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Noah Webster

Noah Webster (October 16, 1758 – May 28, 1843) was an American lexicographer, textbook author, spelling reformer, word enthusiast, and editor. He has been called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education.” His “Blue-Backed Speller” books were used to teach spelling and reading to five generations of American children. In the United States, his name has become synonymous with dictionaries, especially the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary that was first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language.



Noah Webster's adult home, where he raised his family and wrote many publications including An American Dictionary of the English Language. Built in 1823 in New Haven, Connecticut. Removed to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758, in the West Division of Hartford, Connecticut, to a family who had lived in Connecticut since colonial days. His father, Noah, Sr. (1722-1813), was a farmer and a sower. His father was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster (governor); his mother, Mercy (born Steele; d. 1794), was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. Noah had two brothers, Abram (1751-1831) and Charles (b. 1762).

At the age of 16, Noah began attending Yale College. His four years at Yale overlapped the American Revolutionary War, and, because of food shortages, many of his college classes were held in Glastonbury, Connecticut.[1] During the American Revolution, he served in the Connecticut Militia.

Having graduated from Yale in 1778, Webster wanted to continue his education in order to earn his law degree. He taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford, and West Hartford in order to pay for his education. He set up many small schools that didn't thrive, but he was a good teacher because instead of whacking his students to get them to learn, like most teachers did, he rewarded them. He earned his law degree in 1781, but did not practice law until 1789. Once he started he found the law was not to his liking.

Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf (1766-1847) on October 26, 1789, in New Haven, Connecticut. They had eight children:

  • Emily Schotten (1790-1861), who married William W. Ellsworth, named by Webster as an executor of his will.[2] Emily, their daughter, married Rev. Abner Jackson, who became president of both Hartford's Trinity College and Hobart College in New York State.[3]
  • Frances Julianna (1793-1869)
  • Harriet (1797-1844)
  • Mary (1799-1819)
  • William Greenleaf (1801-1869)
  • Eliza (1803-1888)
  • Henry (1806-1807)
  • Louisa (b. 1808)

Webster liked to carry raisins and candies in his pocket for his children to enjoy.

Webster married well and had joined the elite in Hartford but did not have much money. In 1793, Alexander Hamilton lent him $1500 to move to New York City to edit a Federalist newspaper. In December, he founded New York's first daily newspaper, American Minerva (later known as The Commercial Advertiser), and edited it for four years.

For decades, he was one of the most prolific authors in the new nation, publishing textbooks, political essays, a report on infectious diseases, and newspaper articles for his Federalist party. He wrote so much that a modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages.

The Websters moved back to New Haven in 1798. He then served in the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1800 and 1802-1807. He is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery.

Politician Daniel Webster was Noah Webster’s cousin. As a senator, Daniel sponsored Noah’s proposed copyright bill.[4] The first major statutory revision of U.S. copyright law, the 1831 Act was a result of intensive lobbying by Noah Webster and his agents in Congress.[5]

Speller and dictionary

A 1932 statue of Webster by Korczak Ziółkowski stands in front of the public library of West Hartford, Connecticut.

As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They could be overcrowded, with up to seventy children of all ages crammed into one-room schoolhouses. They had poor underpaid staff, no desks, and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. The heating system was also a problem with one side of the room that was too cold and the other side that was too hot. Webster thought that Americans should learn from American books, so he began writing a three volume compendium, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The work consisted of a speller (published in 1783), a grammar (published in 1784), and a reader (published in 1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely American approach to training children. His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue "our native tongue" from "the clamour[6] of pedantry" that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation. Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was, "the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions", which meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.

The Speller was arranged so that it could be easily taught to students, and it progressed by age. From his own experiences as a teacher, Webster thought the Speller should be simple and gave an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. He believed students learned most readily when he broke a complex problem into its component parts and had each pupil master one part before moving to the next. Ellis argues that Webster anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Webster said that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a three-year-old how to read; they could not do it until age five. He organized his speller accordingly, beginning with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.[7]

The speller was originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. Most people called it the "Blue-Backed Speller" because of its blue cover, and for the next one hundred years, Webster's book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time and it was the first book ever published in the United States.[citation needed] By 1861, it was selling a million copies per year and throughout the years it sold up to a total of 100 million copies. It also helped create the popular contests known as spelling bees.

