A Year: Day to Day Men: 16th of October

Three Yellow Boards

October 16, 1758, was the birthdate of lexicographer Noah Webster.

Noah Webster enrolled in Yale just before his 16th birthday and graduated in 1778 with a liberal degree. After a break in his studies, Webster returned to college, studied law, and passed his bar examination in 1781. Turning to literary work to channel his ambitions, Webster wrote a series of well-received articles justifying the American Revolution and arguing for permanent separation from Britain. He then founded a private school in Goshen, New York, and, by 1785 had written his speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools.

In December of 1793 Noah Webster founded New York’s first daily newspaper “American Minerva”, later known as the ‘Commercial Advertiser”, which he edited for four years and wrote the equivalent of twenty volumes of articles and editorials. As a Federalist spokesman, he defended the administrations of Washington and Adams, especially their neutral policy to Britain and France, and criticized the terror of the French Revolution.

Moving in 1798 to New Haven, Connecticut, Noah Webster was elected as a Federalist to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1800 and again in 1802-1807. The Copyright Act of 1831 was the first major statutory revision of copyright law in the United States, a result of lobbying by Webster and his agents in Congress. He also had an important role in lobbying individual states to pass American copyright laws.

Noah Webster thought that Americans should learn from American books; so he began writing the three volume compendium “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language”: a speller published in 1783; a grammar book published in 1784; and a reader published in 1785. He believed that the people-at-large must control the language, and popular sovereignty in government must by accompanied by popular usage in language. These books were arranged so that the subjects could be easily taught to students, and each section progressed by the age of the students.

In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary. In 1807 he began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, “An American Dictionary of the English Language”, a feat that took twenty-six years to complete. To evaluate the etymology of words, Webster learned twenty-eight languages, hoping to standardize the American speech throughout the country.

Noah Webster’s dictionary contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousand had never before appeared in a dictionary. Though it now has an honored place in the history of the American Language, it only sold 2,500 copies. By mortgaging his house, Webster found the funds to publish a second edition in two volumes, however as a result, his remaining life was plagued with debt. On May 28, 1843, a few days after revising an appendix to his work, Noah Webster died.

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