any English or American reviewer who will find a man capable of explaining the little word by, stating its primary signification and its true sense in its several uses and applications.

The spirit with which Webster defended himself was a manly one, and it is noticeable how years of fencing had improved the temper of his weapons. He was keener in his thrusts, more dexterous and supple, and comported himself in these disputes as a man entirely confident of his position. It is not vanity which upholds a man working silently year after year at a task ridiculed by his neighbors and denounced by his enemies. Webster had something better to sustain him than an idle self-conceit. He had the reserve of a high purpose, and an aim which had been growing more clearly understood by himself, so that he could afford to disregard the judgments of others. There was in the outward circumstance of his life something which testifies to the sincerity and worth of his purpose. He had withdrawn himself into the wilderness that he might free himself from encumbrances in his work, and with his love of society this was no light thing to do. His family went with him reluctantly; but when did not an enthusiast drag with him to his own light sacrifice the unwilling attendants of his life!


[13] In the possession of Rev. R. C. Waterston.

[14] "The first by Sir Thomas Smith, secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth; another by Dr. Gill, a celebrated master of St. Paul's School in London; another by Mr. Charles Butler, who went so far as to print his book in his proposed orthography; several in the time of Charles the first; and in the present age, Mr. Elphinstone has published a treatise in a very ridiculous orthography."



At the close of the Preface to his Compendious Dictionary, Webster announced his intention of compiling and publishing a full and comprehensive dictionary of the language. After answering the objections which candid friends might raise, he added: "From a different class of men, if such are to be found, whose criticism would sink the literature of this country even lower than the distorted representations of foreign reviewers,—whose veneration for transatlantic authors leads them to hold American writers in unmerited contempt,—from such men I neither expect nor solicit favor. However arduous the task, and however feeble my powers of body and mind, a thorough conviction of the necessity and importance of the undertaking has overcome my fears and objections, and determined me to make an effort to dissipate the charm of veneration for foreign authors which fascinates the minds of men in this country and holds them in the chains of illusion. In the investigation of this subject great labor is to be sustained, and numberless difficulties encountered; but with a humble dependence on Divine favor for the preservation of my life and health, I shall prosecute the work with diligence, and execute it with a fidelity suited to its importance."

It was 1806 when he sat down to the task, and twenty years of almost continuous labor were expended before the work then projected was given to the world in the first edition of the "American Dictionary of the English Language," in two volumes quarto. Complete absorption in his work, which could yield nothing until it was completed, crippled his resources, confined now in the main to copyright from his Spelling-Book; and in 1812 he removed, as we have already seen, for economy's sake, from New Haven to Amherst. During the next ten years he nearly completed the bulk of the Dictionary, but there still remained much to do in the way of comparison and finer study than his own library afforded. He returned to New Haven in 1822, but further work there showed the insufficiency of material to be had in America; and in 1824, leaving his family, he took with him a son and set out for Europe, for the purpose of consulting men and books. He spent two months in Paris, where S. G. Goodrich met him. "A slender form, with a black coat, black small-clothes, black silk stockings, moving back and forth, with its hands behind it, and evidently in a state of meditation. It was a curious, quaint, Connecticut-looking apparition, strangely in contrast to the prevailing forms and aspects in this gay metropolis. I said to myself, 'If it were possible, I should say that was Noah Webster!' I went up to him and found it was indeed he."

He was satisfied that he should work to better advantage in England. He went accordingly to Cambridge in the early fall of 1824, and remained there until the following May, using the resources of the University, and making such connections as he could, though he found rather barren sympathy from English scholars, and small encouragement from English publishers. His training and studies, moreover, were not such as to place him in very cordial relationship with Englishmen, and his attitude toward the scholastic deposit of an old nation may be guessed from a passage in one of his letters home, in which he writes: "The colleges are mostly old stone buildings, which look very heavy, cold, and gloomy to an American accustomed to the new public buildings in our country."

