Noah Webster

Last week, we talked about some of our presidents in our quiz program. Today we are going to feature a man who never won a battle and never held high political office. He was a schoolmaster. However, his accomplishments as a textbook writer and educational reformer had a great impact on this nation. His name was Webster, but not Daniel. Can anyone give me his first name? Noah. What tremendous educational book did he compile? Webster’s Dictionary.
Noah Webster was born in Connecticut before the Revolutionary War in1758. His father evidently recognized something unusual in his son, because he mortgaged his farm to send young Noah to Yale College. After the Revolutionary War, Noah Webster tried his hand at law but gave it up and became a schoolmaster.
When he was 35 years old, he published his first book, The Blue Back Spelling Book. It was an immediate success. Fifteen million copes were sold within a few years. At last, some order and rules of spelling had been brought to the new nation. In 18th Century America, there were few rules about how even common words should be spelled—or pronounced.
Webster was intensely patriotic. He wanted Americans to have their own particular way of spelling. He said: “A national language is a band of national union. Let us spell in our own way for it will inspire us with the pride of national character.” He thought that Americans no matter how they boasted of their independence were sheep-like in their copying of English terms and spelling.
Webster also pointed out that there were thousands of strictly American words and expressions, which no English scholar had ever heard much less attempted to spell. So Webster spelled them as he thought best. He changed the spelling of many English words like honour to honor, labour to labor, harbour to harbor, publick to public, and many others. Then he tackled the many truly American frontier words and Indian words and wrote them out as he thought they should be, and for each word he gave the proper pronunciation. It was a tremendous job this Yankee schoolmaster set out to do, and he did it well.
When Webster published his first Blue Back Speller, he ran into trouble with those who were copying his book without his permission and selling it for their own profit. The Federal government had no copyright law and was not particularly interested in one, so Webster toured most the thirteen state capitals in an effort to get state legislatures to enact copyright laws. He earned his way around the country by teaching school. He made himself unpopular with President Thomas Jefferson by urging him to enact copyright legislation. Jefferson said about him, “I view Webster as a mere pedagogue of very limited understanding.”
All this time, Webster was giving thought to the necessity of an American dictionary, so at the age of 45 he gave up teaching school and shut himself off from the world for three years. At the end of this time, he published his first dictionary, which contained five thousand words more than any other English dictionary. This was just the beginning. Soon after this first dictionary was published, he began work on a larger and more inclusive dictionary and labored over this work for the next twenty years. Titled An American Dictionary of the English Language, this great volume is the grandfather of all American dictionaries.
Noah Webster is remembered mostly for his dictionary. But in addition to his devotion to spelling and pronunciation, he was a man of varied talents. In the medical field, he wrote a treatise on epidemic diseases. He edited John Winthrop’s journal, which was a notable historical contribution. He wrote school readers that encouraged young Americans to love and respect America. He wrote pamphlets on banks, on insurance, on white lead paints, on the rights of neutral nations in time of war. He conducted experiments on weather and related subjects that helped establish the U.S. Weather Bureau. His interests were as many and diversified as those of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, but these contributions to early American life have been overshadowed by the tremendous success of his great dictionary.
Noah Webster’s statue does not stand in The Hall of Fame. He is not listed among the heroes of the past, but as a private citizen, who gave practically his whole life in service to his country, he rates a very important place in the history of America.

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