Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 38

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 38


This is the grave of Noah Webster.

2016-05-07 11.41.39

Born in 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut, Webster came from a middling upbringing but one that sought better, as his father mortgaged his farm to send the boy to Yale. This was during the American Revolution, which Webster strongly supported, serving in the Connecticut militia although evidently never seeing action, or really looking for it. He trained to be a lawyer. But he couldn’t make a go of it and turned to teaching school instead. Webster was an early believer in American exceptionalism, writing:

America sees the absurdities—she sees the kingdoms of Europe, disturbed by wrangling sectaries, or their commerce, population and improvements of every kind cramped and retarded, because the human mind like the body is fettered ‘and bound fast by the chords of policy and superstition’: She laughs at their folly and shuns their errors: She founds her empire upon the idea of universal toleration: She admits all religions into her bosom; She secures the sacred rights of every individual; and (astonishing absurdity to Europeans!) she sees a thousand discordant opinions live in the strictest harmony … it will finally raise her to a pitch of greatness and lustre, before which the glory of ancient Greece and Rome shall dwindle to a point, and the splendor of modern Empires fade into obscurity.

To help promote the superior version of American English and the superiority of American nationalism, Webster began producing his spellers in 1785. He believed that the British aristocracy had corrupted real English and hoped his readers and spellers could expunge all traces of this in American English. His speller proved incredibly popular, going through 385 editions in his lifetime. Webster is primarily responsible for changing “re” endings to their proper “er” endings, as in “center” instead of “centre.” He proved quite flexible in the revisions of the book, constantly considering what would make a properly American language. The speller was strictly secular, with no religious mentions in it, as Webster strongly believed in the secular nature of the United States. His first dictionary came out in 1806, but it was small and he dedicated his later life to a truly comprehensive dictionary. This he completed in 1825. Of the 70,000 words in it, 12,000 had never been printed in a dictionary before. He added distinctly American words, many borrowed from Native Americans, like “skunk” and “squash.”

Yet his dictionary never really caught on in a way that made him rich. This had to do with his politics. Interestingly is that for someone seeking to promote a unified and republican America through popular language, Webster was a hard-core Federalist. Alexander Hamilton hired Webster to edit the Federalist Party newspaper in 1793. He found himself attacked from multiple sides during these years. He was hated by the Jeffersonians for his politics but hated by some Federalists as being too pro-French. He eventually served as a Federalist in the Connecticut state legislature for a few terms in the 1800s. But Federalists never trusted Webster or his democratic and inclusive dictionary and Jeffersonians never forgave him his attacks on their party in its early years. His own politics grew more conservative over the years, as he bitterly hated Jacksonian democracy and converted to Congregationalism. Even though he now wanted to convert the country to Christianity, releasing his own version of the Bible in 1833, his dictionary remained a secular project.

Webster died on May 28, 1843, just a few days after completing the appendix to the second edition of the dictionary.

Noah Webster is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

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