Noah Webster’s Sketches in American Policy
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, September 2008
With election season rolling around, it is fun to look back at Noah Webster’s take on the new republic in 1785. Webster yearned for a strong national government and an American culture that emerged from the American Revolution based on the power of citizens. How did Webster want to define this new government and why?
October 16, 2008 marks the 250th anniversary of Noah Webster’s birth in the West Division of Hartford and the Noah Webster House will be celebrating Webster’s legacy in a number of ways this fall. Though he was not considered a “founding father,” Webster was a man who was part of the founding generation who weighed in on many key political issues.
While Noah Webster is most famous for his 1828 dictionary, and in West Hartford for his Blue Back Speller, he boasted that he was the first person to call for a strong federal government two years before the Constitution was written in 1787.
In Webster’s Sketches in American Policy (1785), written as a four-part pamphlet, he outlined the need for a strong central government. His arguments helped him define an American character different from Europeans and from the native “savages.”
At age 26, Webster was bold enough to print his Sketches, and in fact the record shows that James Madison, author of the Constitution, read it. According to Webster’s most recent biographer Harlow Unger, Sketches had “a far wider circulation than any other published Federalist document prior to the Constitutional Convention and covered a broader range of issues.” In the fourth section of Webster’s pamphlet, he urged the public to call for a stronger central government based on the will of the people, not based on power that emanated from state governments.
Webster knew citizens feared that a strong central government could lead to tyranny, the main issue of the American Revolution. Webster believed that a strong central government, abolishing slavery, and a good educational system would all protect Americans from tyranny.
Webster argued that until the 1780s, three principles made an independent state: a standing army, a government controlled by religion, which made government less transparent, and the fear of an enemy nation. After the Revolutionary War ended, according to Webster, none of these existed in the United States.
He believed standing armies should be banished from free governments because they could easily be used as an instrument of tyranny. The Confederation Congress did establish a standing army in 1785, but it was under civilian control and Webster did not perceive it as a threat to democracy.
He argued that Christianity had been separated from the state and thus would work in a spirit of peace and harmony, not coercion as it was used in many European countries. Even though Connecticut had an established church, and citizens paid taxes to that church, Webster did not believe the Congregational faith was used to keep people in ignorance.
Webster did not feel that either Canada or Mexico were enemies that would unite us and he believed that we would stay out of Europe’s business, so Americans would not be united by a common enemy.
Webster wrote his Sketches with a sense that there needed to be national government that would help bind us into an American nation. States could easily opt out of any decision made by the Confederation Congress with no penalty. The most famous example was both Rhode Island’s and New York’s refusal to support taxes in the form of an import duty. The Congress needed money to pay off war debts, but the fear of a far away government raising taxes was too much for either state. Hadn’t they just fought a war about taxes and hadn’t they wanted a voice in that taxation? Now that they were represented in the government, Rhode Island and New York chose to use their prerogative to stop the import tax. Webster wrote, “So long as any individual state has power to defeat the measures of the other twelve, our pretended union is but a name, and our confederation, a cobweb” (p. 32).
Webster did not see the Congress as established by the Articles of Confederation defining an American nation. The government allowed for each individual state to stop the nation from acting as one. But, he also knew that Americans feared tyranny. How to strike the balance?
To protect against tyranny and have a unified government, Webster argued that power should be vested in the people, not in state governments. Under the Articles, representatives were elected by state legislatures, and thus were beholden to state governments, not to the people. Webster’s plan was to have equal congressional representation chosen annually by the citizens. He believed there should be a three-year limit on the length that magistrates could serve to insure that the people were heard.
In Sketches, Webster explained how an executive could work to enforce the laws without being tyrannical; he used Connecticut’s Governor as an example. He wrote:
The state elects a governor or supreme magistrate and cloaths him with the power of the whole state to enforce the laws. Under him a number of subordinate magistrates such as judges of courts, justices of the peace, sheriffs, etc. are appointed to administer the laws in their respective departments. These are commissioned by the governor or supreme magistrate. Thus the whole power of the state is brought to a single point; it is united in one person (p. 33).
