Working Towards Unity: Noah Webster Part II

Here is the second installment of my research paper. I hope you enjoy it.

Now Noah was facing a different dilemma. A dilemma of the same size as America’s misspelled words. He was the only one of his siblings that had gone beyond the basics of grammar school. His father had worked long hours at the weaving rack in order to prepare and send his son to college. (Myer) He even mortgaged the family farm in order to enable Noah to go to Yale College. In 1774, Noah had been off to college.
Now, a college graduate after four years, he wanted to further his education in law. The problem was that neither he, nor his parents could afford it. He became a teacher in 1779 in order to earn his way to becoming a lawyer. (Myer)
This decision brought him back to the world of grammar and spelling. The books that he was teaching out of were printed in England and they taught the old way of spelling besides the old definitions. However, Noah had a different vision. He wanted the children to learn in the American way. He wanted them to be learning the Biblical principles upon which their nation was founded. (Slater 12) He didn’t think that they should be learning out of British textbooks. (“Noah Webster“) Noah wrote an essay. This is what he did when he realized that something was wrong in society or politics. (Myer)
At the age of 25, he said, “For my own part, I frankly acknowledge, I have too much pride not to wish to see America assume a national character. I have too much pride to stand indebted to Great Britain for books to learn (sic) our children the letters of the alphabet…. America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms: and it is not impossible but a person of my youth may have some influence in exciting a spirit of literary industry.”
He also thought that Americans should have their own dictionary. Moreover, they should have copyright laws to protect writers by not allowing others to copy their work and sell it. So after teaching for a year, Noah finished his studies in law. In 1781, he became a part of the bar in Hartford. (Myer)
Two years later, in 1783, he went back to teaching school. As he taught in Sharon, CT and Goshen, NY (Myer), he realized anew how deplorable things were for the schoolchildren. The room was poorly lit and poorly heated. However, the biggest problem lay with the textbooks and the way of teaching. He realized anew that America needed a reform in their schools. Noah decided that he would begin by writing new textbooks. Since he had always loved words, he decided to compile a speller. (Nordquist)
His mind wandered back to the day when he, a twelve-year old, had heard one of the little girls in school say, that he, Noah would write a book. The others had laughed at her but she had reason for her guess. The serious, red-haired boy had often been caught marking and changing their speller while he was supposed to be herding cattle. (Bailey 6) “Well, she’s right after all.” Noah thought as he embraced the task of composing a speller.
Although the speller had a hard start (Bailey 6), it was soon very famous. When Noah finally got someone to publish it in 1783 (Myer), it was soon being used all over the New World. The parents of the schoolchildren exclaimed over the low price, the schoolchildren over the pictures, and the schoolmasters over the fact that it would make teaching enjoyable. After all, who had ever paid fourteen cents for a book with beautiful pictures that made learning fun? (Bailey 6)
The speller (1783), the grammar (1784), the reader (1785) made up Parts I, II, and III of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. These books, especially the “Blue-Backed Speller” were taken all over America in wagons, boats and horse saddles. (Slater 13) They accomplished a big part of Noah’s vision: A land united in the way it spelled and pronounced its words. (Bentley 177)
After publishing his speller, Noah opened a law office in Hartford. His passion for spelling kept surfacing and he spend more time going from town to town promoting his speller than he spent in his office. He also worked toward the usage copyright laws during this time. (Myer)
In 1789, Noah married “his Becca.” Rebecca Greenleaf was the daughter of a rich man from Boston (“Noah Webster“). On their wedding day,
They gently wagered “one flitch of bacon” to be paid to her if their first year of marriage should      contain any untoward words of quarrelling. “Anniversary of our marriage, one year is past & no quarrelling, of course the Flitch of bacon is won…“ They wrote.
They had six daughters, one mentally challenged, and two sons in their 54 years of marriage. (“Noah Webster“)
