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Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot

Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot

by Harlow Giles Unger

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Noah Webster was a truly remarkable man, shrewd, passionate, learned and energetic, God-fearing and patriotic. Mr. Unger has done a fine job reintroducing him to a new generation of Americans. --Washington Times Noah Webster The Life and Times of an American Patriot ""More than a lexicographer, Webster was a teacher, philosopher, author, essayist, orator, political leader, public official, and crusading editor. Webster's life thrust him into every major event of the early history of our nation, from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812. He touched the lives of the most renowned Americans --and the most obscure. He earned the love and friendship of many, the hatred of some, but the respect of all. Noah Webster helped create far more than an American dictionary; he helped create an American nation."" --from the Prologue In the first major biography of Noah Webster in over sixty years, author Harlow Unger creates an intriguing portrait of the United States as an energetic and confident young country, even when independence was fragile and the future unclear. Harlow Unger brilliantly restores Webster's monumental legacy as a teacher,legislator, philosopher, lawyer, editor, and one of history's most profoundly influential lexicographers. Breathtaking adventure--from the American Revolution to the War of 1812--and masterful scholarship converge in this riveting chronicle of a singularly American intellect.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780471379430
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication date: 03/27/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 887,658
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.99(d)

About the Author

HARLOW GILES UNGER was a foreign news editor at the New York Herald Tribune and a correspondent for the Times in London. A former professor of English and journalism, he is the author of six books on education. Mr. Unger lives in New York City and Paris, France.

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Chapter One



The American colonial wilderness was awash with war when Noah Webster was born, in the fall of 1758. French forces had swept southward from Canada, past Lake Champlain and Lake George, to the northern edge of the Berkshire Hills, less than two hundred miles north of the Webster farm. Although the clamor of cannons and the cries of the wounded were well beyond earshot, they posed a fearful threat to Webster's little farming community, in the west division of Hartford, Connecticut. Only a year earlier, his father had barely escaped slaughter at Fort William Henry, at Lake George, New York. He had been part of a vastly outnumbered column of thirty-five hundred untrained colonial conscripts—mostly farmers like himself—whom the British had positioned as a human barrier to the French advance. Faced with massacre, the helpless colonists laid down their comic fowling muskets to surrender—only to be set upon treacherously by the French army's savage Indian forerunners. Only fourteen hundred colonists survived, among them Noah Webster's father, who fled into the Berkshire wilderness and struggled home to his farm to pick up the pieces of his life. A year later, on October 16, 1758, his fourth child, a son, was born, and he passed on his own name, Noah, to the boy. It was an appropriate name for the times, for the Webster farm seemed, indeed, an ark adrift in a sea of uncertainty, with only the Websters' God privy to their ultimate national destination.

    The British hold over the American colonies wasdeteriorating rapidly—not just in New England but in almost every other area of North America. The French already controlled parts of western Pennsylvania, and French-speaking colonists in Vermont and Maine were in open rebellion against British rule. In eastern Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin railed that German settlers were turning Pennsylvania into "a German colony. Instead of learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live as in a foreign country. Already the English begin to quit particular neighborhoods [of Philadelphia], being uneasy by the disagreeableness of dissonant manners."

    The English confronted similar "disagreeableness" in Swedish-speaking areas of Delaware and Dutch-speaking areas of New York, where, as in Pennsylvania, talk of independence from Britain among the non-English threatened to erupt into open rebellion. Even English-speaking settlers—Noah Webster's father included—now spoke openly about disunion from the British motherland. Throughout New England, the British had conscripted colonists to battle the French and the Indians—and taxed their families to pay for the war. Parliament reasoned that inasmuch as British troops were fighting the French and Indians to protect the colonists, the colonists themselves should bear the burden—by paying taxes, by billeting British regulars in their homes, and by shouldering arms and marching alongside the regulars to battle. It was a heavy burden—more than many were willing or able to carry.

    The atmosphere of disunion at the time of his birth would permeate Noah Webster's entire life, as it had that of his father and generations of his forebears. For centuries, the Webster ancestors had resisted disunion by tempering their ardor for individual freedom with respect for the sanctity of societal bonds. As deeply as they yearned for the former, they feared that liberty unleashed would devolve into anarchy and leave them as enthralled to the mob as they had been to king and clergy.