There is something in the whole undertaking, and in the mode of its execution, which makes one by turns wonder at the splendid will and undaunted perseverance of this Yankee teacher, and feel a well-bred annoyance at his blindness to the incongruous position which he occupied. One is disposed to laugh sardonically over this self-taught dictionary-maker, encamped at Cambridge, coolly pursuing his work of an American Dictionary of the English Language in the midst of all that traditional scholarship. But Webster's own consciousness was of the gravity of his work. "When I finished my copy," he writes in a letter to Dr. Thomas Miner, "I was sitting at my table in Cambridge, England, January, 1825. When I arrived at the last word I was seized with a tremor that made it difficult to proceed. I, however, summoned up strength to finish the work, and then, walking about the room, I soon recovered." This may be a faint echo of Gibbon's celebrated passage, but it is inherently truthful, and marks the effect upon him of a sustained purpose, brought, after a score of years, to completion. The Dictionary was published three years after his return to America, and passed through one revision at Mr. Webster's hands in 1840. He was still at work upon it when he died, in 1843. It is fair to look to the preface of a great work, especially of one which seems to admit little personality, for an account of the motives and aims of the workman. In following the lines of Webster's preface we discover the principles which we have already noted stated anew and with increasing confidence. He gives reasons why it had become necessary that an English dictionary should be revised to meet the exigencies of American as distinct from English life, and he says finally: "One consideration, however, which is dictated by my own feelings, but which I trust will meet with approbation in correspondent feelings in my fellow-citizens, ought not to be passed in silence; it is this: 'The chief glory of a nation,' says Dr. Johnson, 'arises from its authors.' With this opinion deeply impressed on my mind, I have the same ambition which actuated that great man when he expressed a wish to give celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle. I do not, indeed, expect to add celebrity to the names of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jay, Madison, Marshall, Ramsay, Dwight, Smith, Trumbull, Hamilton, Belknap, Ames, Mason, Kent, Hare, Silliman, Cleaveland, Walsh, Irving, and many other Americans distinguished by their writings or by their science; but it is with pride and satisfaction that I can place them, as authorities, on the same page with those of Boyle, Hooker, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Ray, Milner, Cowper, Thomson, Davy, and Jameson. A life devoted to reading and to an investigation of the origin and principles of our vernacular language, and especially a particular examination of the best English writers, with a view to a comparison of their style and phraseology with those of the best American writers and with our colloquial usage, enables me to affirm, with confidence, that the genuine English idiom is as well preserved by the unmixed English of this country as it is by the best English writers. Examples to prove this fact will be found in the Introduction to this work. It is true that many of our writers have neglected to cultivate taste and the embellishments of style, but even these have written the language in its genuine idiom. In this respect Franklin and Washington, whose language is their hereditary mother-tongue, unsophisticated by modern grammar, present as pure models of genuine English as Addison and Swift. But I may go further, and affirm with truth that our country has produced some of the best models of composition. The style of President Smith, of the authors of the Federalist, of Mr. Ames, of Dr. Mason, of Mr. Harper, of Chancellor Kent, [the prose]" happily bracketed reservation! "of Mr. Barlow, of Dr. Channing, of Washington Irving, of the legal decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, of the reports of legal decisions in some of the particular States, and many other writings, in purity, in elegance, and in technical precision, is equalled only by that of the best British authors, and surpassed by that of no English compositions of a similar kind.

"The United States commenced their existence under circumstances wholly novel and unexampled in the history of nations. They commenced with civilization, with learning, with science, with constitutions of free government, and with that best gift of God to man, the Christian religion. Their population is now equal to that of England; in arts and sciences our citizens are very little behind the most enlightened people on earth,—in some respects they have no superiors; and our language within two centuries will be spoken by more people in this country than any language on earth, except the Chinese, in Asia, and even that may not be an exception."

It is instructive to compare the preface with the celebrated one by Dr. Johnson, introducing his dictionary. Webster, filled with a parochial enthusiasm for his native country, exaggerates the necessity for a local dictionary, and anticipates the vast audience that will one day require his work. To him language is the instrument not so much of literature as of daily association. He thinks of a dictionary as a book of reference for the plain reader, and a guide to him in the correct use of his vernacular. Johnson, proud of his literary heritage, burdened with a sense of his own inadequacy, at once confesses the dignity of his work and the melancholy of his own nature. He acknowledges the limitation of his own philological attainments, and rests his claims to honor upon the fullness with which he has gathered and arranged the materials scattered through the vast area of English literature. The one sees the subject from the side of nationality, the other from that of literature. Webster is thinking of his own people, Johnson of the un-national tribe of scholars and men of letters. The historical associations justify each, for Johnson was distinctly the member of a great class which was beginning to assert its independence of social authority. With all his loyalty to his king, he was at heart a republican in literature, and stoutly denied the divine right of patrons. His dictionary was the sign of literary emancipation; it was the witness to an intellectual freedom which might be in alliance with government, but could not be its tool. The history of English literature since that date is a democratic history. Webster, on his part, was the prophet of a national independence, in which language and literature were involved as inseparable elements. To him books were neither the production nor the possession of a class, but necessarily incident to the life of a free people. Hence, in his citation of American authorities, he is undaunted by the paucity of purely literary men; law reports and state documents answer his purpose as well. He saw literature as the accompaniment of self-government, and the dictionary in his eyes was a vast school-book, not a thesaurus of literature.

