Noah Webster was a man of some learning, narrow-minded it is true, yet able, of unflagging industry, and of great self-reliance. But he was unhappily afflicted with the most offensive of all faults, gross self-conceit. Tho a young man, he had risen to some notoriety in New England as a zealous Whig, a firm friend of Government, and as the author of some political essays which may still be perused with interest, and an excellent spelling-book for schools. Webster was himself a school-master, and had conceived a strong disgust for the ancient Dilworth and Jonson, which were at that time the only spelling-books in use. He set about correcting them, and as he worked upon his book the idea of a still greater reform seems to have started in his mind. He would improve the English tongue. He would simplify English spelling and grammar. He would destroy those dialectical differences that made the New England man a laughing-stock of the Virginian, and establish an American language that would in time, go over the ocean and replace the ancient speech of England.
The scheme was a bold one. But Webster was young, ardent, and began his task with a spirit worthy of so high a purpose. Like most reformers, he commenced by laying down a theory of perfection, which he carried out unswervingly to its logical extreme. Some words were to be proscribed; the spelling of others was to be materially altered; all silent-vowels were to be cut out. But the most daring innovation was in the alphabet. The new language was to have every sound represented by a letter, and no letter was to be suffered to remain that did not stand for a distinct sound.
Many new characters were therefore to be introduced, and many old ones cast aside. Such was his enthusiasm and conceit that he felt quite sure that letters familiar to hundreds of generations of men, and older than any other institution, human or divine, then existing, letters that had seen the rise of every language of Western Europe, that were old when the first Saxon set foot in Britain, when Christ came on earth, when Cæsar invaded Gaul, when Rome was still a petty hamlet on the banks of the Tiber, would at his suggestion he ruthlessly swept away. Nor was he the only one who thought so. Franklin was acquainted with the plan, and wrote to Webster that he had himself often thought of such a change; that he believed it not merely practicable but necessary, and that for his part he was ready to give it all the encouragement and all the support in his power.
To bring his plan to the attention of the public, Webster wrote a series of lectures which he read during the winter of 1785, and the spring of 1786 at Annapolis, at Baltimore, at Philadelphia, and New York. Everywhere he met with much applause. One who heard him at Annapolis declared that he had gone with indifference and come away with regret. After all that had been written on the subject, he looked for nothing new, especially from an American. But he was agreeably disappointed. The lecturer was bold enough to call in question opinions of eminent English writers which had till then passed for truth, and if he received the attention he deserved, England would be indebted to America for the last improvement in her tongue.
At New York, Ramsey and many of the Congressmen who heard him were much pleased, approved his plan, and urged him to go on. But in Philadelphia were many who looked coldly on so radical a change. This Webster well knew, and, before lecturing in that city, cast about him for some public character whose good services he might secure. He selected his countryman, Timothy Pickering, and to Pickering he now wrote. He had, so the letter ran, began a reform in the language. His plan was still in embryo, yet he proposed to make it the subject of a set of lectures to be read in Philadelphia some time during the winter. As he was the first American to undertake so bold a plan, a Yankee, and a youth, he felt the need of the countenance of gentlemen of the established character of Mr. Pickering. He wished, therefore, that a notice of his coming might be inserted in a Philadelphia newspaper, in order to prepare the minds of the people for such an event. In a word, he wanted what in the language of our time would be called a puff.
When the lectures came off, Pickering made one of the audience, and has left us, undoubtedly, a just estimate of the performance. With a competent snare of good sense, the lecturer had, he declared a quantum sufficit of vanity, and greatly overestimated his own talents. Such, in truth, was his egotism that his bearers were prevented from receiving that satisfaction which they must otherwise have drawn from his ingenious observations. As to the encouragement he met with, it was nothing to boast of. But then the Philadelphians had ever seemed to have an overweening opinion of their own literary acquirements as well as other excellencies. This, before a year had gone by, Webster found to be quite true. It was long before the recollection of his offensive egotism, and the strictures he laid on the improper pronunciation of many words, were forgotten by the Philadelphians.