    Webster's ancestors were drawn into the stream of Puritans that flowed from England to America during the reigns of King James I (1603-25) and his son Charles I (1625-49). Both monarchs equated religious dissent with treason and branded Puritans who sought congregational independence from the Anglican bishop of London as separatists. "I will make them conform themselves," King James shouted to his court, "or harry them out of the land.... No Bishop, no King."

    James made good on his threat, forcing a group of Puritan farmers from Yorkshire and their pastor, John Robinson, to flee to Leyden (now Leiden), Holland, in 1609. One of them was nineteen-year-old William Bradford, Webster's maternal great-great-great-grandfather. As aliens, with no lands of their own to cultivate, the Puritans found life intolerable in Holland. After ten years, they returned to England to answer a call from the Virginia Company for "adventurers" to exploit the wealth of England's unexplored continent across the Atlantic. In 1620, they sailed to America aboard the Mayflower. On December 21, the first one hundred settlers stepped ashore in New England, at "Plimouth," and a year later, they elected Bradford their governor, a post he held for twenty-five of the next thirty years until his death.

    The first Webster came to America about ten years later. By then, Charles I had succeeded James to the throne and had grown even more hostile to the Puritans than his father. The stream of religious dissenters to America turned into a torrent. Two thousand arrived in Boston alone in 1630. More than eighteen thousand followed in the next decade. Among them was John Webster, another Yorkshire farmer, Noah Webster's great-great-grandfather. By the time that first Webster arrived in Boston, he found that the earlier, established settlers had established Congregationalism as the official state religion and restricted voting on civic matters to church members. This left Massachusetts government in the hands of a Puritan theocracy that brooked as little dissent in the New World as the bishop of London had in the old.

    Finding himself no freer under Puritan rule in Boston than he had been under Anglican rule in Yorkshire, John Webster moved to rural Newtowne (now Cambridge), where the Reverend Thomas Hooker, a strong supporter of universal suffrage, had defied the Puritan theocracy and opened his congregation to all.

     Puritan leaders were quick to punish such nonconformists, however. In 1635, they forced Roger Williams to flee his Salem pastorship when he criticized civil authorities for using their power to enforce church doctrine. The following year, Hooker fell out with colony leaders over the issues of limited suffrage and magisterial authority, and he left Newtowne with fifty of his congregants, including John Webster and John Steele, who had married Melatiah Bradford, a daughter of Plymouth's William Bradford.

    As a small child, Noah Webster often listened to his mother, the descendant of the Steele-Bradford union, describe their Puritan ancestors trek through Massachusetts to Connecticut—then still part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She recounted how they had to cross "a hideous and trackless wilderness ... through swamps, thickets and rivers. They had no cover but the heavens and no lodgings but such as nature afforded them. They drove with them one hundred and sixty head of cattle, and subsisted by the way on the milk of their cows. They were nearly a fortnight on their journey, singing psalms in the wilderness."

    One hundred miles to the southwest, they reached an expanse of rich tillable land, sparkling streams, and lush forests abounding with game—already peopled, however, by less-than-hospitable Pequot Indians, who feared farmers would clear the forests and drive away the game on which they depended.

    Edward Winslow of Plymouth had established the first white settlement in Connecticut, called Windsor, in 1635, and a year later, just before the Hooker party left Newtowne, the Massachusetts General Court granted Connecticut settlers limited independence and the right to create some self-government.

    "Arriving late in the season," Webster's mother told her children, "they had to endure all the hardships and trials of a severe winter, with the labors of clearing the forest, constructing their rude dwellings, securing food, and of protecting themselves against cold and wet, the ravages of wild beasts, and the warlike savage." Although Hooker's band survived the winter, their efforts to clear the forest for spring plantings encroached on Pequot hunting grounds, and in May, the inevitable conflict erupted between farmer and hunter, colonist and native, Christian and savage. Within a year, the Christians had all but exterminated the Pequot.

