When Noah Webster was born (October 16, 1758), America was by no means united in its culture, language, values, or political institutions. Colonial America consisted of competing groups that spoke various dialects of English, German, French, Dutch and other languages. Values and virtues varied dramatically across the rancorous colonial landscape. Almost since the Mayflower, earnest Puritans and mercenary materialists lived side by side. Some lived in harmony with Indians and others did not (mostly the mercenaries).
In 1776, with war looming large, Webster and other Yale students heard an emotional address from president Timothy Dwight in which they were charged to go out and lay “the foundations of American greatness.”
Young Noah took this to heart. He pursued many diverse careers but his lifelong passion was to bring unity out of national and cultural chaos in America. He graduated in 1778 hoping to study law, but money was short. To make a living, he taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford and West Hartford. In 1783, he wrote his own teaching textbook: A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, or the “Blue-backed Speller.” For over two centuries, it remained the best selling book, written originally in English, of all-time. It sold over 100 million copies even into the 1900s. It was Webster’s declaration of American cultural independence and it gained a monopoly in classrooms for over a century. It changed the course of education in America. Webster’s Speller taught children to embrace their nation and her heroes. It enabled millions of children of different nationalities, ethnicities, language groups, religions, and political persuasions to share a common language, identity and cause as Americans. It also taught children geography, politics, economics and virtue. It offered moral wisdom too; “He that lies down with dogs must rise up with fleas.”
So, by age 27, Webster had graduated from Yale, established a school, written a classic grammar and speller, met most of our nation’s founding fathers, and written a pamphlet that influenced the formation of the U.S. Constitution. During a promotional book tour for his Blue-backed Speller, he found time to lead a choir in Baltimore that greatly enriched the church life of that city. In the end, no American did more than Webster to eradicate illiteracy, something he saw as the most effective means for sustaining tyranny–more effective than prison cells, torture or murder. He unified the English language itself in a time when diverse dialects, spellings and pronunciations were rampant.
In his lifetime, Webster studied 26 different languages, mastered 12 of them and began the scientific study of etymology. He was no cultural isolationist but he understood that life together in a common land calls for shared cultural values and definitions. He revolutionized education, unified our culture around the English language, initiated copyright laws, fought for the abolition of slavery and the increased education of women, and he helped shape the abiding identity that came with the title; American.
In 1789, he married Rebecca Greenleaf who bore him eight children. He loved children visibly, carrying raisins and candies in his pockets for them to enjoy. In 1787, he wrote, “The only practicable method to reform mankind is to begin with children.”
Webster’s most famous accomplishment was his dictionary. He began this monumental task of standardizing how Americans would spell, use and pronounce words at age 43. He finished it 27 years later. Webster once said: “The lexicographer’s business is to search for truth.” To this end, he omitted obscenities and profanities and he blended scholarship with faith. Listen to part of his definition for the word Indebted: “We are indebted to our parents for their care of us in infancy and in youth; we are indebted to God for life; we are indebted to the Christian religion for many of the advantages and much of the refinement of modern times.” Defining love, he wrote, “The love of God is the first duty of man.”
Webster’s biographer, Harlow Giles Unger, concluded: “Webster’s life was not about a dictionary. It was about creating a new nation–the United States of America–and making everyone in America an American.”
Listen to Webster himself: “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country . . . As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.” (Webster, “On the Education of Youth in America,” 1788).
Few founding fathers had a greater long-term impact on America than did Noah Webster. He was America’s great teacher, lawyer, statesman, editor, author, lexicographer and patriot! He is America’s greatest schoolmaster.