Webster put his faith in the citizens to elect the best people. He thought that if elections were held frequently and the freemen were treated equally, the government would be free of tyranny. In a footnote, he explained how he chose to vote for a candidate:
People, in the choice of rulers, are too apt to be deceived by… a specious show of popular virtues. I pretend not to lay down rules for other people; but for my own part, I will never give my vote to a man who courts my favor. I always suspect that such a man will be the first to betray me. Nor, will I give my vote to men, merely because they have been in office and it will hurt their feelings to be neglected. Such motives appear to me to discover weakness and a disregard to the true principles of government. I endeavor to give my votes to men, in whose integrity and abilities I can repose confidence; men, who will not dispense with law and rigid justice, to favor a friend or secure their own popularity. When I hear people talk of elevating a man to an office, because he comes next in course, and he will do well enough, I suspect they have forgot that they are freemen, and have lost their oaths or their consciences (p. 34).
Webster’s words ring true today as we head toward the polls in November. At an early age, Webster knew the importance of an enlightened citizenry to make the right decision about who represented them. This power in the hands of ordinary citizens, he believed, was the core of the American identity.
Noah Webster, 248 Years Later
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, September 2006
The 13 foot, 8.5 ton marble statue of Noah Webster, with one finger missing, endangered by acid rain and errant vines, is gone from its spot at 50 South Main Street. On Thursday, August 11, 2006, conservators removed Korczak Ziolkowski’s statue which had graced the lawn of the old Town Hall building for 65 years.
The statue is part of the town’s logo and Webster’s presence symbolizes the town’s dedication to learning. Naming the new development Blue Back Square is further evidence of the man’s influence in the town.
Webster’s 250th birthday will be here in just two years and already the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society is planning a bash. What form will this take? How will we remember Webster in 2008?
In 1958 for his 200th birthday, West Hartford had no ordinary celebration. The West Hartford Historical Society and the Noah Webster Bicentennial Committee held a parade, followed by a “huge community banquet” at Temple Beth Israel on Farmington Avenue. Governor Abraham Ribicoff, U.S. Senator William A. Purtell, U.S. Representatives Edwin May, Thomas Dodd and Rohe Walter attended both events.
The parade began on Memorial Drive, stopped for a ceremony at Webster’s statue on South Main Street, and then proceeded east on Farmington Avenue all the way to South Highland Street. The parade included the Governor’s Foot Guard, Governor’s Horse Guard, the Conard High Band, the West Hartford Remington Riders and a number of floats.
The celebration included a four cent Noah Webster commemorative stamp first available here and delivered to all West Hartford homes by their mailman as a souvenir. Businesses in the community sponsored the mailing.
A town wide spelling bee on October 15 was held at the Duffy School, with Ross Miller of WTIC as master of ceremonies. Governor Ribicoff presented the keynote address. Included at the head table with him were the president of the Merriam Company which owned the Webster dictionary, Mayor Harold Keith, and ministers from three faiths in West Hartford.
Along with the postage stamp, every home in town also received a pamphlet called “Your Schools” devoted to Noah Webster and produced by the School Department.
The West Hartford News produced a 24 page “souvenir supplement” on Webster. Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998), the head of the history department at Amherst College, wrote the cover article. At that point, Commager was “one of America’s most noted historians,” a devotee of the consensus school of American History. This same article appeared in the Saturday Review just two days later.
Commager was a prolific writer who believed that history should inform the public discourse. He continually transcended the divide between the academic and the public world as he lectured extensively and wrote hundreds of articles and columns for the public press. He campaigned for political candidates, railed against the anti-communism of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and publicly opposed the Vietnam War. He rallied other liberal historians like Arthur Schlesinger behind his causes.
So what did Commager say about Webster almost 50 years ago?
Commensurate with the consensus school of history, Commager argued that Webster’s Blue Back Speller served to draw all Americans together with a common language. Commager argued that “under its benign guidance, generations of young Americans learned the same spellings, the same pronunciations; read the same stories; absorbed the same moral lessons.” Commager claimed that Webster deserved to be considered one of the Founding Fathers and clearly he was “Father of the American language… and of American education.”
According to Commager he was also a Father of American political thought in his Sketches in American Policy (1785) and as editor of the American Magazine, the Minerva, and the Herald through the 1830s.
Webster was a leader in science with his two volume work the History of Epidemics. He was the father of the copyright, one of the first to write about American history, and American banking and finance. Webster, like Thomas Jefferson, rewrote the Bible, and wrote the first American dictionary in 1806 and then in 1828.
