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Webster, Noahfree

(1758–1843)
  • Melvin Yazawa

Noah Webster (1758–1843)

by James Herring, 1833

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Webster, Noah (1758–1843), lexicographer, was born on 16 October 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut, the fourth of the five children of Noah Webster (1722–1813), farmer, a descendant of John Webster, one of the earliest migrants to Connecticut, and Mercy Steele (bap. 1727, d. 1794), great-great-granddaughter of William Bradford of Plymouth Colony fame. Prepared for college by his local pastor, the bookish Webster gained admission to Yale College in 1774. Although the War of Independence 'occasioned various interruptions', including, Webster later recalled, his having to endure the 'hardships of a soldier' (Autobiographies, 133) as a volunteer with the militia in 1777, he completed his studies in a timely fashion and received the BA degree in 1778. Knowing that his father had been forced to mortgage the family farm in order to pay for his years at Yale and, therefore, that he should expect no further assistance, Webster accepted a teaching assignment in Glastonbury. Within a year he moved to Hartford to teach while studying the law under Oliver Ellsworth, an eminent jurist who went on to become chief justice of the United States. Webster completed his legal training by assisting Jedidiah Strong in Litchfield and gained admission to the bar in 1781. With few clients to sustain his legal practice, Webster returned to teaching, first in Sharon, Connecticut, in 1781, then in Goshen, New York, in 1782.

About this time Webster conceived of a spelling book better suited to American schoolchildren than Thomas Dilworth's A New Guide to the English Tongue, the English speller that had served as the standard in America since the 1760s. The result—after, according to Webster, he had sacrificed 'ease, pleasure, and health in the execution of it' (Unger, 59)—was a spelling book published in 1783 as the first part of Webster's A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (the second part was a grammar published in 1784; the third, a reader published in 1785). The speller, which he retitled The American Spelling Book in 1787, was intended, Webster declared, not only to correct Dilworth's errors but 'to promote virtue and patriotism' (Autobiographies, 79) in the new nation. It constituted his first substantial contribution to the 'common treasure of patriotic exertions' (ibid., 78), and its success must have been gratifying to him. By 1829, when he composed an entirely new edition under the title The Elementary Spelling Book, Webster estimated that ten million copies of his speller had been printed. Only sales of the Bible equalled those of The American Spelling Book for many of these years. Webster's other publications did not approach the financial or popular success realized by the spelling book, but their underlying assumption was essentially the same: political independence must be coupled with cultural nationalism. His reader, for example, included the Declaration of Independence, the poetry of Philip Freneau and Joel Barlow, the speeches of George Washington and John Hancock, and other 'American pieces … in order to call the minds of our youth from ancient fables … & fix them upon objects immediately interesting in this country' (Malone). The want of 'proper books' to accomplish this was a principal defect which, 'since the Revolution, is become inexcusable' (F. Rudolph, ed., Essays on Education in the Early Republic, 1965, 64).

The difficulties Webster encountered in seeking copyright protection for his spelling book confirmed his sense of the inadequacies of the union under the articles of confederation. Not surprisingly, especially in view of his patriotic programme of education, Webster was an ardent supporter of the proposed constitution in 1787–8. Cultural nationalism and constitutional unionism were two sides of the same coin for Webster. With the American character still unformed, the new republic could ill afford factional contests that were 'liable to all the evils of jealous dispute … nay, liable to a civil war', he wrote in Sketches of American Policy (1785). A more perfect union bolstered by a common American language was the surest basis for national greatness.

Webster married Rebecca (1766–1847), daughter of Boston merchant William Greenleaf, on 26 October 1789, and they had two sons, one of whom died shortly after birth, and six daughters. For much of the 1790s Webster was the editor of the American Minerva (renamed the Commercial Advertiser in 1797), a daily newspaper he founded in New York in 1793 with federalist backing. By 1798, however, he had grown weary of the factional infighting among the federalists after Washington's retirement and decided to move to New Haven to resume his linguistic work in earnest. Convinced now more than ever that the bonds of national affection were contingent upon a 'uniformity of language' (N. Webster, Dissertations on the English Language, 1789), he redoubled his efforts at eliminating regional variations of spelling and pronunciation. He commenced working on a dictionary he envisioned as the pinnacle of the American plan of education he had launched in 1783 with the first edition of his speller.

That most American schoolchildren continued to rely on dictionaries compiled in Britain was unacceptable. 'New circumstances, new modes of life, new laws, new ideas … give rise to new words', Webster announced in an advance advertisement of his work; hence it was essential that 'we should have Dictionaries of the American Language' (Unger, 247, 248). His first compilation, A Compendious Dictionary of the American Language (1806), contained over 40,000 entries, of which some 5000 were of American or Native American derivation. Even before its completion, however, Webster began compiling what he hoped would be the most comprehensive English-language dictionary ever produced. The final product did not disappoint. An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in two volumes in 1828, was an instant success. Containing 70,000 words, it was almost universally acclaimed to be the best English dictionary extant. By differentiating between American and English usages, including colloquial and idiomatic expressions that were peculiarly American, and incorporating lessons on morality and patriotism into its definitions, the dictionary also advanced Webster's idea of weaning Americans away from British authorities. Adopted by congress, state legislatures, the courts, and classrooms throughout the nation as the new standard for spelling and pronunciation, it went a long way towards making Webster's name synonymous with dictionary in the United States. Webster died in New Haven of pleurisy on 28 May 1843, and was buried in the local Grove Street cemetery.

Sources

  • H. G. Unger, Noah Webster: life and times of an American patriot (1998)
  • R. M. Rollins, The long journey of Noah Webster (1980)
  • H. R. Warfel, Noah Webster: schoolmaster to America (1936)
  • K. A. Snyder, Defining Noah Webster: mind and morals in the early republic (1990)
  • E. J. Monaghan, A common heritage: Noah Webster's blue-back speller (1983)
  • The autobiographies of Noah Webster: from the letters and essays, memoir, and diary, ed. R. M. Rollins (1989)
  • W. F. Vantorella, ‘Noah Webster’, American writers before 1800: a biographical and critical dictionary, ed. J. A. Levernier and D. R. Wilmes (1983), 1530–41
  • N. K. Risjord, ‘Webster, Noah’, ANB
  • K. Malone, ‘Webster, Noah’, DAB

Archives

  • Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford
  • Morgan L.
  • NYPL
  • Yale U.
  • American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Mathew Carey MSS
  • Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, Poulson family MSS

Likenesses

  • W. Verstille, miniature, 1788, Litchfield Historical Society, Connecticut
  • S. F. B. Morse, portrait, 1823, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan
  • J. Herring, portrait, 1833, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Portrait Gallery [see illus.]
J. A. Garraty & M. C. Carnes, eds., , 24 vols. (1999)
, 21 vols. (1928–37), repr. in 11 vols. (1964); 10 suppls. (1944–96)