    The settlers renamed their community Hartford, after the English birthplace of many Hooker congregants, and together they began to clear the wilderness and create what was then the largest settlement in the new colony of Connecticut (an Indian word for "place of the long river"). They built their church and homes; they planted and harvested the fruit of the vine and of the earth for six days each week; and they scrupulously observed the Sabbath. From the very first, they taught their children "His Word" and send their children to school to learn to read and recite the scriptures.

    They created a new England, with individual liberties restricted only by scriptural law and the "commonweal" of the community—a new England where people's common struggle against the wilderness erased social distinctions, where everyone worked and helped his or her neighbor, and where each person's skill was an essential thread in the fabric of the community. Love of labor and of God determined individual worth, both in productivity and communal respect. Hooker, the spiritual leader, encourage independent thought and the search for a personal relationship with God. His concept of individual liberties, limited only by the broader public interest and the laws of God, would become the basis of Connecticut's Fundamental Orders, the colony's first written constitution.

    As one of the largest landholders, John Webster was elected a magistrate in Connecticut's first General Court, a combined legislature-judiciary, and in 1642, he helped write the colony's first criminal code. Cited for "prudence, piety, skill and private worth," he was elected deputy governor in 1655 and, two years later, governor. He died in 1671, but his progeny, like that of the Steeles and Bradfords, grew into a sizable and important clan that held high posts in church and state, including several governorships. Indeed, the only blight ever to touch a leaf on the Webster family tree was an accusation of witchcraft against Mary Reeve Webster, who had married one of John Webster's sons and settled in Hadley, Massachusetts. Angry townsfolk dragged the poor woman from her house, stripped her, and searched for witch marks "on her teats," then sent her to jail and a trial in Boston, in April 1683.

    Although the Boston court acquitted her, for the rest of her life Hadley invariably blamed "the power of this enchantress" for every unexplained misfortune—including the illness of a Lt. Philip Smith in 1685. "While he lay dying," according to an account from that era, "a number of brisk lads ... dragged her out of the house ... hung her up until she was near dead, let her down, rolled her some time in the snow, and at last buried her in it, and there left her; but it happened that she survived and the melancholy man died. It is not known that Mary Webster annoyed the people of Hadley by her witch pranks after 1685."

    The tragedy of Mary Reeve Webster notwithstanding, most Websters retained their good names, prominence, and wealth during the rest of the seventeenth century. John Webster divided his property among his sons and they, in turn, did the same, leaving each generation of sons with smaller and smaller estates. By the mid-eighteenth century, the various Webster holdings, like those of most New Englanders, were too small to subdivide into farms large enough to support one family each. Most farmers had no choice but to keep their lands intact and restrict inheritance to their oldest sons. Younger boys either learned crafts, went into business, or moved westward to carve new farms out of the New York or Pennsylvania wilderness.

    For boys with enough intellectual promise, the eighteenth century offered another option with the addition of four new colleges, in Princeton, Philadelphia, New York, and Providence. Together with Harvard, Yale, and the College of William and Mary, the new schools expanded the opportunities for young men to prepare for the ministry, medicine, or law. Noah Webster would be one of these young men.


WHEN NOAH WEBSTER WAS BORN, his father's farm amounted to only ninety acres, scattered across four or five parcels of orchards and fields of corn, wheat, oats, flax, and tobacco, in the west division of Hartford. The house was a standard Connecticut farm dwelling—a square wooden box, two stories tall, clad in simple white clapboards with a peaked roof. Inside, plain pine planks covered the floors, and burly hand-hewn beams stretched across the ceilings.

    A massive brick chimney sliced the house in half and delivered heat through fireplaces on either side. A mammoth fireplace in the kitchen let the Webster women lean in easily to swing the iron dogs and kettles on and off the fire. The kitchen was the social center of the house—a living and dining room, as well as a cooking room and bakery. A second fireplace opened from the other side of the chimney into the formal parlor (where Noah was born). Near the window, staring sternly at all who entered, a plain black Bible lay on the unvarnished Puritan table surrounded by a stand of straight-backed chairs. A small settee stood against the opposite wall. Upstairs, a small fireplace was the only luxury in each of the two plain bedrooms.

