Noah Webster and the Formation of the American Nation - A Selective Review of H.G. Unger's Biography

By Forrest W. Schultz
October 01, 2000

A Selective Review of H. G. Unger’s Biography

Harlow Giles Unger’s Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot (N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998) is must reading for anyone interested in the early days of America because it contains important, but little-known, information about the significant role which Noah Webster played in the development of the American Constitution, American education, and American language. Webster exercised this influence in three ways; and Unger’s discussion of these (and of just about everything else in his biography) is quite interesting and well-written.

First, Webster wrote a pamphlet published in 1785 and read by virtually every educated American entitled Sketches of American Policy, most of whose principles became incorporated into the Constitution as well as into the essays in the Federalist Papers written by Hamilton and Madison. Although the principles themselves were not original with Webster, he was the first to publish them in the form of specific proposals for a new Constitution. After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Webster wrote anonymously his Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, a short, easy-to-read pamphlet, which was influential among ordinary Americans.

Second, in 1785 Webster began delivering, all across the country, a series of public lectures advocating a purified, uniform national language and an improved and universal education. These language and educational reforms were embodied in the school textbooks Webster had written, which shall be discussed below. These lectures and textbooks were the vehicles Webster used to accomplish these reforms.

Third, Webster in the course of his wide travels had the opportunity to meet and influence almost all the prominent people in the nation at that time, and some of these resulted in close friendships, such as the one with Benjamin Franklin, a surprising fact, given the great disparity in their ages.

This, in itself, is interesting enough, but what makes it even more interesting is another little-known fact brought to light by Unger, namely that Noah Webster embarked upon this arduous national tour mainly for the purpose of promoting the passage of state copyright laws in order that his textbooks might be protected from piracy. And he succeeded: at his instigation every one of the thirteen states passed a copyright law! It was necessary for Webster to do this on the state level because no federal copyright protection was possible under the Articles of Confederation.

Unger’s discussion of how and why Webster wrote his spelling book (the first edition of which was published in 1783) also makes for interesting reading. Webster was then a schoolteacher who was so dissatisfied with the deficiencies of the spellers then in use that he decided to write his own, which became ever more widely used until it became the standard in spellers, and consequently, one of the best-selling books in the nation. Due to the color of its cover, it was known by the public as “the blue back speller” or “Old Blue Back.”

Webster also wrote a grammar (in 1784) and a reader (in 1785), again due to his dissatisfaction with those then in use. The patriotic significance of these is apparent from their inclusion of American words, references to American places and American events, and of speeches, essays, and poems written by Americans. The speller, grammar, and reader were then published, beginning in 1785, as a three volume set. The grammar and reader are not as well-known today as the speller because they were supplanted later on (circa 1836) by the McGuffey Readers. But the speller was not supplanted because McGuffey intended his Readers to be used with it. So, the speller continued to be used along with the McGuffey Readers until they themselves were supplanted by the textbooks of the twentieth century. Webster also wrote two other widely used books: a series of concise biographies (21 of which were of prominent Americans) for use in the schools (in 1830) and a History of the United States (in 1832), which gave credit to the guiding hand of God for the development of the USA, and which claimed that the civil liberty we enjoy is due to the principles of the Christian religion, especially early New England Puritanism.

One of the first — and most prestigious — endorsers of Webster’s speller was Ezra Stiles, the President of Yale College, from which Webster had received his B.A. and M.A. degrees. President Stiles was so interested in this speller that he even suggested to Webster a title for it, which Webster used for the first six editions as the main title, but after that relegated to a sub-title, using then as the main title The American Spelling Book. This title contains the term “Grammatical Institute,” which Stiles believed was warranted for such an important project as the creation of a new system of education, since the term “institute” denotes an authoritative codification, as in law (e.g., The Institutes of Justinian) or theology (e.g., John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion). In fact, according to Unger’s discussion, it appears that Stiles, as a Calvinist, had Calvin’s Institutes in mind when he made the suggestion, and that Webster, as a Calvinist, thus acceded to the suggestion, although, as a young man (only twenty-five years of age), he feared that the term “Institute” might seem too “pompous” and that its obvious derivation from Calvin’s monumental Institutes would expose him to criticism for vanity. While this humility is certainly commendable, it must not be forgotten that John Calvin himself was only 26 years old when he wrote the first edition of his Institutes!

Unger mentions Webster’s Calvinism from time to time, but, unfortunately, he provides no systematic study of it, which would have been helpful, because from what Unger does say, it appears that Calvinism was important to Webster, but that he was not always consistent with it in his thinking. For instance, for a period of time in his early life he believed in Rousseau’s social contract theory, but later turned away from it when he began to see the dangers of what today we would call “mobocracy.”

The work for which Noah Webster is best known, his An American Dictionary of the English language (1828), was done at the end of his life and was such a gargantuan work — both in its composition and as a finished product -— that it is impossible in a short book review such as this to even summarize what was involved. You will need to read Unger’s account of it, which is quite fascinating. It was the largest and best English dictionary ever produced, and it received high praise from Englishmen as well as Americans.

Webster was an indefatigable worker who did far more than this review might indicate (as if that weren’t enough). This is a selective review: I have only included discussion of Webster’s activities which were nationally influential. I did not mention his endeavors which did not succeed: e.g., a newspaper, a magazine, and a revised translation of the Bible; nor his work as a lawyer and a public servant in New England, which were successful, but were only of local importance.

In conclusion, Unger’s biography clearly shows the important but little-known role which Noah Webster played in the formation of the early American nation, especially in its political, linguistic, and educational aspects. This study needs to be followed by one which examines the influence of Webster’s Calvinism upon his patriotism, because Unger’s book only provides a few glimpses of this influence.

Topics: Biography, Education

Forrest W. Schultz

Forrest W. Schultz has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Drexel University.

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