Noah Webster: Biography, Books & Facts

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will meet Noah Webster. While Webster is famous primarily for his dictionary, he lived a full and interesting life and took part vigorously in the events of his day.

Early Days and Education

Noah Webster was born October 16, 1758, in New Hartford, Connecticut, to Noah Sr., and Mercy Steele Webster. Webster's father was a busy man. He worked as a farmer but was also a weaver, a deacon of the local Congregational church, a militia captain, and the co-founder of the local book society (a precursor to the modern library).

Even with all these activities, Noah Webster Sr., took a strong interest in his son's education, making sure he had all the opportunities available at the time. Webster's education began at home. His mother taught him how to read, write, spell, do math, and perform simple music. He then went to a local primary school, which turned out to be a negative experience for him. Classes were overcrowded. The teacher was under-trained, and textbooks were nearly non-existent. When Noah was 14 years old, the Websters hired a tutor so their son could study Latin and Greek to prepare for college.

Webster enrolled at Yale just before his 16th birthday. He graduated in 1778 and decided to become a lawyer. He passed the bar exam in 1781, but because of the ongoing American Revolution, there were no jobs available. Webster returned to Yale and earned his master's degree.

Work and Family

Over the next few years, Webster was a busy man. He wrote articles in support of the Revolution while he founded and taught at a private school in 1782-1783. He devoted the next few years to writing a series of textbooks (see below for further details). In 1787, Webster offered his solid support to the new Constitution with a pamphlet entitled An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution Proposed by the Late Convention Held at Philadelphia.

Webster's career really took off in 1793 when Alexander Hamilton asked him to move to New York to serve as editor and writer for a Federalist newspaper. While in New York, Webster also founded the daily newspaper American Minerva, which he worked on for four years, and the semi-weekly publication The Herald, a Gazette for the Country. A prolific writer, Webster produced 20 volumes of editorials and articles on a wide range of topics from politics to infectious diseases.

Noah Webster
Noah Webster

Webster tried his hand at politics in the early 1800s. He served in the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1800 and again in 1802-1807 and as a county judge in 1807. He also helped established Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1812.

Despite all these activities, Webster still found time to enjoy family life. He married Rebecca Greenleaf on October 26, 1789. Over the next 18 years, the couple had eight children: Emily, Frances, Harriet, Mary, William, Eliza, Henry, and Louisa.

Webster's Books

During these busy years, Webster devoted a large share of his time to his books. He was disgusted by the current textbooks available for school children, finding them disorganized and often lacking in useful content. Webster decided to remedy the problem and published a 3-volume set of textbooks entitled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language.

The first volume was a speller published in 1783. It offered progressive study according to the students' ages and levels of ability. It also set a new standard for American spelling and pronunciation, eliminating British influence and firmly declaring that there was only one correct way to spell any given word. Often called the 'Blue-Backed Speller,' this volume sold more than 100 million copies over the next century.

Volume two of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, published in 1784, was a grammar textbook, again providing lessons that increased in difficulty as the students grew and learned.

The third volume was a reader, published in 1785. It was designed to lift up students' minds and educate them in patriotism and virtue. The reader contained selections from Shakespeare, Plutarch, and other classic writers as well as American pieces like Joel Barlow's Vision of Columbus.

After completing his textbooks, Webster devoted his time to his next project, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1806. This was the first truly American dictionary, with American spellings and pronunciations.

Webster was not completely satisfied with his first dictionary. Apparently, it was not thorough enough for him. For the next 22 years, he worked to expand his dictionary, learning 26 languages and collecting 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had never been in a dictionary before. Webster published the result, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828.

The title page of An American Dictionary of the English Language
The title page of An American Dictionary of the English Language

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