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.”
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...
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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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