Yet, according to Commager, Webster did not have the mind of a Jefferson or Franklin. He claimed Webster was full of “nagging ambition, grim determination and indefatigable officiousness… and vanity.” For all his wide range of interests, Webster “did not have an open mind.” Commager argued that Webster was:
narrow, cold, almost passionless, [and] was wholly lacking in those grace-notes his great contemporaries added to their scores with such ease. He read everything, but in order to get definitions for his dictionary; he taught music, bur revealed not the slightest interest in the musical giants of his own time; he studied history, but only to learn that man is vile. He knew the languages of 20 nations but was interested in none of these; he visited France only to deplore its licentiousness; he visited Cambridge only to remark on the inferiority of its architecture. He was devout, but curiously untouched by religious sentiment… He was zealous for education, but had little faith in the young, and thought voting should be restricted to those over forty-five.
Even so, Commager believed that Webster was much more than his personality. He should be remembered for his desire and ability to build an American culture. Commager thought that, through language, he diminished the role of class, background, or region to invent a common culture, especially with his Blue Back Speller. Commager argued that “no other secular book has ever spread so wide, penetrated so deep, lasted so long.”
And, Commager said, Webster was typical of his age. The Founding Fathers were intent on building a national character which differentiated this new country with the corruption and division of the Old World. No longer would the Monarchy, the Church, the Aristocracy, or the Military be the definers of the nation.
For Commager, Webster’s role as “teacher” was his most important role. In 1958, Commager argued that “in America the teacher should play a larger role in the creation of nationalism than almost anywhere else. . .because the United States was the first nation to inaugurate anything remotely like universal free education.”
Webster was the first to write “moral and patriotic readers.” On page one of Part III of the Blue Back Speller, Webster wrote, “Begin with the infant in the cradle; let the first word he lisps be Washington.” Webster believed that learning about the great men would build pride in nation.
Commager concluded that Webster’s most important contribution to American culture was building a pride in the American language and literature. Even though he was practical and utilitarian in all he did, his key contribution was developing a belief in the United States as a unified, successful, self-sufficient whole.
Interestingly, Commager prided himself on being a teacher first and scholar and writer second. In the midst of the Cold War, an excellent education system for all seemed to distinguish us from Communist countries, as well.
In 2008, on Webster’s 250th birthday, with a national consumer culture, but a country as ethnically diverse as ever, will our interpretation of Webster’s influence on the nation change? Do we still consider a common language a binding force? Does education tell our nation’s story? Is this education accessible to all? Stay tuned!
The Noah Webster House is reviving the Noah Webster Birthday Party. Come September 30 for the celebration!
Noah Webster the Federalist
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2007
In 1800 at age 42, Noah Webster penned a pamphlet called “A Rod for the Fool’s Back,” in which he took New Haven’s Abraham Bishop to task for supporting Democratic-Republican principles. The pamphlet, published in New Haven, was part of a flurry of pamphlets stirred up by the Democratic-Republican win in the 1800 national election. Webster’s pamphlet was a searing commentary not only on Bishop’s beliefs, but also on his virtue. Webster believed that Bishop cared only about his own self-interest, and that his political beliefs would hurt the common good.
Webster was a staunch Federalist who believed in a strong national government, a standing army and navy, and a unified culture based on a common language. On a national level, Democratic-Republicans like Bishop believed that we needed no foreign diplomats, no national debt, and no attention by the government to commerce. Connecticut Democratic-Republicans had so little power that the 1800 federal election win gave them some hope.
From 1800 to 1816, in five straight elections, Connecticut voters cast the majority of ballots for Federalists. In 1804 only Connecticut and Delaware gave their electoral votes to the Federalist Charles Pinckney. In 1816 when James Monroe ran against Federalist Rufus King, Connecticut once again voted for the Federalist, this time with two other states. Being a Democratic Republican in Connecticut meant being in the minority, even though nationally they were the majority. Webster’s support of the Federalists was mainstream for Connecticut.
Webster found himself embroiled in a debate about both national politics and the state Charter of 1662, which unlike most other colonial constitutions, had not been replaced in the 1780s after we separated from England. But by 1800, when Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams for the presidency, followers of Jefferson in Connecticut were encouraged to believe they should have some say in state politics. Both sides used both national and state issues to garner support.
By 1800, Webster had been married for 11 years and had four of his eight children. In 1798, Webster moved to New Haven from New York City where he edited the Federalist American Minerva, New York’s first daily newspaper. From 1802 to 1807, Webster, the Federalist, represented New Haven in Connecticut’s General Assembly. He helped make the laws to carry out Connecticut’s 1662 charter.