Late in April, 1787, the Independent Gazetteer, a scurrilous sheet, even for those times, and strongly tinged with Antifederalism, published a communication in which, among other things, Webster was accused of being a Tory and an enemy of the public debt. Webster had no liking for the Philadelphians, who had indeed given a poor reception to his book. In truth, he had complained to Pickering that while the "Institute" found a ready sale at Charleston, at New York, and in the East, there was scarce a call for it at Philadelphia. This new offense was therefore hard to bear. He quite lost his temper, and had the bad taste to reply. But this only made matters worse, for the reply was, to say the least, full of bitterness and conceit. Had he not, he said, a thousand testimonials of his patriotism, love of government, and justice; had he not written the substance of volumes in support of the revolution and the Federal measures; had he not crusht, almost with his single pen, a State combination against these measures, there might be some appearance of truth in the charge. He then went on, in a long letter, to show that he really was an ill-used man.
This was precisely what the Gazetteer wanted; and from that time forth for two months scarce a number came out but it contained some fling at Webster. A host of pretended schoolmasters attacked him, half in sport, half in earnest, sometimes as Mr. Webster, sometimes as Mr. Grammatical Institute, and again as the Institutical Genius. Did Mr. Webster, said one of them, suppose for a moment that any man in Pennsylvania would submit to be instructed by a man from New England, where, so far from being acquainted with their own language, they stupidly spoke a mixture of all? Mr. Webster had much fault to find with some words often in the mouths of Pennsylvanians. But were they much better off in New England? Where under the sun did they get kaow for cow? Nan, a word much in use among the Quakers, was far better, and could not possibly be thrown aside. In truth, if he were to pick out all the awkward, old-fashioned words that continued to be as current among them as the Jersey six-pound bills, he would have to peruse the dictionary from A to Z.
On another occasion be was derided for placing after his name the word 'Squire, and this in the eyes of many was the greatest fault of all. For the old reverence for titles and marks of rank had not yet become extinct, and it was thought a piece of impudence for an upstart Yankee schoolmaster to assume so dignified a title.
But in general the jests and sarcasms were directed against his book. In a mock address to the Federal Convention, that body was asked to see to it that the English tongue was properly established. One Webster, a New England man, had put out a book which he called an "Institute," and which contained some new things. On the title-page was the word systematic. This strong propensity to clip off the al from systematical and like words was noticed with concern. It was an innovation. It was to be looked to, for was not the al essential to the language and the main pillar of the Federal Government?
On another page he used need for needs, which every schoolboy knew was false. Could the State exist when a verb did not agree with its nominative case? The same Institutional Genius declared that all adjectives could be compared by more and most. What child did not know that one thing could not be more square or more cubical than another? Adjectives such as broad and long followed, he said, the nouns they qualified. It would therefore be proper to say hereafter that Chestnut was a street long and Market a street broad. Could a New England man be right? His attempt to introduce his "Institute" into the schools and displace Dilworth and Jonson was a Whig scheme.
1 From McMaster's "History of the People of the United States." By permission of the publishers, D. Appleton & Co. Copyright, 1883. Noah Webster was born in Hartford in 1758 and died in New Haven in 1843. His "Grammatical Institute of the English Language," of which an account is given in this article, was first published in 1783. It comprized a spelling-book, afterward famous, which has survived through more than three generations, a grammar and a reader. Webster's "Dictionary" dates from a later period1806, when he issued a "Compendious Dictionary." His larger work was not issued until 1828. Of Webster's "Spelling Book" many millions of copies have been sold. It was long published by D. Appleton & Co. Sales were often made through wholesale dry-goods houses, who ordered it by the case and shipped it in cases to general country stores. In 1865 the number printed by the Appletons was 1,528,000 copies, the largest number in any one year. From 1857 until 1896, inclusive, 33,000,000 copies were printed and all were sold. At the beginning of the Civil War, the annual sales were about 1,000,000 copies. During the war they fell off to about one-half as many.