    The Websters were a middling family financially, albeit well nourished by a cottage garden, grapevines, fruit trees, and a variety of barnyard animals. A cow provided milk, and a horse took them to church and into town. The small size of his estate did not diminish the elder Noah Webster's influence in the community. Indeed, he was a pious man, and his conduct only enhanced the value of the historic name he bore. As his forebears had done, the elder Webster tempered Calvinist orthodoxy with a tolerance that assumed equality of condition among freemen. Webster measured individual worth on the basis of work, personal behavior, church attendance, and readiness to help one's neighbor and community. Webster himself ranked high in each of these respects.

    Born in 1722, the elder Webster was a leader of his church and his community in peace and in war. He was a lieutenant in the town militia and held a succession of important church posts, including the deaconship—the highest office his church could bestow. For fifteen years he was also justice of the peace, thus holding the town's highest secular as well as clerical posts. His neighbors addressed him with respect—either as Deacon Webster or Squire Webster.

    On January 12, 1749, the great-grandson of John Webster married Mercy Steele, the great-great-granddaughter of William Bradford. The following November, their first offspring, also named Mercy, was born. Abram followed in September 1751, and a second daughter, Jerusha, in January 1756.

    The mid-eighteenth century was not the most auspicious time to marry, raise children, and begin life as an independent farmer. The summer before Jerusha Webster was born, her father had marched off to the disaster at Fort William Henry. In his absence, Mercy Webster tended the fields herself. Like her Bradford ancestors, she was intelligent, well educated, capable, and energetic. The younger Noah's wife, Rebecca, would later describe her mother-in-law as "a gentle loving mother and care-taker, looking well to the ways of her household. She carried on the farm quite successfully" when her husband marched off to war.

    Mercy Webster displayed her emotions more openly than most women of her generation, easily bursting into tears of joy or sorrow. But she was better schooled than other women in both the domestic and the ornamental arts. The domestic arts—needlework, sewing, making clothes, cooking, housekeeping, and gardening—left little time in most farmhouses for the ornamental arts, such as music and reading, yet Mercy Webster found time to read to her children and play the flute, and to teach each of the children to do the same. Each evening she led the family in singing the popular psalms of Isaac Watts after her husband's Bible reading. The children all became skilled readers, strong writers, and gifted flutists—and all knew the Bible intimately.

    The Websters' fourth child, Noah, was born in October 1758. Their fifth and last child, Charles, was born four years later. Noah's early childhood was unremarkable. Like other colonial children, he busied his days with farmyard chores, helped his mother tend the cottage garden, and joined his sisters in attending to his younger brother.

    Noah's bony frame carried a serious though pleasing little face, topped by a mop of red hair and punctuated by brownish grey eyes that stared in wonder at his father's huge, godlike presence in the fields. By the time he was four, daily recitations of the Our Father left him certain that his father was God and that heaven lay somewhere in the fields where his father toiled.

    He thus grew up in the tranquil, certain omnipresence of his stern, loving, all-embracing God, adoring both God and the fields about him and unaware of the turmoil beyond the horizon of the Webster farm, which for young Noah was nothing less than Eden. He felt God everywhere, in his coming in and going out, and each day he did his chores unquestioningly because, as his mother told him, God and his father expected him to. And unlike Cain and Abel, Noah Webster and his brothers and sisters loved one another deeply.

    Peace and harmony ruled also in the immediate community surrounding the Webster farm—largely because of the familial continuity on which the town had been built. The Websters and Steeles continued to till the same lands their forebears had tilled since they had driven the last Pequot from the forest, and at their little church, the Reverend Nathaniel Hooker, descended directly from the Reverend Thomas Hooker, led his flock in prayer from the pulpit his ancestor had occupied. Mutual affection thus joined with devotion to the commonweal to repel those who threatened peace, tranquillity, or doctrinal unity.

    If there was an imperfection in young Noah's personal paradise, it lay only in education. Indeed, his school apparently stood as close as any Hartford child could ever get to the gates of hell. By the time he entered school, his mother had already taught him his alphabet from a primer, along with the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, and the Decalogue. As in almost every colonial Connecticut home, the King James Bible was the most important cultural influence, and the Websters read from the Bible each day, individually and communally. Young Noah knew his Bible by the time he was six and was fully prepared for school. His mother had even taught him his numbers.

