John Saillant, American Studies, Western Michigan University
Entries from Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806)
Surely instances of the "new tendency toward pragmatism" that Robert Darnton has recently seen in electronic publishing will include our use of "electronic books" to answer questions that arise in our studies. Here I offer less a review of the new CD-ROM editions of the letters of the American delegates to the Continental Congress and the first (1755) and fourth (1773) editions of Johnson's Dictionary than an account of uses instigated by my studies in American political thought of the last quarter of the eighteenth century. To use, perhaps, is not to read, but, as Darnton has noticed, electronic books seem unlikely to be read in a way that seems natural to us on a computer screen.(2) I began with curiosity about the ubiquitous word "representation," a mainstay of American political thought of the 1770s. Understanding representation as "the act of standing in place of many and speaking for the will and the interests of many," the republican patriots knew that they were not represented in the English parliament. The republican and patriot view, as Samuel Beer has noted, was rooted in English radical whig thought about popular influence on ministers of parliament and about the competence of voters to instruct their delegates. By 1770, colonial practice was more republican than was English, and, during the 1770s, ordinary colonists as well as theorists like James Otis understood representation as ideally "actual," not "virtual."(3)
Yet after the Revolution, this simple understanding of representation--its very simplicity allowing it to inspire revolution--gave way to more complex notions of what it is to be represented and what it is to be a representative. Proponents of the new federal constitution of the 1780s and publicists for the Federalist Party in the 1790s and early 1800s came to envision political representation as necessarily involving men who do not speak directly for the will and the interests of their constituents. Federal representation came to be understood as qualitatively different from actual representation, ironically so on at least two counts, since not only had the Revolution itself been fought in some measure for the principle of actual representation, but also instructions from local committees to the Continental Congress delegates had addressed the largest issues of action in the revolutionary effort. Madison, for instance, made the point in 1787 in "The Federalist," Number 10, that in a republic "it may well happen that the public voice pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves convened for the purpose."(4) Noah Webster, as a publicist, articulated the federalist view in his newspaper in writing, "The whole body of people in society is the sovereign power or state. . . . Every man forms a part of this state and so has a share in the sovereignty; at the same time, as an individual, he is a subject of the state. . . . When society is large . . . the people agree to appoint . . . representatives to act for them. . . . The people resign their own authority to their representatives--the acts of these deputies are in effect the acts of the people--and the people have no right to refuse obedience."(5)
Moreover, concern about the nature of representation, even a crisis of representation, existed in the American early republic. Many scholars studying the Revolution or the early republic will find in their own sources echoes of the republican and federalist concerns about representation. Americans in the Revolutionary era came to question as never before the ways in which they could or should represent themselves to others in speech, actions, and writing.(6) Curiously, perhaps, African Americans with articulate political interests were virtually all loyal to the Federalist Party, though they well knew that as black people they were not represented in state or federal government.(7) Federalist revision of the republican notion of representation could be understood as a readjustment of the European notions that were standard in Montesquieu as well as in radical whig thought. A new form of representative government became feasible, it seemed, in a expanding nation the scale of which was beyond that of the polities held up as models in seventeenth-century and early-eighteenth-century political philosophy. Federalist revision, however, could also be understood as a betrayal of the radical Revolution, which expressed itself in Thomas Paine's Common Sense and the 1776 Pennsylvania state constitution, as well as an effort to curb protest against the social elite of the late colonial and the early national periods.
