Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254
Noah Webster was the son of Noah and Mercy Steele Webster, the fourth of their five children and the second son. His father was a farmer who also served as justice of the peace; his mother was a great great-granddaughter of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony. Young Noah showed such unusual intellectual ability that, although he was not the first son, his father sacrificed to give him an education. The boy received his earliest tutelage from Nathan Perkins, a local clergyman, and from a Hartford schoolmaster, Mr. Wales.
At age sixteen, Webster entered Yale College, where his tutors were Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight. Upon graduation in 1778, he began to study law, but his father could give him no additional financial help, so the young Noah became a schoolmaster, an occupation to which he returned when, having passed the bar in 1781, he found that he could not make a dependable living as a beginning lawyer.
While he was teaching school in Sharon, Connecticut, in 1781, and in Goshen, New York, in 1782-1783, he began to question the wisdom of using British textbooks to teach American students. Convinced that the struggling new nation that had been created after the Revolutionary War had to divorce itself from the influence of the Old World, he began to write textbooks specifically for use in American schools. He expressed his credo in 1783 in a letter to John Canfield thus: “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms.”
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1297
Webster set out with a vengeance to put his credo into effect. He first published part 1 of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783), which presented a systematic method for education. It emphasized spelling and offered a new and accurate standard of pronunciation. A second part, focusing on grammar, followed in 1784, and in 1785, part 3, a reader designed to complete the study, was published.
Within Webster’s lifetime, part 1 of his A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which he revised twice and published under several titles, was reprinted almost four hundred times. From the first publication of this work, Webster’s sphere of influence was considerable. His writings about the English language, particularly as it was used in the United States, helped to bring English to a position of worldwide prominence and to make it the international language that it is today.
Webster’s textbooks differed from their British counterparts, which had dominated American education, in recognizing the voice of common people as a legitimate voice, allowing general usage to determine correctness. His was a modern and radical view; as he became older and more conservative, he deviated from that viewpoint. It was not until the controversial Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1961) was published, almost two centuries after the publication of his startling three-volume work on the English language, that a dictionary bearing his name was to include colloquial words as legitimate entries.
Webster’s reader emphasized American subject matter and was a precursor of the McGuffey Eclectic Readers that began to appear in 1836 and that were second only to Webster’s spelling books in the number of copies they sold up to 1900. Webster’s The Little Reader’s Assistant (1790), published the year after the United States Constitution was ratified, contained his “Federal Catechism,” a simple and direct explanation of the Constitution, whose ratification he had supported vigorously.
Webster revised the widely used New England Primer under the title The New England Primer, Amended and Improved (1789), which followed the publication of his An Introduction to English Grammar (1788). Something of a religious skeptic, Webster deleted from the New England Primer much of the didactic religious material that had been its hallmark. After personal losses in the early nineteenth century, however, Webster embraced the Calvinism that he had questioned in his youth and retained that faith until his death in 1843.
Before his thirtieth year, Webster, tall, sporting an unruly mop of red hair, chin jutting, brown eyes dancing, had gained considerable national prominence and was respected by the leaders of the new nation. In 1785 and 1786, he traveled extensively to promote his books and to lobby for the enactment of American copyright laws, which were finally passed in 1790. Prior to their passage, Webster was the plaintiff in many infringement suits because his work was extensively copied.
During his travels, Webster also did much to promote the ideas in his Sketches of American Policy (1785), a comprehensive political work that called for a strong central government in the United States and that urged a cultural and social unity that would keep the new nation from being the hodgepodge of cultures that the Old World was. Many political scientists believe that Webster’s Sketches of American Policy, which George Washington and James Madison are known to have read, had a profound and immediate effect upon the drafting of the Constitution.
