Webster Noah

Noah Webster (1758-1843), 4th cousin 8x removed

Noah Webster, portrait by Samuel F. B. Morse (1823), Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

Noah Webster is an American lexicographer, textbook pioneer, English spelling reformer, political writer, editor and prolific author. He was also one of the founders of Amherst College (Amherst, Massachusetts). He has been called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education.”  His blue-backed speller books taught five generations of American children how to spell and read and made their education more secular and less religious.  According to Ellis[1] he gave Americans “a secular catechism to the nation-state”.  His name became synonymous with “dictionary,” especially the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary that was first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language.

 

Webster was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, to an established Yankee family.  His father, Noah Sr. (1722–1813), was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster.  His mother Mercy (née Steele; 1727–1794) was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony.  His father was primarily a farmer though he was also deacon of the local Congregational church, captain of the town’s militia and a founder of a local book society – a precursor to the public library.

A 1932 statue of Webster by Korczak Ziółkowski stands in front of the public library of West Hartford, Connecticut.

A 1932 statue of Webster by Korczak Ziółkowski stands in front of the public library of West Hartford, Connecticut.

Though he never attended college, Webster’s father was intellectually curious and prized education.  His mother spent long hours teaching Noah and his siblings spelling, mathematics and music.  At the age of six, Webster began attending a dilapidated one room primary school that had been built by West Hartford’s Ecclesiastical Society.  Years later, he described the teachers as the “dregs of humanity” and complained that the instruction was mainly in religion.  Webster’s negative experiences in primary school motivated him to improve the education experience of future generations.

At the age of fourteen, he began receiving tutoring in Latin and Greek from his church pastor to prepare for entrance to Yale College.  He enrolled at Yale just shy of his 16th birthday, studying during his senior year with the learned Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president.  His four years at Yale overlapped with the American Revolutionary War, and because of food shortages and threatened invasions by the British, many of his college classes were held in other towns.  He served in the Connecticut Militia.  His father had mortgaged the farm to send Webster to Yale, but the son was now on his own and had no more to do with his family.

Webster lacked firm career plans after graduating from Yale in 1778, later writing that a liberal education “disqualifies a man for business”.  He briefly taught school in Glastonbury, found the working conditions to be harsh and the pay low, then left to study law to increase in earning power.  While studying law under the mentorship of Oliver Ellsworth, the future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Webster held a full-time job teaching in Hartford – a schedule he found grueling and ultimately impossible to sustain.

After quitting his legal studies for a year and lapsing into a depression, he found another practicing attorney to mentor him, completing his studies and passing the bar examination in 1781.  However, with the Revolutionary War still ongoing, he could not find employment as a lawyer.  He picked up a masters degree from Yale for giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class, and later that year opened a small, private school in western Connecticut that was an instant success, though he quickly closed it and left town – likely due to a failed romance.  Turning to literary work as a way to overcome his losses and channel his ambitions, he began writing a series of well-received articles for a prominent New England newspaper justifying and praising the American Revolution and arguing that the separation from Britain was permanent.  He then founded a private school catering to wealthy parents in Goshen, New York, and by 1785, he had written his speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools.  Proceeds from continuing sales of the popular blue-backed speller enabled Webster to spend many years working on his famous dictionary.

Webster was by nature a revolutionary, seeking American independence from the cultural thralldom to Britain.  To replace it he sought to create a utopian America, cleansed of luxury and ostentation and the champion of freedom.  By 1781, Webster had an expansive view of the new nation.   From 1787 to 1789 Webster was an outspoken supporter of the new Constitution.  In October 1787, he wrote a pamphlet titled “An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution Proposed by the Late Convention Held at Philadelphia,” published under the pen name “A Citizen of America.”  The pamphlet was influential, particularly outside New York State.

As a Federalist spokesman, he was repeatedly denounced by the Jeffersonian Republicans as “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” and “a deceitful newsmonger … Pedagogue and Quack.”  Rival Federalist pamphleteer “Peter Porcupine” (William Cobbett) said Webster’s pro-French views made 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.”  Webster, the consummate master of words, was distressed.  Even 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.”

Webster followed French radical thought and urged a neutral foreign policy when France and Britain went to war in 1793.  But when French minister Citizen Genêt set up a network of pro-Jacobin “Democratic-Republican Societies” that entered American politics and attacked President 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 one of the most prolific authors in the new nation, publishing textbooks, political essays, a report on infectious diseases, and newspaper articles for his Federalist party.  He wrote so much that a modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages.  He moved back to New Haven in 1798 and was elected as a Federalist to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1800 and 1802–1807.

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.  They had poor underpaid staff, no desks, and unsatisfactory textbooks that 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 “our native tongue” from “the clamour 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.  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.”  This meant that the people-at-large must control the language.  Popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.

The Speller was arranged so that it could be easily taught to students, and it progressed by age.  From his own experiences as a teacher, Webster thought the Speller should be simple and gave an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation.  He believed students learned most readily when he broke a complex problem into its component parts and had each pupil master one part before moving to the next.  Webster said that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks.  Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a three-year-old how to read.  They could not do it until age five.  He organized his speller accordingly, beginning with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.

The speller was originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language.  Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book.  Most people called it the “Blue-Backed Speller” because of its blue cover, and for the next one hundred years, Webster’s book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words.  It was the most popular American book of its time.  By 1837 it had sold 15 million copies, and some 60 million by 1890 – reaching the majority of young students in the nation’s first century.  Its royalty of a half-cent per copy was enough to sustain Webster in his other endeavors.  It also helped create the popular contests known as spelling bees.