With such thoughts in mind I decided to use some of the search capacities of the CD-ROMs of the Letters of Delegates to Congress and Johnson's Dictionary to learn what possibilities were available to the patriots and federalists within concepts like representation.(8) The letters, of course, constitute a mass of private writings concerning political revolution and state-building, while the Dictionary was known in colonial America.(9) Thomas Jefferson, for instance, owned a copy of the Dictionary and considered Johnson the best etymologist of English.(10) Here I assumed that Johnson's definitions and the illustrative quotations from English authors (these parts of the dictionary are searchable separately or together) approximated the range of meanings available to the American writers. Search capacities include finding all words in which a set of letters occurs, so that a search for "represent*" yields "represent," "represented," "representing," "representation," and "representative." The search capacities include also finding words in proximity of each other, so that a search for "represent* within fifteen words of public*" yields all instances (in this case sixteen) in which represent* and its fuller forms appears within so many words of public* and its fuller forms in the database.
After trial and error, I settled on a "proximity search" of one searched word within fifteen words of another, since this seemed to yield associations both within and across the sense of a word and its attestations (illustrative quotations). Thus, I searched for patterns in which the words I identified were found in the various parts of Johnson's definition of a word.(11) My searches in the dictionary were as follows: (1) public*, yielding 1717 hits, (2) republic*, ninety-one hits, (3) represent*, 1101 hits, (4) represent* within fifteen words of parliament*, ten hits, (5) represent* with fifteen words of king*, thirty-one hits, (6) represent* within fifteen words of public*, sixteen hits, (7) represent* within fifteen words of imitat*, fourteen hits, (8) represent* within fifteen words of dece*, eighteen hits, (9) represent* within fifteen words of tru*, forty hits, and (10) represent* within fifteen words of fals*, thirty-one hits. My goal here was to discover not only the meanings of words such as "public," "republic," and "representation," but also to reveal patterns in thought that would be evident only if, for example, "representation" could be viewed in relation to "imitation," "deception," "truth," "falsity," and their related words. In the letters, I made a more straightforward search for "representation" and related words; complex searches using Boolean operands (and, or, not) are possible in the Letters. I also searched both volumes for words associated with republican thought like "commonwealth," "liberty," "sovereign," "tyranny," and the like, but I shall not discuss them here since my goal is not a syllabary of republicanism, but rather a model of one way we can use new technology-based resources. The rapid search for patterns that would reveal more of the meaning and significance of "representation" has been so far the fullest use I have found myself able to make of the search engines on the CD-ROMs.
The delegates to the Continental Congress used the word "represent" and words related to it 2314 times over sixteen years' of writing. In James Duane's September 8, 1774, "Speech to the Committee on Rights," representation appears with radical whig overtones: "England is governed by a limited Monarchy and a free Constitution. But if the Subject is bound by a Law to which he does not assent, either personally or by his Representative, he is no longer free but under an arbitrary power, which may oppress or ruin him at pleasure." By 1788, as is evident here in a letter of May 12, 1788, from John Brown to James Madison, instruction of delegates, one of the features of actual representation to which the radical whigs were the most committed, was seen by federalists as a threat to the ratification of the new constitution:
I have had the honor to receive your favors of the 9th & 21st of April for which accept my thanks. My hopes respecting the Success of the new Constitution in Virginia are in some measure revived by the information you have given me upon that Subject but am still sorry to find that the number of friends & foes are so nearly divided as to render the Vote of Kentucky of critical importance for I fear nothing friendly is to be expected from that quarter. I yesterday reced. letters from Colo. Muter & Mr Innes who inform that it has few or no Supporters in that Country. Muter from a warm friend has become a violent enemy to the Plan & that upon general principles. They enclosed me a list of members chosen to represent that District in Convention & further advise that on the 1st Monday in April a Convention was to meet at Danville expressly to take into consideration the new Constitution & instruct & charge their representatives with the Sentiments of the District upon that Subject. This measure almost precludes all hope that any good effect will result from a communication of my Sentiments to their Delegates, as I am apprehensive that they will conceive themselves religiously bound to observe Instructions framed & given with such Solemnity. However as I am personally acquainted with the Men & fully possess their confidence I shall at all events hazard the Attempt.Such thinking about representation and the instruction of delegates obviously fit Madison's "Federalist," Number 10. One of the uses of the word "representation" without its political connotations appeared in an October 14, 1774, letter of John Adams, describing an excursion in Philadelphia. He wrote, "Went in the Morning to see Dr. Chevott and his Skelletons and Wax Work--most admirable, exquisite Representations of the whole Animal Æconomy. Four compleat Skelletons. A Leg with all the Nerves, Veins and Arteries injected with Wax. Two compleat Bodies in Wax, full grown. Waxen Representations of all the Muscles, Tendons &c., of the Head, Brain, Heart, Lungs, Liver, Stomack, Gutts, Cawl-Bladder, Testicles." Moreover, speech itself in the congress and in the convention was sometimes called "representation." Such uses, in being in the minority, imply that the delegates, acting as revolutionaries and republicans, cared little for the nonpolitical definitions of representation, but still suggest, in their very presence in the letters, that Americans could not long insulate themselves from the ambiguities of representation.
