Today is the birthday (1758) of Noah Webster Jr., whose name is synonymous with “dictionary” in the United States, and who was a significant force both in primary education and in the development of what is now called American English. Many of the spellings now current in the US came from Webster’s crusade to simplify the complexities of British orthography, and also to distance the US from British habits.
Webster was born in the Western Division of Hartford (which became West Hartford, Connecticut), to an established family. His father Noah Sr. (1722–1813) was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother Mercy (Steele) Webster (1727–1794) was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. His father was primarily a farmer, though he was also deacon of the local Congregational church, captain of the town’s militia, and a founder of a local book society (a precursor to the public library). After US independence, he was appointed a justice of the peace.
Webster’s father never attended college, but he was intellectually curious and prized education. Webster’s mother spent long hours teaching her children spelling, mathematics, and music. At age 6, Webster began attending a dilapidated one-room primary school built by West Hartford’s Ecclesiastical Society. Years later, he described the teachers as the “dregs of humanity” and complained that the instruction was mainly in religion. Webster’s experiences there motivated him to improve the educational experience of future generations.
At age 14, his church pastor began tutoring him in Latin and Greek to prepare him for entering Yale College. Webster enrolled at Yale just before his 16th birthday, studying during his senior year with Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president. His 4 years at Yale overlapped the American Revolutionary War, and Webster served in the Connecticut Militia. His father had mortgaged the farm to send Webster to Yale, but he was now on his own and had nothing more to do with his family.
Webster lacked career plans after graduating from Yale in 1778, later writing that a liberal arts education “disqualifies a man for business.” He taught school briefly in Glastonbury, but the working conditions were harsh and the pay low. He quit to study law. While studying law under future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, Webster also taught full-time in Hartford—which was grueling, and ultimately impossible to continue. He stopped studying law for a year and lapsed into a depression. But eventually he found another practicing attorney to tutor him. He completed his studies and passed the bar examination in 1781. He could not find work as a lawyer, but after receiving a master’s degree from Yale by giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class, he opened a small private school in western Connecticut that was a success. Nevertheless, he soon closed it and left town, probably because of a failed romance.
Turning to literary work as a way to overcome his losses and channel his ambitions, he began writing a series of well-received articles for a prominent New England newspaper justifying and praising the Revolution and arguing that the separation from Britain had to be permanent. He then founded a private school catering to wealthy parents in Goshen, New York and, by 1785, he had written his Speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools. Proceeds from continuing sales of the popular “Blue-Backed Speller” enabled Webster to spend many years working on his dictionary.
Webster saw his Speller and Dictionary as providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism. As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They could be overcrowded, with up to 70 children of all ages crammed into one-room schoolhouses. They had poor, underpaid staff, no desks, and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. Webster thought that US students should learn from US books, so he began writing the three-volume compendium A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The work consisted of a Speller (published in 1783), a Grammar (published in 1784), and a Reader (published in 1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely “American” approach to training children. His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamour of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation. Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” This meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.
The Speller was arranged so that it was easy to teach to students, and it progressed by age. From his own experiences as a teacher, Webster thought that the Speller should be simple and give an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. He believed that students learned most readily when he broke a complex problem into its component parts and had each pupil master one part before moving to the next. It has been argued that Webster anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, although his inspiration on the matter came from Rousseau. Webster argued that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a 3 year old how to read, but start at age 5. He organized his Speller accordingly, beginning with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.
The Speller was originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. Most people called it the “Blue-Backed Speller” because of its blue cover and, for the next 100 years, Webster’s book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time; by 1837, it had sold 15 million copies, and 60 million by 1890—reaching the majority of young students in the nation’s first century. Its royalty of a half-cent per copy was enough to sustain Webster in his other projects. It also helped create the popular contests known as spelling bees.
Webster’s Speller was entirely secular by design, undoubtedly based on his dissatisfaction with his own schooling. There was no mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events. “Let sacred things be appropriated for sacred purposes,” he wrote. He was intensely religious, especially later in life, but sacred and secular were different realms for him.
Webster’s educational agenda concerned as much the creation of a unified American national culture that would stave off the decline of republican virtues and solidarity, as instilling good grammar and spelling. Following theorists such as Maupertuis, Michaelis, and Herder, Webster believed that a nation’s linguistic forms, and the thoughts correlated with them, shaped individuals’ behavior. Thus, the etymological clarification and reform of American English promised to improve citizens’ manners and thereby preserve republican purity and social stability. Lofty ideals !!
In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language. It took 26 years to complete. Webster hoped to standardize US speech, since citizens in different parts of the country used different dialects and languages. Consequently they spelled, pronounced, and used English words differently.