The national fight between the Federalists and the Democratic–Republicans spilled over into state issues. The Connecticut state government “established” or supported the Congregational Church with tax money longer than any other state in the union. When all but Connecticut and Rhode Island rewrote their state constitutions in the 1780s and disestablished their Congregational churches, Connecticut did not do so until 1818, because of the power of the Federalists here. The Federalists believed that their policies furthered the common good and used the tactic that Democratic Republicans did not understand the common good — only their own self-interest.
The Charter of 1662 required all people to attend Sunday services and pay taxes to support the local church unless they got a certificate signed by an officer of a dissenting church, like the Baptists, Quakers, or Episcopalians. A 1791 law stated that the certificate had to be signed by two civil officers, always Congregationalists, and so the dissenters were often harassed. These laws, while attempting to solidify the power of the Congregationalists, actually caused an uproar among the dissenters like Bishop, and helped them to get support from the Republicans.
Webster was a Congregationalist, but one who did not support the establishment of a particular denomination. He believed, as he said in his 1828 dictionary, that religion was the source of virtue:
In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed… No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people…
However, unlike other Federalists, Webster had a more wide-ranging view of religion and did not feel that Congregationalism was better than other Christian sects. He would have been happy with the 1818 Constitution, which disestablished the Congregational Church but privileged Christianity. In Webster’s pamphlet, his religious views come out by lumping Bishop, a deist with “Atheists, Adulterers and profligate men” who will “lead the people to destruction.”
Webster characterized Bishop’s pamphlet as “mere rant, declamation and incongruous sentiments, incapable of being comprehended, much less answered.” He claimed that Bishop wanted to be part of the state government only for his own self-interest, not for the good of all. Webster argued that the state was doing very well economically, so why would anyone want change? The government’s regulation of trade and its relationships with other countries were very important to the Federalists, but not to the Democratic Republicans. Bishop believed all foreign entanglements were a waste of good taxpayer money.
Bishop believed that Alexander Hamilton’s funding scheme for Revolutionary War state debts was a “calamity” and led to “aristocracy, even more so than in France.” Democratic Republicans did not believe in having a national debt, or in funding state debts incurred during the Revolution. They believed that a citizen’s allegiance should be to his state, not to his nation. Webster countered by saying that only a small number of speculators grew rich off the funding scheme. In fact, Webster argued, independent farmers got most of the money.
When the Constitution was written, Democratic-Republicans won the election of 1817 to push for the Constitutional Convention. Once the Democratic-Republicans held power, they could change the charter. The Constitution opened up suffrage to all white men. But Webster clung to his Federalist beliefs claiming:
The very principle of admitting everybody to the right of suffrage prostrates the wealth of individuals to the rapaciousness of a merciless gang who have nothing to lose and will delight in plundering their neighbors.
In the early 19th century, as both state and local issues became part of the political world, Webster held fast to the ideas of the Federalists long after the party had lost its national and then state power. He believed that the right people who served in government had to protect the state from those who were in government only for their only self-interest. While Webster believed he knew who those leaders were and what their vision of the U.S. was, so did Bishop. Each believed they would serve for the common good and both believed the other was in politics for their own self-interest, a conflict which appears in politics to this day.
Noah Webster and Amos Beman
Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, November 2005. Thank you to Robert Forbes at Yale for bringing my attention to this letter.
In 1840, Noah Webster, age 82, wrote the following letter to Amos G. Beman, a black Congregational minister and abolitionist in New Haven.
I have your note of thanks, with a request that I would refer you to such authors as may give you some account of the origins of the African race.
In answer, I would remark that of the woolly haired Africans, who constitute the principal part of the inhabitants of Africa, there is no history. There can be none. That race has remained in barbarism from the first ages of the world; their country has never been explored very fully by civilized men, & the late efforts of travelers to penetrate to the sources of the Niger, have not been very successful.
Of the nations inhabiting the northern portions of Africa, who are of a different origin, viz. the Egyptians, Carthaginians and Numidians, I suppose you will find the best accounts in some Encyclopedia, under the words Copt, Egypt, Carthage & Numidia – add also Moors.
Yours respectfully, N Webster
A twenty-first century reader may well cringe at this correspondence. But a closer look at Webster’s times and at Amos Beman’s beliefs can illuminate the range of ideas about racial equality in the early 19th century.