A reading of the hits in Johnson's Dictionary suggests that the federalists' revision of the concept of representation was virtually inevitable, not just because the Constitution created a federal government superordinating over state governments or because Americans abandoned the Montesquieuian model of a small republic, but because a notion like representation of the public in a republic was inevitably unstable in eighteenth-century English. Indeed, the newly-appreciated complexity of the word "representation" in America in the 1780s and 1790s indicates a maturation of the Revolutionary generation and its grappling with a concept that was manifold and ambiguous. Rethinking representation was an act of statesmanship, as many specialists in the Constitution argue, but it was also a deepening engagement with the possibilities that the English language made available to the "Founding Fathers." Raymond Williams has wisely written that the "degree of possible overlap between representative and representation in their political and artistic senses is very difficult to estimate."(12) Yet I believe we can see in eighteenth-century use, at least among the federalists and the definitions Johnson might have given them, a development of the idea of representation in which a limited political use of the idea flowed into its larger sense in English.
"Public*" in its many instances in Johnson's Dictionary suggests that eighteenth-century English speakers were secure in their distinction between public and private, never doubting that there was a public sphere in which, for instance, a "public good" was effected and in which "public men" played their roles. The existence of the public was independent of any particular social or historical situation for Johnson's authors, who knew that as long as there are societies there is in each a public sphere. For instance, an attestation in the definition of "agreeable" reads, "As the practice of all piety and virtue is agreeable to our reason, so is it likewise the interest both of private persons and of publick societies. Tillotson." Another, under "all," reads, "Political power, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth; and all this only for the publick good. Locke." The public in this sense engendered no ambiguity or confusion: the public always exists and is always identifiable. The Dictionary itself as a literary work can be understood as Johnson's and his authors' representation of the public sphere in which the public good, public taste, and the like are exercised.
"Republic*" in the Dictionary was different from "public*" in that republics were understood as small in size and historically contingent. Republics grow, thrive, die, and, thus, need not always exist. In an attestation of "hanker," we read, "The republick that fell under the subjection of the duke of Florence, still retains many hankerings after its ancient liberty. Addison on Italy." Moreover, republic was a concept open to interpretation. There was a "republick of letters," and there was not always clear knowledge about when a republic lost its character by becoming too aristocratic or too democratic. An attestation of "temporary" reads, "The republick threatened with danger, appointed a temporary dictator, who, when the danger was over, retired again into the community. Addison." Even this reference to Cincinnatus, the temporary dictator with whom George Washington came to be associated, indicates how unstable a concept was republicanism.(13) For although in 458 B.C. Cincinnatus accepted and relinquished absolute power voluntarily, his larger role in the years 462 to 454 was as a scourge of the plebeians--the free commoners of Rome--in their battles with the Roman patricians. Cincinnatus was hardly a mirror in which an American republican could view himself without dark shadows. Republicans themselves might be confused about their own state, in a way that Johnson and his authors could never be confounded about what was and what was not the public, as the attestation in the definition of "republican" implies:
REPU'BLICAN. n.s. [from republick.]
