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Noah Webster

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Noah Webster (October 16, 1758 - May 28, 1843) was an American lexicographer, textbook author, spelling reformer, political writer, and editor. He has been called the "Father of American Scholarship and Education." His Blue-backed Speller books taught five generations of children in the United States how to spell and read, and in the U.S. his name became synonymous with "dictionary," especially the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary which was first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language.


Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758, in the West Division of Hartford, Connecticut to an agricultural colonial family. His father was a farmer and a weaver. Noah's siblings were his brothers, Charles and Abraham, and his sisters, Mercy and Jerusha. His father was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony.

At the age of 16, he began attending Yale, the sole college in Connecticut. His years at Yale overlapped with the American Revolutionary War, and because of food shortages, many of his college classes were held in Glastonbury, Connecticut. During the American Revolution he served in the Connecticut Militia.

He graduated from Yale in 1778. Unable to afford law school, he taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford, and West Hartford. He earned his law degree in 1781 but never practiced. Instead he tried teaching, setting up several very small schools that did not thrive.

Political Vision

Webster by 1781 had an expansive view of the new nation. American nationalism was superior to Europe because American values were superior, he explained. [Ellis 170]

America sees the absurdities--she sees the kingdoms of Europe, disturbed by wrangling sectaries, or their commerce, population and improvements of every kind cramped and retarded, because the human mind like the body is fettered 'and bound fast by the chords of policy and superstition': She laughs at their folly and shuns their errors: She founds her empire upon the idea of universal toleration: She admits all religions into her bosom--She secures the sacred rights of every individual; and (astonishing absurdity to Europeans!) she sees a thousand discordant opinions live in the strictest harmony ... it will finally raise her to a pitch of greatness and lustre, before which the glory of ancient Greece and Rome shall dwindle to a point, and the splendor of modem Empires fade into obscurity.

Webster dedicated his Speller and Dictionary to providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism. In the 1780s Noah Webster was an outspoken Federalist. In terms of political theory he deemphasized virtue (a core value of republicanism) and emphasized widespread ownership of property (a key element of liberalism). [1].

Webster married well and had joined the elite in Hartford, but was strapped for money. In 1793 Alexander Hamilton loaned him $1500 to move to New York City and edit a Federalist newspaper. In December he founded New York's first daily newspaper, American Minerva (later known as The Commercial Advertiser). He edited it for four years writing the equivalent of 20 volumes of articles and editorials. He also published the semi-weekly publication, The Herald, A Gazette for the country (later known as The New York Spectator). As a partisan he soon was denounced by the Jeffersonian Republicans as "a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot," "an incurable lunatic," and "a deceitful newsmonger ... Pedagogue and Quack." Fellow Federalist Cobbett labeled him "a traitor to the cause of Federalism", calling him "a toad in the service of sans-cullottism," "a prostitute wretch," "a great fool, and a barefaced liar," "a spiteful viper," and "a maniacal pedant." The master of words was distressed. Even the the use of words like "the people," "democracy," and "equality" in public debate, bothered him for such words were "metaphysical abstractions that either have no meaning, or at least none that mere mortals can comprehend." [Ellis 199, 206]

Webster always admired French radical thought, and unlike most Federalists he did not recoil at the execution of King Louis XVI. He urged a neutral foreign policy. But when French ambassador Edmund Genкt set up a network of pro-Jacobin "Democratic Republican societies" that entered American politics and attacked Washington, Webster condemned them. He called on fellow Federalist editors to "all agree to let the clubs alone--publish nothing for or against them. They are a plant of exotic and forced birth: the sunshine of peace will destroy them."

For decades he was the most prolific author in the new nation, publishing textbooks, political essays for his Federalist party, and newspaper articles at a remarkable rate (a modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages.)

The Websters moved back to New Haven in 1798.

Speller and Dictionary

As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They could be overcrowded, with up to seventy children of all ages crammed into one-room schoolhouses, poorly staffed with untrained teachers, and poorly equipped with no desks and unsatisfactory textbooks which came from England. Webster thought that Americans should learn from American books, so he began writing a three volume compendium, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The work consisted of a speller (published in 1783), a grammar (published in 1784), and a reader (published in 1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely American approach to training children. His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue of "our native tongue" from "the clamor of pedantry" that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation; Second Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was "the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions," which meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language. "The truth is general custom is the rule of speaking--and every deviation from this must be wrong." [Ellis 172]




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