For many years, scholars have argued that Connecticut’s treatment of African Americans both enslaved and free, was paternalistic and overshadowed by abolitionists. However, recent scholarly research and books for a popular audience like the newly published book Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and West Hartford’s Jenifer Frank, challenge this view. The authors describe how much whites in the north participated in the institution of slavery either by owning slaves or profiting through trade. This milieu sets a context in which Webster could make a statement which was degrading to Africans.
Webster’s letter was typical of nineteenth-century “white” American opinion. Webster and his contemporaries assumed that vast, fixed, biological, and intellectual differences separated Europeans from Africans. He believed these things were fixed by nature, not constructed by human beings. These assumptions led to a tremendous cultural divide between the Africans themselves, and whites who supported emancipation but not equality and those few whites who supported emancipation and equality. A belief like Webster’s led to decades of racial discrimination before, during and after the Civil War.
As early as 1785, Webster wrote that he wanted the abolition of slavery to be part of a new constitution. In 1791, Noah Webster co-founded Hartford’s Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He believed, as many northerners did in the 19th century, that slavery should end, but he never conceived of free blacks having the same rights as whites. Lincoln, in his writings and speeches, claims to want to free the slaves, but he does not accept social, political, or economic equality, just a short time after Webster died in 1843.
Webster’s writings 50 years earlier, in the 1790s reflect interest in emancipating slaves, but not in equality. In 1793, Webster published a lecture called “Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry,” in which he argued that it was not economically profitable to favor enslaved over free labor. Webster believed he needed to convince slave owners that it was in their best economic interest to emancipate slaves. He felt slave owners would be alienated by appealing to them about the immorality or cruelty of slavery. And, there were many who perceived that slavery uplifted what Webster stated was the “race [that] has remained in barbarism.” Webster may have seen educated, Christian, free blacks in a different light than the Africans in Africa, but clearly he gives Beman very little to feel good about in this letter.
Amos G. Beman, the recipient of Webster’s letter was a black minister and abolitionist leader from the Temple Street African Congregational Church in New Haven, who later served the Talcott Street Church in Hartford. Both Amos Beman and his father Jehiel organized abolitionist and political conventions throughout Connecticut. They were leaders of Connecticut’s black abolitionist movement, and they led a successful petition drive in 1847 for black suffrage which was passed by the General Assembly. However, the right to vote was defeated in a statewide referendum soon after. Clarissa Beman, Amos’ first wife founded the Colored Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, the second one of its kind in the country.
Beman’s Congregational and evangelical religious beliefs moved him to be an abolitionist, in many of the same ways it moved many white Congregationalists. Beman believed that all people — British, American and African — suffered from sin. He believed Jesus would emancipate equally all people from the slavery of sin. This salvation would lead to a colorblind society.
Beman believed God treated all sinners equally. He believed that black people had a moral obligation to reform themselves. Beman believed that people had to try to eradicate selfishness and be kind. He preached against drinking alcohol, theater-going, and the use of tobacco. He argued that if black people could show white society that they were morally pure, they would more likely win the right to vote. Lewis Tappan and Beman helped found and later served on the executive committee of, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Beman recommended disobedience of the Fugitive Slave Law and made his Hartford church a station on the Underground Railroad. Beman’s religious and moral beliefs matched those of many of the white religious abolitionists.
Perhaps part of Webster’s point is that education is the hallmark of civilization; Webster knew Africans in Africa were not educated as Americans were. Webster is certainly willing to correspond with the educated Beman, but Webster cannot see any history of people who had no written language or formal schools. Beman believed, like Webster did about white people, that blacks had a history. Webster could not fit that into his frame of reference.
However distasteful Webster’s words may be to us today, if we do not listen to Webster’s voice, it makes the Civil War and equal rights seem inevitable. A look at the tensions of the 1840s makes us realize that racial equality and abolition were clearly contested terrain that we still address. It is our job to try to understand the motives of men like Webster and Beman. This allows us to see the past as a contentious playing field of ideas and actions, not one ordained by nature or God.
About this book
Copyright © 2018 by Tracey M. Wilson. Life in West Hartford is freely available online at http://LifeInWestHartford.org and distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Readers may share the work for non-commercial use, by including a source credit to the author.
Print copies of this book are available for sale from the publisher, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, in West Hartford, Connecticut. Proceeds of sales benefit the Society http://noahwebsterhouse.org.