One who thinks a commonwealth without monarchy the best government.
These people are more happy in imagination than the rest of their neighbours, because they think themselves so; though such a chimerical happiness is not peculiar to republicans. Add.
Still, even if the borders of the concept of republic were unclear, it was a pillar of stability when compared to the concept of representation. Against the invariability of the concept of public and the contingency and qualifiedness of that of republic stood the elusiveness of that of representation. The tory notion of representation (here found in proximity to "parliament") is suggested by Johnson's definition of "constituent" (three senses, with one attestation each for the first two) in the fourth edition:
1. The person or thing which constitutes or settles any thing in its peculiar state.
Their first composure and origination requires a higher and nobler constituent than chance. Hale's Origin of Mankind.
2. That which is necessary to the subsistence of any thing.
The obstruction of the mesentery is a great impediment to nutrition; for the lymph in those glands is a necessary constituent of the aliment. Arbuthnot on Aliments.
3. He that deputes another; as, the representatives in parliament disregard their constituents.
Deputation in national politics involved disregard--an idea not in the first edition, but added by Johnson to the fourth edition, as a sign of his own growing conservatism. By searching for "represent" and related words in proximity to "imitation," deception," "truth," "falsity," and their related words I was able to see how utterly unreliable Johnson's attestaters considered all forms of representation, even as they believed that true representation was possible. This unreliability of representation in all its senses was presupposed, even if not always consciously so, in Johnson's tory view and the federalist view of delegation.
The authors of Johnson's attestations believed that accurate representation was indeed possible in that politicians can represent their constituents' wills and interests and in that linguistic and visual representations can accurately convey meanings. Without this faith in accurate representation, most of eighteenth-century thought as we now understand it could not have existed. Johnson himself, indeed, professed to believe that words correspond properly to things. However, Johnson's authors show clearly that representation was acknowledged to be potentially misleading, false, or deceptive. Here are some samples of the hits from the search of "represent*" within fifteen words of "fals*":
As a sense of "belie," with three attestations:
To give a false representation of any thing.
Uncle, for heav'n's sake, comfortable words. ----
---- Should I do so, I should belie my thoughts. Shakespeare.
Tuscan Valerus by force o'ercame,
And not bely'd his mighty father's name. Dryden's Æneid.
In the dispute whate'er I said,
My heart was by my tongue bely'd;
And in my looks you might have read,
How much I argu'd on your side. Prior.
In a sense of "calumniation": "That which we call calumniation, is a malicious and false representation of an enemy's words or actions, to an offensive purpose." In a sense of "colour," with one attestation:
The representation of any thing superficially examined.
Whose wisdom is only of this world, to put false colours upon things, to call good evil, and evil good, against the conviction of their own consciences. Swift.
In a sense of "delusion," with two attestations:
A false representation; illusion; errour; a chimerical thought.
Who therefore seeks in these
True wisdom, finds her not, or by delusion. Milt. Par. Reg.
I waking, view'd with grief the rising sun,
And fondly mourn'd the dear delusion gone. Prior.
In a sense of "image," with one attestation:
A copy; representation; likeness.
Long may'st thou live,
To bear his image and renew his glories! Shakesp. Hen. VI.
In the sense of "misrepresent," with one attestation:
To MISREPRESE'NT. v.a. [mis and represent.]
To represent not as it is; to falsify to disadvantage: mis often signifies not only error, but malice or mischief.
Two qualities necessary to a reader before his judgment should be allowed are, common honesty and common sense; and that no man could have misrepresented that paragraph, unless he were utterly destitute of one or both. Swift.
In an attestation of a sense of "thank":
That Portugal hath yet no more than a suspension of arms; they may thank themselves, because they came so late into the treaty; and, that they came so late, they may thank the whigs, whose false representations they believed. Swift.