I can hardly expect my readers to follow me patiently through a close examination of the successive editions of Webster's large dictionary, and I have no such high opinion of my own patience as to suppose that I should continue on the road after my readers had dropped behind; but it is possible to make a rough comparison of the first edition of 1828 and the latest of 1880, in order to see what Webster did which needed to be undone, and to form some estimate of the substantial service which he rendered lexicography in that edition which was more nearly his sole and unaided work.

To take, then, the matter of orthography, there are certain general classes of words which have borne the brunt of criticism. In his first edition Webster's rule was to omit k after c from the end of all words of more than one syllable, and to retain it in longer forms of the same word only when it was required to defend the hard sound of c. He wrote thus: public, publication. But Webster, like writers of to-day, was constantly allowing his uniform rule to give way in cases where custom had fastened upon him. Thus he still spelled traffick, almanack, frolick, havock, and it was quite possible for his critics to follow him through a long list of words of this class and detect his frequent aberration from a uniform rule. Yet, instead of receding from his position, the latest edition advances; a nicer discrimination is made in the etymological origin of the variation, but in point of practice a much more general conformity to the rule is recorded. There can be no question that the k has a foreign air when found in such cases in American books.

Again, Webster omitted the u in the unaccented termination our, as honor for honour. In this, too, he was not without English precedent. Johnson was singularly inconsistent in this respect, and his influence has extended over English orthography to the present day, so that one cannot take up a well-printed English journal without discovering an apparently arbitrary use of the termination. The usage as recorded by Webster has held its ground, and there is no variation between the first and latest editions, except that the alternative form Saviour is given in the latest as a concession to an undefined sense of sanctity which would lead to a separation of the word from its class. There is a foot-note in the edition of 1828, in which Washington's omission of u is cited as an argument in favor of the form or.

There is the vexed form er for re in such words as center for centre. It is fair on this point to give the note which Webster originally made in defense of his position: "A similar fate has attended the attempt to Anglicize the orthography of another class of words, which we have received from the French. At a very early period the words chambre, desastre, desordre, chartre, monstre, tendre, tigre, entre, fievre, diametre, arbitre, nombre, and others were reduced to the English form of spelling: chamber, disaster, charter, monster, tender, tiger, enter, fever, diameter, arbiter, number. At a later period, Sir Isaac Newton, Camden, Selden, Milton, Whitaker, Prideaux, Hook, Whiston, Bryant, and other authors of the first character attempted to carry through this reformation, writing scepter, center, sepulcher. But this improvement was arrested, and a few words of this class retain their French orthography: such as metre, mitre, nitre, spectre, sceptre, theatre, sepulchre, and sometimes centre. It is remarkable that a nation distinguished for erudition should thus reject improvements, and retain anomalies, in opposition to all the convenience of uniformity. I am glad that so respectable a writer as Mitford has discarded this innovation, and uniformly written center, scepter, theater, sepulcher. In the present instance want of uniformity is not the only evil. The present orthography has introduced an awkward mode of writing the derivatives, for example, centred, sceptred, sepulchred; whereas Milton and Pope wrote these words as regular derivatives of center, scepter, sepulcher, thus, 'Sceptered king.' So Coxe in his travels, 'The principal wealth of the church is centered in the monasteries.' This is correct."

The two Websters agree in the main, but some of the variations in the first disappear in the latest. Thus Noah Webster gave the alternative forms massacer, massacre, preferring the former, and aker, acre, a curious inconsistency; the editors of the latest edition have dropped these proposed improvements, and have given secondary alternative forms in theatre, metre, centre, sepulchre, nitre, and perhaps some others. Both accept chancre, lucre, and ogre. It may be said in general that the game on these words is a drawn one, with a stubborn retention of the re form on the part of the most careful writers, and a growing majority in numbers in favor of the er form.

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