Were it not for Noah Webster Jr., the farm boy from West Hartford, Conn., who would have been 250 on Thursday, Americans might all be reading their newspapers from back to front today.
As the War for Independence was winding down, the linguistic future of the United States was up for grabs. After all, the English of King George III had suddenly become the tongue of the oppressor. And roughly one-quarter of the new nation’s 3 million citizens were not native English speakers. Some Americans sought to replace English with German, then spoken by nearly 10% of the population, and others advocated more radical options, including right-to-left reading in Hebrew.
In 1783, Webster, then a recent Yale graduate eking out a living as a schoolteacher, put an immediate end to the charged debate. His rhetorical tool was a tiny textbook, just 6 1/4 inches long and 3 1/2 inches wide, which made the case for an American brand of English.
In his so-called blue-backed speller, Webster issued a linguistic declaration of independence: “This country must, in some future time, be as distinguished by the superiority of her literary improvements as she is already by the liberality of her civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” His book was the first published in the new United States, and Webster traveled to state capitals across the country to lobby for the nation’s first copyright laws. He also invented the modern book tour and publicized his work with blurbs from eminent authorities (many of which he wrote himself).
By the end of the 19th century, nearly 100 million copies of Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book would be sold. In contrast to most European countries, where regional dialects hold considerable sway, the United States has never been divided by language. Even on the eve of the Civil War, leading secessionist Jefferson Davis acknowledged that “we have a unity of language which no other people possess, and we owe this unity above all to Noah Webster’s Yankee spelling book.”
Yet the speller marked just the beginning of Webster’s six-decade literary career. His treatise, “Sketches of American Policy,” published in 1785, formulated several of the key principles that later worked their way into the Constitution, such as the need for “a supreme power at the head of the union.” At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Webster emerged as George Washington’s personal policy wonk, at whose hotel room door the general would come knocking. In 1793, Webster became editor of New York City’s first daily newspaper, the American Minerva, the Federalist Party organ that helped Washington keep the United States out of another war with Britain.
While Webster would dabble in other fields, including epidemiology, statistics and philosophy, his crowning achievement would be his dictionary, to which he devoted the second half of his life. In 1806, he published his Compendious Dictionary of the American Language, a spelling dictionary in which he first made many of the changes for which he has become famous, such as axing the “u” in “colour” and the “k” in “musick.”
It was 22 more years before he unveiled An American Dictionary of the English Language -- though he took time during breaks from composing definitions to found Amherst College and serve as a representative in the Massachusetts General Court. This was his magnum opus, containing about 70,000 words, nearly twice as many as in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 masterpiece. (One word, “demoralize,” was of Webster’s own coinage.)
While Johnson had the soul of a poet, Webster had a scientific sensibility. He officially introduced into the English language all the new concepts of the Enlightenment. What’s more, he brought remarkable analytic power to lexicography. As James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, would later write, Webster “was a born definer of words.” Unlike the speller, the dictionary didn’t bring in much money during his lifetime, but it immediately received praise from around the world. By the early 1830s, even British courts were citing Webster’s as the dictionary of record.
Webster’s flaming red hair and remarkably erect bearing made him a striking figure. He wore long-tailed coats and frilled shirts long after they went out of style. Though devoted to his seven children, Webster was largely a loner and spent most of his days in his study. Of Webster’s major character flaw, most of his contemporaries concurred that it was “unbounded vanity.” Webster was always talking himself up. When the famous physician Benjamin Rush once greeted him with the salutation, “I congratulate you on your arrival in Philadelphia,” Webster is reported to have shot back, “You may, if you please, sir, congratulate Philadelphia upon the occasion!”
But Webster’s quirky personality was well suited to his chosen vocation, lexicography. Without his legendary grandiosity, he never would have taken it upon himself to unite Americans with his words.
Joshua Kendall is the author of “The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus.” He is working on a biography of Noah Webster.