Webster completed his dictionary during a year abroad in January 1825 in a boarding house in Cambridge in England. The book contained 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster preferred spellings that matched pronunciation. The spellings that now are characteristic of American English did not originate with Webster, but he made them standard and his dictionary became the general arbiter in the US. For example, the middle of something could be the “center” or “centre” in English; Webster made the former his preferred spelling because it emphasized pronunciation over etymology (which he considered pedantically British). He was able to make headway by replacing /-our/ with /-or/ (e.g. “color” over “colour”) and eliminating some double consonants (e.g. “traveled” for “travelled”); but he found little success with more radical changes (e.g. “tung” for “tongue”); and no luck with getting rid of silent letters whatsoever. He once complained:
There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.
Though it now has an honored place in the history of American English, Webster’s first dictionary sold only 2,500 copies. He was forced to mortgage his home to develop a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt. The work was so poorly received at first because Webster, as was his wont in everyday life, managed to annoy everyone. Culturally conservative Jeffersonian Federalists (whom he allied with much of the time) denounced the work as radical—too inclusive in its lexicon and even bordering on vulgar, while his old foes, the Republicans, attacked the man, labeling him mad for such an undertaking. Even before he published the dictionary they called him “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” and “a deceitful newsmonger … Pedagogue and Quack.” But even Federalist rivals called him “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a great fool, and a barefaced liar,” “a spiteful viper,” and “a maniacal pedant.” He certainly knew how to get up people’s noses.
On the other side of the coin, Emily Dickinson saw the 1844 Webster’s as essential reading. She once commented that the “Lexicon” was her “only companion” for years. As it happens, Webster was one of the founders of Amherst college along with Dickinson’s grandfather, and she went to college with Webster’s granddaughter. Webster’s dictionaries helped redefine US national identity in an era of extreme cultural flexibility. Webster himself saw the dictionaries as a nationalizing device to separate the US from Britain, calling his project a “federal language” endeavor, with competing forces towards regularity on the one hand and innovation on the other.
American Cookery The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables etc (1796) by Amelia Simmons is a good source for a recipe for today’s anniversary because it was the first cookbook published in the US that deals with specifically American cooking, and because it was published in Hartford, Connecticut, Webster’s home town. Webster kept a daily diary but he does not mention food much. However, he does give this entry:
1784, September 29. Rode to West Division with Mrs. Fish to buy peaches. Returned and had dinner at Mr. Pratt’s. We ate Sea-Turtle.
I don’t know how the turtle was cooked, nor do I want to cook one myself, but here’s a recipe from Simmons.
To Dress a Turtle.
Fill a boiler or kettle, with a quantity of water sufficient to scald the callapach and Callapee, the fins, &c. and about 9 o’clock hang up your Turtle by the hind fins, cut of the head and save the blood, take a sharp pointed knife and separate the callapach from the callapee, or the back from the belly part, down to the shoulders, so as to come at the entrails which take out, and clean them, as you would those of any other animal, and throw them into a tub of clean water, taking great care not to break the gall, but to cut it off from the liver and throw it away, then separate each distinctly and put the guts into another vessel, open them with a small pen-knife end to end, wash them clean, and draw them through a woolen cloth, in warm water, to clear away the slime and then put them in clean cold water till they are used with the other part of the entrails, which must be cut up small to be mixed in the baking dishes with the meat; this done, separate the back and belly pieces, entirely cutting away the fore fins by the upper joint, which scald; peal off the loose skin and cut them into small pieces, laying them by themselves, either in another vessel, or on the table, ready to be seasoned; then cut off the meat from the belly part, and clean the back from the lungs, kidneys, &c. and that meat cut into pieces as small as a walnut, laying it likewise by itself; after this you are to scald the back, and belly pieces, pulling off the shell from the back, and the yellow skin from the belly, when all will be white and clean, and with the kitchen cleaver cut those up likewise into pieces about the bigness or breadth of a card; put those pieces into clean cold water, wash them and place them in a heap on the table, so that each part may lay by itself; the meat being thus prepared and laid separate for seasoning; mix two third parts of salt or rather more, and one third part of cyanne pepper, black pepper, and a nutmeg, and mace pounded fine, and mixt all together; the quantity, to be proportioned to the size of the Turtle, so that in each dish there may be about three spoonfuls of seasoning to every twelve pound of meat; your meat being thus seasoned, get some sweet herbs, such as thyme, savory, &c. let them be dryed an rub’d fine, and having provided some deep dishes to bake it in, which should be of the common brown ware, put in the coarsest part of the meat, put a quarter pound of butter at the bottom of each dish, and then put some of each of the several parcels of meat, so that the dishes may be all alike and have equal portions of the different parts of the Turtle, and between each laying of meat strew a little of the mixture of sweet herbs, fill your dishes within an inch an half, or two inches of the top; boil the blood of the Turtle, and put into it, then lay on forcemeat balls made of veal, highly seasoned with the same seasoning as the Turtle; put in each dish a gill of Madeira Wine, and as much water as it will conveniently hold, then break over it five or six eggs to keep the meat from scorching at the top, and over that shake a handful of shread parsley, to make it look green, when done put your dishes into an oven made hot enough to bake bread, and in an hour and half, or two hours (according to the size of the dishes) it will be sufficiently done.