    Like Massachusetts, Connecticut had enacted compulsory education laws in the mid-seventeenth century, requiring every town with fifty or more householders to establish a common school and teach children and servants to read, write, and calculate. Both states retained their official ties to the Puritan Congregational Church, whose teachings remained the heart of common-school education. As in most common schools, Webster's teachers were untrained transients whose names went unrecorded in town annals. Sometimes they were college students in need of funds to continue their own education, but more often they were unskilled, out-of-work passersby with little intellect or love for children. Webster recalled the teachers of his youth as the "dregs" of humanity. "The principal part of instructors," he said, "are illiterate people" who teach with ferules and whips.

    Children did not attend school for long periods of time or for many years—only for eight to twelve weeks a year, between the autumn harvest and spring planting, when their parents had little work for them in the fields or pastures. The purpose of schooling was as much to incarcerate the potentially unruly as it was to educate, although some education did inevitably result.

    "When I was a schoolboy," Webster recalled later, "the greatest part of the scholars did not employ more than an hour in a day, either in writing or in reading; while five hours of the school time was spent in idleness, in cutting tables and benches to pieces, in carrying on pin lotteries, or perhaps in some roguish tricks."

    As in other common schools, the books at Webster's school were limited to a King James Bible, a psalter, a catechism, and Thomas Dilworth's New Guide to the English Tongue. First published in London in 1740, Dilworth's was a beginners' spelling book, syllabarium, and reader that indoctrinated children in religious dogma. It sought to save "poor creatures from the Slavery of Sin and Satan" by placing "the word of God for a Lantern to our Feet and a Light to our Paths." The word God appeared in every sentence of even the earliest lessons, with words of only three letters:

No Man may put off the Law of God.
The Way of God is no Ill Way.
My Joy is in God all the Day.
A bad Man is a Foe to God.

    "The instruction in schools was very imperfect," Webster explained. "No geography was studied ... no history was read ... no book for reading was used.... Before the revolution & for some years after, no slates were used in common schools; all writing & the operations in Arithmetic were on paper. The teacher wrote the copies & gave the sums in Arithmetic; few or none of the pupils having any books as a guide."

    According to Webster's daughter Emily, "The 'nurture and admonition of the Lord' were almost the only education he received until his fourteenth year, for secular studies were then confined within very narrow bounds."


FROM HIS EARLIEST YEARS, Noah Webster lived in a political storm of biblical proportions, which eventually pulled him into its vortex as an eager active participant for much of his life.

    The clouds began gathering after the end of the French and Indian War, in 1763. Although British troops had turned the tide of battle against the French the year after Noah's birth and eventually won the war, they faced colossal debts from the conflict. The British government's inveterate penchant for governing without the consent of the governed smothered the colonial economy with taxes to pay for the war—first on sugar, then, one by one, on coffee, wines, silks, and calicoes.

    The taxes, due in silver, increased living costs and destroyed the value of colonial paper currency. Suddenly, paper money that the Websters and other families had saved was worthless, and farmers and merchants turned to barter to survive.

    By 1765, when Noah was seven, depression had gripped New England, and many communities lay bankrupt. Tax collectors added to the woes by invading homes without warrants to collect their due. In 1764, Connecticut's first newspaper, the weekly Connecticut Courant, had been founded in Hartford, and it carried news of British outrages into colonial homes across the state. Angry colonists near Webster's home responded by dragging at least three tax collectors to tar-and-feather parties.

    Farm life now demanded twice the labor for half the profits. Infuriated, Noah's father read the Courant aloud to his family, while his wife patiently explained phrases such as confiscatory taxes and taxation without representation to the children. Like their neighbors, the Websters talked of justice and, if necessary, independence as a last resort for obtaining it.

    Britain's insatiable appetite for revenues reached a new peak with the infamous Stamp Act, which taxed newspapers, pamphlets, and legal papers. Colonists responded violently, and repeal of the Stamp Act the following year did little to restore calm. More taxes followed—on paper, glass, lead, paints, and, finally, tea. By 1770, colonists' hostility evolved into rebellion, and on March 5, British regulars fired at an angry mob in Boston, killing five people—and rupturing the last Puritan ties to the motherland.