Slowly, edition by edition, Webster changed the spelling of words, making them “Americanized.”  He chose s over c in words like defense, he changed the re to er in words like center, and he dropped one of the Ls in traveler.  At first he kept the u in words like colour or favour but dropped it in later editions.  He also changed tongue to tung – an innovation that never caught on.

Part three of his Grammatical Institute (1785) was a reader designed to uplift the mind and “diffuse the principles of virtue and patriotism.”  “In the choice of pieces,” he explained, “I have not been inattentive to the political interests of America.   Several of those masterly addresses of Congress, written at the commencement of the late Revolution, contain such noble, just, and independent sentiments of liberty and patriotism, that I cannot help wishing to transfuse them into the breasts of the rising generation.”

Students received the usual quota of Plutarch, Shakespeare, Swift, and Addison, as well as such Americans as Joel Barlow’s Vision of Columbus, Timothy Dwight’s Conquest of Canaan, and John Trumbull’s poem M’Fingal.  He included excerpts from Tom Paine’s The Crisis and an essay by Thomas Day calling for the abolition of slavery in accord with the Declaration of Independence.

Webster’s Speller was entirely secular.  It ended with two pages of important dates in American history, beginning with Columbus’s in 1492 and ending with the battle of Yorktown in 1781.  There was no mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events.  “Let sacred things be appropriated for sacred purposes,” wrote Webster.  As Ellis explains, “Webster began to construct a secular catechism to the nation-state.  Here was the first appearance of ‘civics’ in American schoolbooks.  In this sense, Webster’s speller becoming what was to be the secular successor to The New England Primer with its explicitly biblical injunctions.”  In turn after 1840 Webster’s books lost market share to the McGuffey Eclectic Readers of William Holmes McGuffey, which sold over 120 million copies.

Title page of Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, circa 1830–1840

Title page of Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, circa 1830–1840

Though it now has an honored place in the history of American English, Webster’s first dictionary only sold 2,500 copies.  He was forced to mortgage his home to develop a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt.  In 1840, the second edition was published in two volumes.  On 28 May 1843, a few days after he had completed revising an appendix to the second edition, and with much of his efforts with the dictionary still unrecognized, Noah Webster died.

In general, Webster’s endeavors were at first poorly received.  Culturally conservative Federalists denounced the work as radical – too inclusive in its lexicon and even bordering on vulgar.  Meanwhile Webster’s old foes the Republicans attacked the man, labeling him mad for such an undertaking.  Webster’s dictionaries were a redefinition of Americanism within the context of an emergent and unstable American socio-political and cultural identity.  Webster’s identification of his project as a “federal language” shows his competing impulses towards regularity and innovation in historical terms.  Perhaps the contradictions of Webster’s project comprised part of a larger dialectical play between liberty and order within Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary political debates.  Webster’s dictionaries dominated the English speaking world.  In 1850, for example, Blackie and Son in Glasgow published the first general dictionary of English that relied heavily upon pictorial illustrations integrated with the text.  Its The Imperial Dictionary, English, Technological, and Scientific, Adapted to the Present State of Literature, Science, and Art; On the Basis of Webster’s English Dictionary used Webster’s for most of their text, adding some additional technical words that went with illustrations of machinery.

Webster in early life was something of a freethinker, but in 1808 he became a convert to Calvinistic orthodoxy, and thereafter became a devout Congregationalist who preached the need to Christianize the nation.  Webster grew increasingly authoritarian and elitist, fighting against the prevailing grain of Jacksonian Democracy.  Webster viewed language as a tool to control unruly thoughts.  His American Dictionary emphasized the virtues of social control over human passions and individualism, submission to authority, and fear of God.  They were necessary for the maintenance of the American social order.  As he grew older, Webster’s attitudes changed from those of an optimistic revolutionary in the 1780s to those of a pessimistic critic of man and society by the 1820s.  His 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume.  Webster considered education “useless without the Bible.”  Webster released his own edition of the Bible in 1833, called the Common Version. He used the King James Version (KJV) as a base and consulted the Hebrew and Greek along with various other versions and commentaries.  Webster molded the KJV to correct grammar, replaced words that were no longer used, and did away with words and phrases that could be seen as offensive.

Webster helped found the Connecticut Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1791, but by the 1830s rejected the new tone among abolitionists that emphasized Americans who tolerated slavery were themselves sinners.  In 1837, Webster warned his daughter about her fervent support of the abolitionist cause.  Webster wrote, “slavery is a great sin and a general calamity – but it is not our sin, though it may prove to be a terrible calamity to us in the north.  But we cannot legally interfere with the South on this subject.”  He added, “To come north to preach and thus disturb our peace, when we can legally do nothing to effect this object, is, in my view, highly criminal and the preachers of abolitionism deserve the penitentiary.”

Webster moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1812, where he helped to found Amherst College.  In 1822, the family moved back to New Haven, and Webster was awarded an honorary degree from Yale the following year.  He is buried in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery.

 

 

Noah Webster (1758 – 1843), 4th cousin 8x removed – Noah Webster (1722 – 1813) – Daniel Webster (1693 – 1765)  – John Webster (1653 – 1694) – Robert Webster (1619 – 1676) – John Webster (1590 – 1661) – Mary Webster (1623 – 1687) – Jonathan Hunt (1637 – 1691) – Mary Hunt (1679 – 1767) – Noah Sheldon (1706 – 1748) – Hannah Sheldon (1742 – 1818) – Phineas King (1761 – 1810) – Henry King (1787 – 1871) – Laura Ann King (1811 – 1883) – Harriet Allen Clarke (1839 – 1898) – Clarence Clark Hamlin (1868 – 1940) – Elizabeth Gunnell Hamlin (1901 – 1982) – Tor Martin Hylbom (1939 – 2009) – Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom

 

[1] Joseph Ellis. After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (1979).

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