In 1789, the year in which he married Rebecca Greenleaf, who bore him eight children, Webster, at the urging of Benjamin Franklin, published his lectures on language, Dissertations on the English Language (1789). This book, which called for a cultural nationalism, also set forth many of the lexicographical principles that Webster would incorporate into his dictionary. He called for a people’s English rather than King’s English and predicted that one day English, which was far from a dominant world language in Webster’s early years, would be spoken by more than three hundred million people, a contention that seemed preposterous to many in his time.
While the Constitution was being framed, Webster was editor of the American Magazine, which he had founded. In its pages he argued strenuously in favor of the Constitution. When the magazine failed in 1788, Webster moved from New York City to Hartford, Connecticut, to practice law, a pursuit that lasted for four years, at which time he returned with his new wife to New York City to edit a daily newspaper, the American Minerva, which later became the Commercial Advertiser. In 1794, he became the editor, as well, of the Herald, later to become the Spectator.
Writing regular editorials for these two newspapers, Webster gained familiarity with many facets of society, and this broad range of knowledge was to be of inestimable help to him when he embarked seriously upon compiling his dictionary. His editorials in favor of the administration of George Washington also gained for him considerable public recognition, not all of it favorable.
Webster became increasingly concerned with matters of government, and he came to believe that a careless use of language in political discourse led to severe international misunderstandings that could escalate into all-out war. He became distrustful of popular rule and advocated that men not be permitted to vote until they were forty-five years old. Women did not vote in Webster’s day.
Webster’s far-ranging interests led him to write such diverse works as Effects of Slavery, on Morals and Industry (1793), A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases (1799), and Peculiar Doctrines of the Gospel, Explained and Defended (1809). His books and pamphlets numbered in the hundreds.
By 1803, Webster had severed his connection with the two newspapers he edited. He had returned to New Haven five years earlier and now, rapidly becoming a political conservative, he devoted much of his time to linguistic studies, a field in which he had no formal training but one which had always interested him.
Although he was not familiar with such major European philologists as Jacob Grimm, Franz Bopp, and Rasmus Rask, who were his contemporaries, Webster did heroic work in single-handedly compiling over a twenty-two-year period a dictionary of seventy thousand entries, twelve thousand more than Samuel Johnson’s had. Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) was the last comprehensive English dictionary to be compiled by one person.
A freethinker in his early years, Webster, as noted above, became a staunch Calvinist in 1808. His conversion was precipitated partly by the death of his second son, Henry Bradford, in 1806 and partly by the birth in 1808 of his daughter Louisa, who was retarded. His religious fervor led him to work on an authorized version of the English Bible, which he published in 1833.
Webster’s first dictionary came off the presses more than three years after it had been completed, a two-thousand-page work in two quarto volumes that cost twenty dollars. The work sold fairly well in the United States but much better in England. Congress adopted this dictionary as its official arbiter of the English language, and many foreign governments adopted it as their official work on English.
In 1812, while he was working on his dictionary, Webster had moved his family to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he could live less expensively than in New Haven. In 1821, he was instrumental in founding Amherst College, an institution that he hoped would provide a stimulating intellectual and religiously conservative environment for young scholars.
Upon Webster’s death in 1843, Charles and George Merriam bought the rights to his dictionary and all the copies of its 1841 edition for three thousand dollars. Merriam brought out a one-volume edition of the work in 1847, and it was such a resounding success that when the copyright came up for renewal, Merriam paid Webster’s family $250,000 for it, an enormous sum at that time. Webster’s dictionary has been the mainstay of the G. and C. Merriam Company since 1843.
Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 112
Webster’s name will ever be associated with English lexicography. Indeed, his name means “dictionary” to many people. His broad range of interests, however, also prompted him to write essays and books that would affect how people looked upon slavery, how they interpreted the gospel, and how they would deal with some diseases. His concern with education led him to be a strong motivating force behind the founding of Amherst College. Aside from his dictionary, Webster’s greatest contribution to his country was probably his Sketches of American Policy, which had a direct influence upon the Constitution of the United States and upon the political direction that his fledgling nation would take.
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