Noah Webster - Father of “American” Culture and Image in the New United States
For many of us today, the name Noah Webster Jr. is mainly remembered as the author of An American Dictionary of the English Language,” the first truly American comprehensive dictionary. Webster, however, was much more. He was a lexicographer and a language reformer, often referred to as the Father of American Scholarship and Education. In his lifetime he was also a lawyer, schoolmaster, author, newspaper editor and an outspoken politician. In today’s post, we are going to take a look at this man of many talents and hopefully come to better appreciate his contributions to American life, language, and culture in the 19th century.
Webster was born in the Western Reserve of Hartford (which became West Hartford, Connecticut) to an established family on October 16, 1758. His father, Noah Webster Sr. was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother Mercy Webster 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.
Although Webster's father never attended college, he was intellectually curious and prized education. As a result, Webster's mother spent long hours instructing her children in spelling, mathematics, and music. At age six, Webster began attending a run down, one-room primary school 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. It is quite possible that Webster's experiences there motivated him to improve the educational experience of future generations.
At age fourteen, his church pastor began tutoring him in Latin and Greek to prepare him for entering Yale College. Webster enrolled at Yale just before his 16th birthday, studying during his senior year with Ezra Stiles, Yale's president. His four years at Yale overlapped the American Revolutionary War and, because of food shortages and the possibility of British invasion, many of his classes had to be held in other towns. Webster served in the Connecticut Militia. Coming of age during the American Revolution, he embraced many of the radical ideas and attitudes associated with the country’s new freedom and yet was stalwartly linked to the traditions of his Puritan ancestors.
After graduating Yale in 1778, Webster taught at schools in Glastonbury, Hartford, and West Hartford, while studying law under future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. Eventually, the strain of studying law and teaching full time became too much and he quit his legal studies for a year and lapsed into depression. Webster then found another practicing attorney to tutor him, completed his studies and passed the bar examination in 1781. As the Revolutionary War was still going on, he could not find work as a lawyer. He did, however, receive a master's degree from Yale by giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class.
In 1782, Webster founded a small private school, catering to wealthy parents, in Goshen, New York, and there he began to test many of his educational theories and incorporate them into books. In 1783, Webster published Volume 1 of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. By 1785, he had written his speller, a grammar book, and a reader for elementary schools. Webster dedicated his Speller and Dictionary to supplying an intellectual foundation for American nationalism.
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.
Webster's Speller was entirely secular by design. It ended with two pages of important dates in American history, beginning with Columbus's discovery of America in 1492 and ending with the battle of Yorktown in 1781. There was no mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events. Regarding this, Webster wrote: "Let sacred things be appropriated for sacred purposes." 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.
Webster and American Nationalism
Webster was by nature a revolutionary, seeking American independence from the culture of Europe. By 1781, Webster had an expansive view of the new nation. American nationalism was superior to Europe because American values were superior, he claimed:
“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 (an 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 modern Empires fade into obscurity.”
Webster believed that the fledgling country needed its own textbooks and a codified language to support American nationalism and around which to unite. In another essay he wrote:
“Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science, and government. Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.”
Webster got his perspective on language from such theorists as Maupertuis, Michaelis, and Herder. There he found the belief that a nation's linguistic forms and the thoughts correlated with them shaped individuals' behavior. Thus, the etymological clarification and reform of American English promised to improve citizens' manners and thereby preserve republican purity and social stability. This presupposition animated Webster's Speller and Grammar.
Throughout the 1780s, Webster authored numerous essays promoting education reform and other cultural concerns, went on a national lecture tour, established the American Magazine, promoted the sales of his textbooks, and worked to advance copyright law. The support of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and many other national leaders during this time made Webster’s efforts to market his books successful.
In 1785, two years before the Constitutional Convention and the printing of the Federalist Papers, Webster wrote Sketches of American Policy, in which he outlined his ideas for a new government. He supported a powerful national government with strong executive authority and a Congress with broad powers to create laws—all of which were incorporated in the Constitution. Unfortunately, his hopes that the new Constitution would include universal education and the end of slavery were not realized. From 1787 to 1789, Webster was an outspoken supporter of the new Constitution. In October 1787, he wrote a pamphlet entitled "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.
In 1789, Webster married Boston-born Rebecca Greenleaf and settled down briefly in Hartford to set up a law practice. Getting involved with city government, he pioneered one of the first workmen’s compensation insurance programs and helped found the antislavery group the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom. The same year that he married, Webster published a compilation of his speeches in Dissertations on the English Language, which proposed broad spelling reforms.
Before long, however, Webster claimed to hear a patriotic calling and desired to move to New York City. In 1793, Alexander Hamilton lent him $1,500 to move to New York City. In December, he founded New York's first daily newspaper American Minerva (later known as the Commercial Advertiser), which he edited 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 Federalist spokesman, he defended the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, especially their policy of neutrality between Britain and France. He especially criticized the excesses of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. When French ambassador Citizen Genêt set up a network of pro-Jacobin "Democratic-Republican Societies", that entered American politics and attacked President Washington, he condemned them. He later defended Jay's Treaty between the United States and Britain. As a result, 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.”