Slowly, he changed the spelling of words, such that they became "Americanized." He chose s over c in words like defense, he changed the re to er in words like center, he dropped one of the Ls in traveler, and at first he kept the u in words like colour or favour but dropped it in later editions. He also changed "tongue" to "tung."

Unauthorized printing of his books, and disparate copyright laws that varied among the thirteen states, led Webster to champion the federal copyright law that was successfully passed in 1790.

In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. The following year, at the age of 43, Webster began writing an expanded and comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, which would take twenty-seven years to complete. To supplement the documentation of the etymology of the words, Webster learned twenty-six languages, including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit. Webster hoped to standardize American speech, since Americans in different parts of the country used different languages. They also spelled, pronounced, and used english words differently.

During the course of his work on the book, the family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1812, where Webster helped to found Amherst College. In 1822, the family moved back to New Haven, and Webster was awarded an honorary degree from Yale the following year.

Webster completed his dictionary during his year abroad in 1825 in Paris, France, and at the University of Cambridge. His book contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster believed that English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex, so his dictionary introduced American English spellings, replacing "colour" with "color", substituting "wagon" for "waggon", and printing "center" instead of "centre". He also added American words, like "skunk" and "squash", that did not appear in British dictionaries. At the age of seventy, Webster published his dictionary in 1828.

Though it now has an honored place in the history of American English, Webster's first dictionary only sold 2,500 copies. He was forced to mortgage his home to bring out a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt.

In 1840, the second edition was published in two volumes. On May 28, 1843, a few days after he had completed revising an appendix to the second edition, and with much of his efforts with the dictionary still unrecognized, Noah Webster died.

Religious views

Webster was a devout Christian. His speller was grounded in Scripture, and his first lesson began "Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink ; nor for your body, what ye shall put on ; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things."[8]

His 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume. Webster considered education "useless without the Bible". Webster claimed to have learned 20 different languages in finding definitions for which a particular word is used. From the preface to the 1828 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language:

In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed... . No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

Webster released his own edition of the Bible in 1833, called the Common Version. He used the King James Version (KJV) as a base and consulted the Hebrew and Greek along with various other versions and commentaries. Webster molded the KJV to correct grammar, replaced words that were no longer used, and did away with words and phrases that could be seen as offensive.

All editions of Webster's Dictionary published in 1913 and earlier, along with the Webster Bible and Dissertation on the English Language are available in the public domain.



  • Joseph J. Ellis; After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture 1979. chapter 6, interpretive essay
  • David Micklethwait. Noah Webster and the American Dictionary (2005)
  • John S. Morgan. Noah Webster (1975), popular biography
  • C. Louise Nelson; "Neglect of Economic Education in Webster's 'Blue-Backed Speller'" American Economist, Vol. 39, 1995
  • Richard Rollins. The Long Journey of Noah Webster (1980) (ISBN 0-8122-7778-3)
  • Harlow Giles Unger. Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot (1998), scholarly biography
  • Harry R. Warfel, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (1936), standard biography
  • Lepore, J. (2006, November 6). Noah's Mark: Webster and the original dictionary wars.The New Yorker, 78-87.

Primary sources

  • Harry R. Warfel, ed., Letters of Noah Webster (1953),
  • Homer D. Babbidge, Jr., ed., Noah Webster: On Being American (1967), selections from his writings
  • John F. Ohles. "Biographical Dictionary of American Educators", Vol. 3 1978, pp 1363-1364
  • Kendal, Joshua. "The Definition of Yankee Know-How" Los Angeles Times 15 Oct. 2008. A19. Print.
  • "Noah Webster." IPL: Garden of Praise. 2009. Web.
  • Noah Webster. The American Spelling Book: Containing the Rudiments of the English Language for the Use of Schools in the United States by Noah Webster (1999 reprint)
  • Proudfit, Isabel. Noah Webster Father of the Dictionary. New York: Julian Messner, 1966. Print.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Noah Webster (1758-10-161843-04-28) was an American lexicographer, textbook author, Bible translator and spelling reformer.