One of the results of a proximity search for "represent*" and "dece*" shows, in the attestation of a sense of "hole," that deception and representation could come together to the English mind:
A perforation; a small interstitial vacuity.
Look upon linen that has small holes in it: those holes appear very black, and men are often deceived in taking holes for spots of ink; and painters, to represent holes, make use of black. Boyle on Colours.
If we understand these passages from Johnson's Dictionary as English writers acknowledging the unreliability of representation even if they never abjured it in principle, we can see that the American republicans avoided this acknowledgment during the Revolution. But they were not able to insulate the concept of representation from its larger meaning in the English language of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.
The crisis of representation in late-eighteenth-century American politics and culture followed at least in part from the history of the words republicans and federalists used. Their linkage of "public," "republic," and "representation" led them into a quandary about how an act so ambiguous and unreliable as representation could serve anything so evident as the public, particularly in the shifting state of a republic, in which power and liberty resist each other as republican societies tend to slide into anarchy, tryanny, or democracy. The federalist view was that America was a new, rising republic, perhaps able to weather the many storms that battered republican societies, but that direct forms of representation could not serve its public good. No crisis over the concept of the public had yet beset American literary and political leaders--that crisis would hit in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the possibility of competing and discrete publics became evident--but by the late 1780s the concept of representation had ceased to be a revolutionary engine with a single thrust and had returned to the variety and ambiguity known so well to Johnson's authors. Indeed, Madison's "Federalist," Number 10, often considered a quantum leap forward in political philosophy, restored to the concept of representation a complexity well recorded by Johnson in his attestations from Sidney, Shakespeare, Addison, and other British authors and well available to the American republican literati, even if not much on their minds in the heat of revolution. Webster, in his own dictionary, recapitulated the history of the concept of representation in the definition of the word: "n. likeness, account, appearance for another, a whole body of delegates."(14)
Ironically, the federalist position on representation shared much with Johnson's in his 1775 Taxation No Tyranny.(15) Arguing against the American insurrectionists, Johnson wrote, "We virtually and implicitly allow the institutions of any government of which we enjoy the benefit, and solicit the protection. . . . The business of the publick must be done by delegation. The choice of delegates is made by a select number, and those who are not electors stand idle and helpless spectators of the commonweal, 'wholly unconcerned in the government of themselves.'" Johnson well understood that whig thought had led Americans into assuming that actual representation was part of their inheritance, and he was quick to attempt to dissuade them. "Their ancestors," he wrote, "left a country where the representatives of the people were elected by men particularly qualified, and where those who wanted qualifications, or did not use them, were bound by the decisions of men whom they had not deputed. The colonists are the descendants of men, who either had no votes in elections, or who voluntarily resigned them for something, in their opinion, of more estimation: they have therefore exactly what their ancestors left them, not a vote in making laws, or in constituting legislators, but the happiness of being protected by law, and the duty of obeying it."(16) As Alexander Hamilton understood American federalism, for instance, representative government was perfected not by becoming closer to the wills of the electorate but by freeing it from continual concern with governance and by partitioning the power of the government so that it becomes less likely to be used against the electorate itself.(17) It was the role of Madison, more than of anyone else, to reconcile the tory view and the republican view for the federal nation. American representative government, as Madison conceived it, would exclude the represented from governance, but would also provide institutions of the state--the places the representatives temporarily occupy--that would channel and, indeed, represent the will and interests of the people themselves.(18)
1. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, volumes 1-25, CD-ROM edition (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, and Summerfield, Fl.: Historical Database: 1995-1998). System requirements: PC, Windows 3.1 or later, 386 or later, 2 megabytes of RAM, 1 kilobyte of hard disk storage. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language on CD-ROM, edited by Anne McDermott (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) ISBN 0 521 55765 8 (package of CD-ROM and manual). System requirements: Macintosh, system 7 or later, 4 megabytes of RAM; PC, Windows 3.1 or later, 386 or later, 8 megabytes of RAM. It is worth noting that unlike the many "curriculum products" that have become available, each one of these CD-ROMs declares its financial and intellectual pedigree. The Letters is an electronic publication by a for-profit company of an edition initiated with a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1970 by the Library of Congress and undertaken with Paul H. Smith as editor. With initial funding from the Leverhulme Trust, "The Johnson's Dictionary Project on CD-ROM," as it calls itself, is a "collaboration between Cambridge University Press and the University of Birmingham" (back cover).
