Noah Webster

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Noah Webster (October 16, 1758 - April 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 made elementary education more secular and less religious. In the U.S. 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.


Noah Webster was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to an established Yankee family. His father Noah Sr. (1722-1813) farmed 90 acres, was justice of the peace and deacon of the local Congregational church, and was captain on the "alarm list" of the local militia. Noah's father was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother Mercy (née Steele; d. 1794) was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. Noah had two brothers (Abraham (1751-1831) and Charles (b. 1762)) and two sisters (Mercy (1749-1820) and Jerusha (1756-1831)).

In 1774, at the age of 16, he began attending Yale College, studying with the learned president of the college Ezra Stiles. Webster's four years at Yale overlapped with the American Revolution, and because of food shortages, many of his college classes were held in Glastonbury, Connecticut. He served in the Connecticut Militia.

He graduated from Yale in 1778. He taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford, and West Hartford. He was admitted to the bar in 1781 and practiced after 1789. Discovering that law was not to his liking, he tried teaching, setting up several very small schools that did not thrive.

Political vision

By 1781, Webster had an expansive view of the new nation. In his brand of American nationalism, the United States was superior to Europe because American values were superior.[1] 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 (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 dedicated his Speller and Dictionary to providing the intellectual foundations for American nationalism. In the 1780s, Webster was an outspoken supporter of the U.S. Constitution. In terms of political theory, he de-emphasized virtue (a core value of federalism) and emphasized widespread ownership of property (a key element of liberalism).[2]

Webster married well and had joined the elite in Hartford but never had much money. In 1793, Alexander Hamilton loaned him $1500 to move to New York City and edit a newspaper for the new Federalist Party. In December, Webster 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 Democratic-Republicans as "a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot," "an incurable lunatic," and "a deceitful newsmonger ... Pedagogue and Quack." Fellow Federalist William 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 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."[3]

Webster followed French radical thought and was one of the few Americans who admired Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He urged a neutral foreign policy when France and Britain went to war in 1793. But when French minister Edmund Genêt 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, and he served in the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1800 and 1802-7.


As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They were poorly staffed with untrained teachers, and poorly equipped with unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. The most popular American school text book was the old New England Primer, which was mainly used to catechize the young students after a brief, rudimentary instruction in reading. In 1782, Webster began writing a three volume compendium, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language.[4] This 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. 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."[5]

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. Ellis argues that Webster anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. 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. [6]

The speller was originally entitled 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.

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.

Slowly he changed the spelling of words, such that they became 'Americanized'. He chose s over c in words like defense; he changed the re to er in words like center; he dropped one of the l's in traveller; at first he kept the u in words like colour or favour, but he dropped it in later editions.

Unauthorized printing of his books, and disparate copyright laws that varied among the thirteen states, led Webster to champion the federal copyright law that was successfully passed in 1790.

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 replaced was the secular successor to The New England Primer with its explicitly biblical injunctions."[7] 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.[8]

Bynack (1984) examines Webster in relation to his commitment to the idea of a unified American national culture that would stave off the decline of republican virtues and solidarity. Webster acquired his perspective on language from such theorists as Mauertuis, 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.


Webster began work on his proposed dictionary in 1800, a project which he estimated would take between 5 and 10 years. Meanwhile, he was supporting himself and his family with the royalty earnings from his Speller. A few years into the project, which proved more time consuming than he had originally anticipated, he released, in 1806, an abbreviated version under the title of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, partly in an effort to supplement his income.

He then continued to work on the American Dictionary of the English Language, which he finally completed in 1825, and published in 1828. To supplement the documentation of the etymology of the words, Webster studied two dozen languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit. Webster hoped to standardize American speech, since Americans in different parts of the country spelled, pronounced, and used words differently.

During the course of his work on the book, the family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts in 1812, where Webster 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.

Webster completed his dictionary during his year abroad in 1825 working in Paris and at the University of Cambridge. His book defined 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had never appeared in any earlier dictionary. As a spelling reformer, Webster believed that English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex, so his dictionary introduced American English spellings like "color" instead of "colour," "wagon" instead of "waggon," "center" instead of "centre," and "honor" instead of "honour." He also added American words that were not in Samuel Johnson's famous dictionaries like "skunk" and "squash." At the age of seventy, Webster published his great dictionary in 1828. It only sold 2,500 copies. He was forced to mortgage his home to bring out a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt. In 1840, the second edition was published in two volumes.

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 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.[9] 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.[10] Webster published his own version of the Bible in 1833, which he called the "Common Version." He used the King James Version as a base, and consulted the Hebrew and Greek along with various other versions and commentaries.


  1. Joseph J. Ellis, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, page 170
  2. See Webster, "Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution" (1787).
  3. Ellis, 199, 206.
  4. See full text at A Grammatical Institute of the English Language.
  5. Ellis, 172.
  6. Ellis, 174.
  7. Ellis, 175.
  8. John H. Westerhoff III, McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America (1978).
  9. Snyder (1990).
  10. Rollins (1980).