By Christopher Dobbs
Noah Webster Jr. is best remembered as the author of the dictionary most often called, simply, “Webster’s,” but whose original 1828 title was An American Dictionary of the English Language. Even with today’s spell-check and online resources, many Americans still think “Webster’s” when they have a question regarding spelling and word definitions.
Yet, as major a contribution as that is, Noah Webster’s influence on American life and language is larger than many of us know. He was an education reformer, political activist, author of textbooks, pioneer in epidemiology, newspaper editor, and an early antislavery advocate. This Connecticut polymath is also considered the “father of American copyright law.” Webster even saw his American Dictionary as being more than a convenient reference; he regarded its contributions to standardized language usage and spelling as integral to building a new nation.
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. His life and accomplishments reflect a blend of revolutionary spirit and Old World traditionalism, and he played a critical cultural role in defining America’s national identity.
On his paternal side, Webster’s great-great-grandfather, John Webster, had journeyed with Thomas Hooker from Massachusetts to help found the Connecticut Colony and later served as governor. His maternal side could link its New England lineage back to William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony. Noah Webster Jr. was born into this background on October 16, 1758, in the West Division of Hartford, now known as West Hartford, to Noah Webster Sr. and Mercy Steel Webster. Noah was one of five children and grew up on his father’s farm.
It was clear that he had a gift for language, so his parents arranged for him to be tutored and in 1774, at the age of 16, he enrolled at Yale College. The rebellious spirit of Yale, a brief stint in the West Division’s militia while a student, and greeting George Washington in New Haven instilled patriotic zeal in the young Webster. He graduated in 1778, taught at schools in Glastonbury, Hartford, and West Hartford, and studied law in Litchfield. In 1782, Webster was appointed to a teaching position in Goshen, New York, and there he began to test many of his educational theories and incorporate them into a book.
In 1783, Webster published Volume 1 of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (a.k.a., The American Spelling Book but best known for the color of its binding as the Blue-Backed Speller). Webster believed that the fledgling country needed its own textbooks and a codified language around which to unite. 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.” His speller, later reader, and grammar all incorporated American heroes and authors with the goal of creating national symbols to galvanize the country. Between 1783 and the early 1900s it is estimated that Webster’s spelling book sold nearly 100 million copies. Over 30 influential textbooks followed, including History of the United States, the nation’s first full-length history.
During the 1780s Webster wrote 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 very 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. (His hopes that the new Constitution would include universal education and the end of slavery were not realized).
Developing a Dictionary
In 1789, Webster married Boston-born Rebecca Greenleaf and settled down briefly in Hartford to establish 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. Before long, however, Webster claimed to hear a patriotic calling and moved to New York City to establish the Federalist newspaper The American Minerva and the semi-weekly Herald. The same year that he married, Webster published a compilation of his speeches in Dissertations on the English Language, which proposed broad spelling reforms.
Webster moved his growing family to New Haven in 1798 (taking up residence in Benedict Arnold’s old house). 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. Shocking Webster’s numerous critics, it did not notably alter spellings but 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. To accomplish this, Webster learned to read and understand more than 20 languages and traveled to France and England to research early dictionaries and books on the origins of words and language. 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, and it 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. The first edition was printed in 1828 under the title An American Dictionary of the English Language and sold for $20 per set. This colossal work came to symbolize a unified national language, and for Webster, was essential for nation building.
Webster’s Other Accomplishments
While writing his American Dictionary, Webster once again moved his family. This time they relocated 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 (opening in 1815 with 90 girls and more than 100 boys). By this point Noah and Rebecca Webster had six daughters and one son (another had died as an infant). Webster believed that a democracy required an educated public (and that both boys and girls should be instructed, a position that he would later change) and had already established 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.
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 write 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 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, a feat made possible by modern printing techniques, ensuring Noah Webster’s legacy as the father of the American English language and a creator of the national identity.
Christopher Dobbs, formerly Executive Director of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society and the Connecticut River Museum.