2. Robert Darnton, "The New Age of the Book," The New York Review of Books, Volume 46: Number 5 (March 18, 1999): 5-7, quotation p. 5.
3. Samuel H. Beer, To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 164-177.
4. The Federalist, edited, with Introduction and Notes, by Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press), pp. 56-65, quotation p. 62.
5. "An American [Noah Webster]," "The Principle of Government and Commerce," The American Magazine, Volume 1 (December 1787): 9-12; quotation p. 9.
6. Jay Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993).
7. E.g., Richard Allen, [Eulogy for George Washington,] The Independent Chronicle (Boston), January 13-16, 1800: 1; Lemuel Haynes, "The Nature and Importance of True Republicanism" (1801), in Black Preacher to White America: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes, 1774-1833, edited by Richard Newman (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1990), pp. 77-88.
8. The Letters appears in "Folio Infobase," the Dictionary in "Dynatext." Each program is a proprietary product licensed to the publishers of the CD-ROM and is explained in printed material as well as help files stored on the CD-ROM itself. A recent innovation that will probably appear on scholars' CD-ROMs in the future is a set of "anchors" or "hyperlinks" written into the CD-ROM that will allow the user to navigate automatically to sites on the Internet. This innovation is a prominent feature of the Microsoft Encarta Africana Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Black History and Culture, editors, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (U.S.A.: Microsoft Corporation, 1999).
9. Several of Johnson's publications were published in American editions before 1800, but the Dictionary itself was not. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler (Philadelphia: n.p., 1776). Samuel Johnson, The Beauties of Johnson: Consisting of Maxims and Observations, Moral, Critical, and Miscellaneous (Philadelphia: W. Spottswood, 1787). Samuel Johnson, The Prince of Abissinia (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1791). The Dictionary itself was listed for sale by a Williamsburg bookseller in 1775. See "Books in Williamsburg," William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Volume 15, Number 2 (October 1906): 100-113, reference p. 104.
10. An argument for Johnson's influence on Jefferson appears in Herbert Lawrence Ganter, "Jefferson's 'Pursuit of Happiness' and Some Forgotten Men," William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, 2nd ser., Volume 16, Number 4 (October 1936): 558-585, esp. pp. 567-572. For Jefferson on Johnson as the best etymologist of English, see Dumas Malone, The Sage of Monticello, Jefferson and His Time, Volume 6 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981), pp. 188-189.
11. The search capabilities of the Dictionary rest on its being encoded in Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) according to standards for texts recommended by the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Each element of each definition is a category in a database application, so that users can read definitions in a natural way or can organize their reading according to any one of the categories. For instance, a search for all definitions containing "saxon" in their etymology can be performed. A booklet accompanying the Dictionary explains SGML/TEI for this CD-ROM on pp. 45-52.
12. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Croom Helm Ltd, 1976), p. 225.
13. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), pp. 205-206.
14. Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, A Facsimile of the First (1806) Edition, with an Introduction by Philip B. Gove (New York: Bounty Books, 1970), p. 255.
15. Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny, in Samuel Johnson, Political Writings, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 10, edited by Donald J. Greene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), pp. 401-455.
16. Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny, pp. 427, 431.
17. Harvey Flaumenhaft, The Effective Republic: Administration and Constitution in the Thought of Alexander Hamilton (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), pp. 63-65.
18. Beer, To Make a Nation, pp. 279-289.