Being a husband and father didn‘t keep Noah from working on his great work: The American Dictionary of the English Language. He wanted America to have its own language. Although English was derived from Great Britain, he wanted American English to be unique. He also wanted the whole country to spell words in the same way. (“Noah Webster“)
In order to compile the dictionary, Noah needed to know a lot of linguistics. He believed, according to the Bible, that all languages are derived from Chaldee, an Aramaic dialect. (Nordquist) By 1807, Webster had learnt 12 languages, and six years later, he knew 20 languages.(Slater 22) By the time he wrote the dictionary, Noah knew as many languages as the letters of the alphabet. (Kendall 64)
He laid the foundation for his great work with The Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. This was an expanded edition of the work of John Entick. (Slater 17)
In 1808, their daughters, Emily and Julia, attended revival meetings with their mother. All three testified to a change in their life or a new birth. Although Noah was opposed to the meetings at first (Slater 20), he eventually
yielded to the influence which could not be resisted or mistaken, and
was led by a spontaneous impulse to repentence, prayer, and entire
submission and surrender of myself to my Maker and Redeemer. My
submission appeared to be cheerful, and was soon followed by that
peace of mind which the world can neither give nor take away.
This peace of mind is evidenced in his dictionary. Noah included many Scriptures in it. (“Introduction“)
His own words about finishing the dictionary are as follows:
“I finished my Dictionary in January, 1825, at my lodgings in Cambridge, England. When I had                                 come to the last word, I was seized with a trembling which made it somewhat difficult to hold my pen    steady for writing. The cause seems to have been the thought that I might not then live to finish the work, or the thought that I was so near the end of my labours. But I summoned strength to finish the last word, and then walking about the room a few minutes I recovered.”
This Dictionary contained 70,000 words, a thousand to every one of Noah‘s years then. Each of these words was studied separately. This new dictionary contained twelve-thousand more words than the latest Johnson dictionary. It also contained 40,000 new definitions. (Bentley 178) Noah wrote all these definitions and words by hand.
By 1828, The American Dictionary of the English Language was ready to sell.(Slater 20) As it rolled off of the press, it was became the best dictionary of the English language in the New World as well as the Old. Noah’s lifework was complete. In the introduction, he wrote,
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…
Fifteen years after completing the dictionary, on May 28, 1843, the eighty-six year old genius who united America in spelling, died.
“Ar you havin a spelin B at yur hous tonite?” Does this look familiar? Although America benefited greatly from Noah Webster and his Dictionary, we seem to be losing our sense of correct grammar and spelling through computers and cell phones.
“Who needs to spell words correctly if the computer corrects them anyway?”
“What’s the big deal about capitalization?”
“Everybody does it this way.”
These seem to be our excuses for writing incorrectly.
Noah knew that the way we write defines where we come from. It also tells others how we think. If we spell words incorrectly, it shows that we don’t care about little details. However, if we pay attention to little things like capitalization, it shows that we watch details. “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.” Luke 10:16
Noah Webster spent a lifetime to get people to write correctly. Are we going to throw away a life work without a second thought?

-Yesenia K. Unger-

Author’s note: Although Noah did host spelling bees, his school friends and their stories are fictional. I also took writer’s liberties in order to make things clearer.

Works Cited
Bailey, Carolyn Sherwin. “The Spelling Bee.” Child Life. Vol. 2, Issue 2, March 2001. 4-6

Bentley, G. E. “Noah Webster.” World Book Encyclopaedia. 1988

Kendall, Joshua. “The Man Who Defined America.” American History. Vol. 46, Issue 1, April 2011. 62-65.

Myer, Dr. Freeman. “Noah Webster’s Story” October 1987

Noah Webster House.

Nordquist, Richard. “An Introduction to Noah Webster.”

Slater, Rosalie G. “Noah Webster Founding Father of American Scholarship and Education.” Forward to American Dictionary of the English Language.

“Introduction to the American Dictionary of the English Language.”

P.S. Thanks for all the comments. They truly encouraged me to keep on writing. 🙂


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