Development of Webster’s Dictionary
Webster moved his family to New Haven in 1798. Concerned that two Americans had already authored dictionaries, Webster began working on his own dictionary. In 1806 he published the 40,600-word A Compendious Dictionary of the American Language. This publication shocked Webster’s numerous critics since it did not notably alter spellings but instead applied many reforms that had been inconsistent in previous dictionaries.
Following the Compendious Dictionary, Webster began working to overthrow Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, a British work considered the language resource of the day. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language; it took twenty-six years to complete. To evaluate the etymology of words, Webster learned twenty-eight languages, including Old English, Gothic, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit. Webster hoped to standardize American speech, since Americans in different parts of the country used different languages. They also spelled, pronounced, and used English words differently. Several times Webster ran out of money, but he received financial support from statesman and jurist John Jay and other prominent Americans who wanted to see the book finished.
Webster completed the dictionary in 1825 at the age of 70. This was the last time that one person alone developed a major dictionary. It included an impressive 70,000 words, definitions, and explanations of words’ origins. Of these 70,000, twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster preferred spellings that matched pronunciation better. While it has often been assumed that characteristically American spellings were invented by Noah Webster, this is not the case. While he was very influential in popularizing certain spellings in America, he did not originate them. Rather, he chose already existing options such as center, color and check on such grounds as simplicity, analogy or etymology. He also added American words, like "skunk", that did not appear in British dictionaries. This colossal work came to symbolize a unified national language, and for Webster, was essential for nation building.
The first edition was printed in 1828 under the title An American Dictionary of the English Language and sold for $20 per set. 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 for the rest of his life he had debt problems. In 1840, the second edition was published in two volumes.
Webster’s Other Accomplishments (and Faults)
While writing his American Dictionary, Webster moved his family to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he became involved with state politics and experimented with agriculture, which had been an ongoing interest. Finding the quality of local education unacceptable, he helped to found Amherst Academy, which opened in 1815 with 90 girls and more than 100 boys. Webster believed that a democracy required an educated public and that both boys and girls should be instructed. This, however, was a position that he would later change. After his change of opinion, he argued that women should be educated enough to raise children, but no further. They should never go above their station and should never read novels. He felt that female education should be in support of the husband, the family and caring for the house. Nonetheless, he helped to establish several schools including Union School in New Haven. Before leaving Amherst in 1821 to go back to New Haven, Webster would help found one more school, Amherst College.
Initially supportive of the abolitionist movement, Webster helped found the Connecticut Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1791. However, by the 1830's he began to disagree with the movement's arguments that Americans who did not actively oppose the institution of slavery were complicit in the system. In 1832, Webster wrote and published a history textbook titled History of the United States, which omitted any reference to the role of slavery in American history and included racist characterizations of African Americans. The textbook also "spoke of whiteness as the supreme race and declared Anglo Saxons as the only true Americans." In 1837, Webster criticized his daughter Eliza for her support for the abolitionist movement, writing that:
"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. 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."
In 1830, the aging Webster traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with President Andrew Jackson and to convince Congress to enact new federal copyright laws. During the 1830s, Webster continued to author books and even tried his hand at updating and americanizing the most popular book in America: The Bible. Living out the remainder of his days in the house that he had specially designed on the corner of New Haven’s Temple and Grove streets, Webster died on May 28, 1843.
Webster was a pioneer in many fields. His dictionaries, spellers, and copious writings were part of America’s cultural revolution. His political theories influenced the framers of the Constitution and helped shape our existing laws. His social beliefs, such as his early support for the abolition of slavery and a safety net for the working class, would take another century to fully materialize. Yet, despite all of this, Webster’s name will always be synonymous with the dictionary.
In 1847 (four years after his death), George and Charles Merriam gained the rights to Webster’s work and published their first edition of the dictionary in Springfield, Massachusetts. Selling for a then-hefty $6 per copy, the dictionary met with wide popularity, ensuring Noah Webster’s legacy as the father of the American English language and a creator of the national identity.
We hope you enjoyed today’s post on Noah Webster and the effect he had on19th century America. Hopefully, this article will spark interest in learning more about Noah Webster and his various books and essays. Please join us again in two weeks when we will look at Tea: Its history and its importance in early America.
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Ford, E. E. (1912). Notes on the Life of Noah Webster (Vol. 1). New York: Privately Printed.
Ford, E. E. (1912). Notes on the Life of Noah Webster (Vol. 2). New York: Privately Printed.
Maloney, W. A. (2012, June/July). Early American Made a Living from Copyright. Retrieved from Copyright Gov: https://www.copyright.gov/history/lore/pdfs/201206%20CLore_JuneJuly2012.pdf
Scudder, H. E. (1882). American Men of Letters. Noah Webster. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company.
West Hartford Historical Society. (n.d.). Noah Webster History. Retrieved February 10, 2023, from Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society: https://noahwebsterhouse.org/noahwebsterhistory/