  • There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.
    • Preface to A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings, (1790) [1]
    • This quote illustrates the reformed spelling advocated by Webster.
  • Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.
    • An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, (1787).


  • Tyranny is the exercise of some power over a man, which is not warranted by law, or necessary for the public safety. A people can never be deprived of their liberties, while they retain in their own hands, a power sufficient to any other power in the state.

External links

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

NOAH WEBSTER (1758-1843), American lexicographer and journalist, was born at West Hartford, Connecticut, on the 16th of October 1758. He was descended from John Webster of Hartford, governor of Connecticut in 1656-1657, and on his mother's side from Governor William Bradford of Plymouth. He entered Yale in 1774, graduating in 1778. He studied law, and was admitted to the bar at Hartford in 1781. In1782-1783he taught in a classical school at Goshen, New York, and became convinced of the need of better textbooks of English. In1783-1785he published at Hartford A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in three parts, a spelling-book, a grammar and a reader. This was the pioneer American work in its field, and it soon found a place in most of the schools of the United States. During the twenty years in which Webster was preparing his dictionary, his income from the spelling-book, though the royalty was less than a cent a copy, was enough to support his family; and before 1861 the sale reached more than a million copies a year. The wide use of this book contributed greatly to uni - formity of pronunciation in the United States, and, with his dictionary, secured the general adoption in the United States of a simpler system of spelling than that current in England. In 1785 he published Sketches of American Policy, in which he argued for a constitutional government whose authority should be vested in Congress. This he regarded as the first distinct proposal for a United States Constitution, and when in 1787 the work of the commissioners was completed at Philadelphia, where Webster was then living as superintendent of an academy, he wrote in behalf of the constitution an Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution. In 1788 he started in New York the American Magazine, but it failed at the end of a year, and he resumed the practice of law at Hartford. In 1793, in order to support Washington's administration, he removed to New York and established a daily paper, the Minerva (afterwards the Commercial Advertiser), and later a semi-weekly paper, the Herald (afterwards the New York Spectator). In 1798 he removed to New Haven. He was for some time a member of the Connecticut legislature and one of the state court judges. In 1807 he pub - lished A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language. In 1806 he had brought out A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and in 1807 he began work on his dictionary. While engaged on it he removed in 1812 to Amherst, Massachusetts, where in 1821 he assisted in founding Amherst College and became the first president of its board of trustees. He was also a member of the General Court of the state. In 1822 he returned to New Haven, and the next year he received the degree of LL.D. from Yale. He spent a year (1824-1825) abroad, working on his dictionary, in Paris and at the university of Cambridge, where he finished his manuscript. The work came out in 1828 in two volumes. It contained 12,000 words and from 30,000 to 40,000 definitions that had not appeared in any earlier dictionary. An English edition soon followed. In 1840 the second edition, corrected and enlarged, came out, in two volumes. He completed the revision of an appendix a few days before his death, which occurred in New Haven on the 28th of May 1843.

The dictionary was revised in 1847 under the editorship of Professor Chauncey A. Goodrich and published in one volume. In 1859 a pictorial edition was issued. In 1864 it was revised mainly under the direction of Professor Noah Porter, and again in 1890 under the same direction, the latter revision appearing with the title of the International Dictionary of the English Language. The latter was again issued in 1900, with a supplement of 25,000 words and phrases, under the supervision of William Torrey Harris, who edited another revision, in 1909, under the title of the New International Dictionary of the English Language. It has frequently been abridged.

Among Webster's other works are Dissertations on the English Language (1789), a course of lectures that he had given three years before in some of the chief American cities; Essays (1790); The Revolution in France (1794); A Brief History of Epidemics and Pestilential Diseases (1799), in two vols.; The Rights of Neutral Nations in Time of War (1802); Historical Notices of the Origin and State of Banking Institutions and Insurance Offices (1802); and A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (1843), which included "On the Supposed Change in the Temperature of Winter," a treatise showing long and careful research. He also published Governor Winthrop's Journal in 1790, and wrote a History of the United States, of which a revised edition appeared in 1839.

See Memoir of Noah Webster by his son-in-law, Professor Chauncey A. Goodrich, in the quarto editions of the Dictionary, also Noah Webster (1882), by Horace E. Scudder, in "American Men of Letters."

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