The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a legend as “a famous or important person who is known for doing something extremely well.”
Noah Webster was born October 16, 1758 in what is now West Hartford, CT. On his father’s side, he was a descendant of John Webster, who served as Connecticut’s governor in 1656. On his mother’s side, he was a descendant of William Bradford, immigrant to the Plymouth Colony and five-time Plymouth Governor.
INNOVATOR AND PIONEERING JOURNALIST
Webster loved learning and education, so much so that he attended Yale University while the American Revolution was in full swing. At the time, Yale was the only college in Connecticut and only one of eight in the 13 colonies. Webster’s graduating class consisted of just 40 students.
Webster’s parents were farmers and were not of considerable means. Nevertheless, they paid for his education with what little money they had, even mortgaging the family farm to cover the tuition.
After graduating from Yale, Webster wanted to study law, but his family could not afford it so he taught in several towns around Connecticut. Later in his life, Webster fulfilled his wish and passed the Bar examination.
However much he loved education throughout his schooling as a child and during his career as a teacher, Webster found there were some major problems with the current education system. Techers were usually untrained, students were packed into small schoolhouses, and the texts they learned from were mostly religious. Even several years after the Revolution was over, most children were learning from textbooks written by English authors and taught allegiance to the king. Webster sought to change this.
Webster’s first great achievements was his textbook A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The book was sold in three parts; a speller, a grammar, and a reader. The most popular of the three was the speller, later colloquially referred to as The Blue-Backed Speller. The book taught countless children how to read and it was the most popular American book of its time.
By 1890 The Blue-Backed Speller had sold 60 million copies. The popularity of the book meant that Webster could live off the royalties, making him the first American author to earn a living from his publications.
Webster was able to achieve this status in large part because of copyright laws. He was instrumental in the formation of these laws in the United States as he, along with John Trumbull and Joel Barlow, relentlessly campaigned for laws that would protect their work from piracy. They succeeded when in January, 1883, Connecticut passed the first state copyright laws in the United States.
Webster copyrighted his speller in August of that year in Hartford. The law was titled “An Act for the Encouragement of Literature and Genius” because of the men’s arguments that it would improve quality of publications made by educated people in the United States. Eventually, the entire country would follow suit with a national copyright act being passed in 1890.
Webster not only published his books to make money, part of his mission was to clean up the English language. In the time after the United States broke away from Britain’s imperial tentacles, the country still had remnants of its culture, which held it back from being free and independent. Webster knew that the United States had to pull away from the outdated ideologies that composed British English.
The way the language was spoken was disconnected from the arbitrary rules of grammar and spelling taught in British textbooks. Webster also wanted to unify the country by unifying the language, which was used differently in different parts of the country. He believed that the people-at-large must control the language and not just by a few affluent people. Webster’s speller meant that American children could learn the how to use the language as it is used in America.
After publishing his first textbooks, Webster was convinced by Alexander Hamilton to move to New York and write for Federalist newspapers. There he founded New York’s first daily newspaper, The Daily Minerva, where he served as editor for four years. While he was in New York, Webster also published The Herald, A Gazette for the Country.
The most important achievement of Webster’s lifetime was his book, An American Dictionary of the English Language, which influenced the English language in a lasting way. The dictionary was extremely inclusive, as it contained more than 70,000 words (even though Webster removed many of the words that only pertained to England).
Webster reformed the spellings of many words based on existing variations. Among its many revisions were color instead of colour and center instead of centre. The changes in spelling were made to better reflect pronunciation. The popularity of An American Dictionary of the English Language can be attributed in part to these improvements, as well as very good definitions and accurate guides to pronunciations.
A PROLIFIC CAREER
Webster may not have lived to see the success of his dictionary, but he was extremely prolific throughout his career. From creating some of America’s first textbooks and helping to ensure that future writers and artists would be protected from piracy to developing what is still one of its most popular dictionaries, Webster certainly lived the life of a Connecticut legend.
THE WEBSTER NAME LIVES ON
Webster’s birthplace, The Noah Webster House in West Hartford, CT, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962. In its efforts to “tell and preserve all the stories that make West Hartford the diverse community that it is today,” the museum offers public programs, school and youth programs, and adult programs.
The Noah Webster House hosts exhibits and events that document the evolution of West Hartford from a colonial parish to a modern suburb.
In 2008, the town of West Hartford expanded its shopping area with the addition of Blue Back Square, an outdoor shopping center named after Noah Webster’s Blue Backed Speller.
- Encyclopedia of Education, “Noah Webster”
- The Noah Webster House
- Pelanda, “Declarations of Cultural Independence: The Nationalistic Imperative Behind the Passage of Early American Copyright Laws, 1783-1787,” 2010.
- Southard, Bruce. “Noah Webster: America's Forgotten Linguist,” American Speech, 1979.
- Wikipedia, “Noah Webster”