    The Courant's Journal of Occurrences reported the Boston massacre and roused Connecticut to arms. Hartford and other towns held extraordinary weekly meetings to develop appropriate responses. The elder Noah Webster, by then an overage militia captain of forty-eight, organized and trained an "alarm list" of volunteers who were over forty-five years old—with three exceptions: twelve-year old Noah Webster and his brothers, nineteen-year-old Abram and eight-year-old Charles, each shouldered muskets and marched proudly at the rear of the column.

    Young Noah had grown lanky, bony. His strong jutting chin, high cheekbones, and still-unruly red hair belied his quiet personality and thoughtful mind; his straight, thin lips made it difficult to know whether he was about to smile or to explode in anger. Like other common-school boys, he had worked long hours alongside his father and older brother in the fields during the spring plantings and autumn harvests and had attended school only during slack periods in winter and midsummer.

    Unlike other boys, however, he was a Webster, a member of a family that had settled and helped lead Hartford from its beginnings and had continuing responsibilities to the community. Endless hours of Congregational upbringing at home and an eternity of Sundays in the forward Webster pew had taught young Noah to listen and learn, and to prepare for eventual accession to community leadership. His father's militia drills reinforced his love of country and pride of family—and his sense of obligation to lead.

    In the west part of Hartford, as in other Connecticut towns, the Puritan Congregational Church was the foundation of government as well as religion, with Sunday services blending into late-afternoon town meetings. Church elders were almost always town officials, and town officials, elders. While the women and young children left for home, the men and older boys remained in church with the minister to debate church discipline, school curriculum, and local taxes, and to settle disputes between neighbors. All who loved God could join the church, and all who joined the church could vote. Noah had been raised on his father's reports of these proceedings, and at twelve, he, too, remained in church and stood beside his father, learning to be what he later described as a "good republican."

    "New England," he wrote later, "is certainly a phenomenon in civil and political establishments, and in my opinion not only young gentlemen from our sister states, but from every quarter of the globe would do well to pass a few years of their life among us, and acquire our habits of thinking and living."

    Those habits, he said, "are formed by a singular machinery in the body politic, which takes the child as soon as he can speak, checks his natural independence and passions, makes him subordinate to superior age, to the laws of the state, to town and parochial institutions—initiates him in the business of government by making him an active party in local regulations, and in short molding him into a peaceable citizen, an intelligent man, and an independent, but rational freeman."

    In 1772, the elder Noah Webster decided that of his three sons, his middle one should go to college. The reason was straightforward, as his granddaughter Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford explained years later:

When my father was a boy of fourteen, he showed a decided love for study and books. He would take his Latin Grammar into the field, and his rests under the apple trees were quite too long for a farmer's son. He was led to reflect on the advantages of a collegiate education, and the native ardor of his mind awakened and directed to this end, was able to obtain it. My Grandfather was a wise man, and, finding Noah stretched on the grass forgetful of his tasks, he decided to permit him to follow his inclinations, and he was placed under the tuition of the Rev. Nathan Perkins, the pastor of the Congregational church in West Hartford. With him my Father fitted for College.

    That same year, Perkins, a graduate of Yale College, in New Haven, replaced Hooker as West Hartford's minister after the latter's death. Webster became the first of 150 boys that Perkins would prepare for college during his sixty-six years there. Although young Webster spent half his time helping his father in the fields, he completed his studies in two years, learning basic Latin and Greek, studying the ancient classics and histories, and committing the scriptures to memory. Perkins awarded Webster a certificate attesting to his character and scholastic achievements, and Yale admitted the boy at the age of sixteen, in September 1774.

    Although college costs would combine with the collapsing economy to leave his father deeply in debt, the father was committed to ensuring his son's success, often displaying his commitment with uncharacteristic displays of tenderness as well as financial sacrifice. As the elder Noah Webster's granddaughter put it, "The father was deeply interested in his son's career, for he mortgaged the farm to pay his college expenses, and more than once rode [the fifty miles] on horseback to New Haven to bring his boy home, once walking back and letting his son ride, saying that he was best able of the two."


Table of Contents




Yankee Peddler.


Public Servant.




Elder Statesman.



Selected Bibliography of Principal Sources.


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