Noah Webster

Noah Webster (1758-1843), American lexicographer, remembered now almost solely as the compiler of a continuously successful dictionary, was for half a century among the more influential and most active literary men in the United States.

Noah Webster was born on Oct. 16, 1758, in West Hartford, Conn. In 1774 he entered Yale, sharing literary ambitions with his classmate Joel Barlow and tutor Timothy Dwight. His college years were interrupted by terms of military service. After his graduation in 1779, he taught school in Hartford, Litchfield, and Sharon, read widely, and studied law. He was admitted to the bar and received his master of arts degree in 1781. Dissatisfied with the British-made textbooks available for teaching, he determined to produce his own. He had, he said, "too much pride to stand indebted to Great Britain for books to learn our children."


Schoolmaster to America

Webster devised the first of his long series of American schoolbooks, a speller ponderously titled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I (1783). Known for generations simply as The Blue-back Speller, it was in use for more than a century and sold over 70 million copies. His book's effect on students is said to have been unparalleled in the history of American elementary education. Part II of the Grammatical Institute, a grammar, reprinted often under various titles, appeared in 1784. Part III, a reader, in the original 1785 edition included excerpts from yet-unpublished poetry by Dwight and Barlow. Though the reader had shorter life and more vigorous competition than other parts of the Institute, it set a patriotic and moralistic pattern followed by rival books, some of which were thought to attract attention because more religiously orientated. Webster stressed what he called the "art of reading" in later volumes, including two secularized versions of The New England Primer (1789, 1801), The Little Reader's Assistant (1790), The Elementary Primer (1831), and The Little Franklin (1836).


Webster toured the United States from Maine to Georgia selling his textbooks, convinced that "America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms, " but that to accomplish this she must protect by copyright the literary products of her countrymen. He pleaded so effectively that uniform copyright laws were early passed in most of the states, and it was largely through his continuing effort that Congress in 1831 passed a bill which ensured protection to writers. On his travels he also peddled his Sketches of American Policy (1785), a vigorous Federalist plea. In Philadelphia, where he paused briefly to teach school and see new editions of his Institute through the press, he published his politically effective An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (1787).

In New York, Webster established the American Magazine (1787-1788), which he hoped might become a national periodical. In it he pled for American intellectual independence, education for women, and adherence to Federalist ideas. Though it survived for only 12 monthly issues, it is remembered as one of the most lively, bravely adventuresome of early American periodicals. He continued as a political journalist with such pamphlets as The Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry (1793), The Revolution in France (1794), and The Rights of Neutral Nations (1802).


Language Reform

But Webster's principal interest became language reform. As he set forth his ideas in Dissertations on the English Language (1789), theatre should be spelled theater; crumb, crumb; machine, masheen; plough, plow; draught, draft. For a time he put forward claims for such reform in his readers and spellers and in his Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings (1790), which encouraged "reezoning, " "yung" persons, "reeding, " and a "zeel" for "lerning"; but he was too canny a Yankee always to allow eccentricity to stand in the way of profit. In The Prompter (1790) he quietly lectured his countrymen in corrective essays written plainly, in simple aphoristic style.

After his marriage in 1789, Webster practiced law in Hartford for 4 years before returning to New York to edit the city's first daily newspaper, the American Minerva (1793-1798). Tiring of the partisan controversy brought on by his forthright expression of Federalist opinion, he retired to New Haven to write A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases (1899) and to put together a volume of Miscellaneous Papers (1802).


The Dictionaries

From this time on, Webster gave most of his attention to preparing more schoolbooks, including A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language (1807). But he was principally concerned with compilation of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806); its abridgment, A Dictionary … Compiled for the Use of Common Schools (1807, revised 1817); and finally, in two volumes, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). In range this last surpassed any dictionary of its time. A second edition, "corrected and enlarged" (1841), became known popularly as Webster's Unabridged. Conservative contemporaries, alarmed at its unorthodoxies in spelling, usage, and pronunciation and its proud inclusion of Americanisms, derided it as "Noah's Ark." However, after Webster's death the rights were sold in 1847 to George and Charles Merriam, printers in Worcester, Mass.; and the dictionary has become, through many revisions, the cornerstone and bulwark of effective American lexicography.

Webster's other late writings included A History of the United States (1832), a version of the Bible (1832) cleansed of all words and phrases dangerous to children or "offensive especially to females, " and a final Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects (1843). Tall, redheaded, lanky, humorless, he was the butt of many cruel criticisms in his time. He died in New Haven on May 23, 1843.


Further Reading on Noah Webster

Webster's Letters were edited by Harry R. Warfel (1953). Biographies include Emily E. (Ford) Skeel, Notes on the Life of Noah Webster (1912); Ervin C. Shoemaker, Noah Webster: Pioneer of Learning (1936); and Harry R. Warfel, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (1936). See also Robert K. Leavitt, Noah's Ark, New England Yankees, and the Endless Quest (1947), a history of the first century of Merriam-Webster dictionaries.