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Appletons' Webster Noah.jpg
Appletons' Webster Noah signature.jpg

WEBSTER, Noah, philologist, b. in Hartford, Conn., 16 Oct., 1758; d. in New Haven, Conn., 28 May, 1843. His father was a farmer, a descendant in the fourth generation of John Webster, who previous to 1660 was one of the magistrates and governor of Connecticut. His mother was a descendant of William Bradford, second governor of Plymouth colony. Noah entered Yale in 1774, but his studies were interrupted by the war of independence, and in his junior year he served in his father's company of militia. He was graduated in 1778, in the same class with Joel Barlow, Uriah Tracy, and Oliver Wolcott. He became a teacher, gave his leisure hours to the study of law, and in 1781 was admitted to the bar. But the state of the country was unfavorable to law business, and he resumed teaching at Goshen, N. Y. Here he began the compilation of text-books, and published “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” (3 parts, Hartford, 1783-'5). This consisted of a spelling-book, a grammar, and a reading-book; and so successful was the speller that for twenty years while he was at work on his dictionary it supported him and his family, though his royalty was less than one cent on a copy. It is still in use, and 62,000,000 copies have been published. After the war the question of giving the soldiers pay for five years beyond their term of enlistment was discussed under great excitement, and in Connecticut a convention was held to protest against the passage of a bill for that purpose. Mr. Webster published a series of articles, under the signature of “Honorius,” favoring the bill, and they were said to have been the principal cause of a revulsion of popular feeling, as indicated in the next election. This turned his attention to governmental matters, and in 1784 he published a pamphlet entitled “Sketches of American Policy,” in which he argued that a new system of government was necessary for the country, in which the people and congress should act without the constant intervention of the states. This is believed to have been the first movement toward a national constitution. In the spring of the next year Mr. Webster visited the southern states, to petition their legislatures for a copyright law, and at Mount Vernon gave Washington a copy of his pamphlet. In 1786 he delivered, in several cities, a course of lectures, w.hich were published under the title “Dissertations on the English Language” (1789). In 1787 he was superintendent of an academy in Philadelphia, and after the adjournment of the Constitutional convention published a pamphlet on “The Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution.” In 1788 he established in New York the “American Magazine,” but it lived only twelve months, and the next year he settled in Hartford as a lawyer, and married a daughter of William Greenleaf, of Boston. His friend, John Trurnbull, the poet, referring to the dullness of business, wrote: “I fear he will breakfast upon Institutes, dine upon Dissertations, and go to bed supperless.” Yet he enjoyed a profitable practice for four years, when he removed to New York and established a daily paper, the “Minerva” (subsequently changed to “Commercial Advertiser”), to support Washington's administration. In 1794 he published a pamphlet on “The Revolution in France,” which was widely circulated; and in 1795 he wrote ten of the twelve articles under the signature of “Curtius,” to sustain the Jay treaty, which were said by Rufus King to have done more than anything else to render that treaty acceptable to the people. A little later he wrote a history of pestilences, containing a large collection of facts and his own theories (2 vols., New York and London, 1799). He had removed to New Haven in 1798, and devoted himself to literature. In 1802 he produced a treatise on blockade and rights of neutrals, and also “The Origin and State of Banking Institutions and Insurance Offices.”

Mr. Webster had long been studying the origin and structure of his mother tongue, and in 1807 he published the first results of his special labors, under the title “A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language.” He objected to the ordinary English grammars, on the ground that they attempted to make the language conform to the Greek and Latin; but his book was never very successful. In the preceding year, 1806, he had published a vocabulary of words not contained in any existing lexicon, and he now began work upon his “American Dictionary of the English Language.” To collect new words, and make fuller and more exact definitions, was the special work to which he devoted many years, and he made a “synopsis of words in twenty languages,” which is still in manuscript. He also went to Europe in 1824 to consult literary men and examine works not to be found on this side of the Atlantic, and in the library of the University of Cambridge finished his dictionary, returning with the manuscript in June, 1825. In 1828 an edition of 2,500 copies was printed, followed by one of 3,000 in England. In 1840-'1 he published an enlarged edition, in two volumes. The first edition had contained 12,000 words and 40,000 definitions that were not to be found in any similar work, and in each successive edition the number has been increased. Just before his death he revised the appendix and added several hundred words. In that year also he published “A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects,” which included a treatise “On the Supposed Change in the Temperature of Winter.”

In 1812, for more economical living, he had removed to Amherst, Mass., where he was instrumental in founding Amherst college, and became the first president of its board of trustees. He was the centre of a small literary circle there, and his large library was always open to his neighbors. In 1822 he resumed his residence in New Haven, and the next, year Yale gave him the degree of LL. D. He was for several years an alderman of New Haven, was a judge of one of the Connecticut courts, and sat in the legislatures of that state and Massachusetts. He is described as a genial man, of great frankness, who rendered all the affairs of his household perfectly systematic, and never was in debt. He read the Bible thoroughly, believed fully in its inspiration, had deep religious convictions, and during the last thirty-five years of his life was a member of an orthodox Congregational church. He was tall and slender, but perfectly erect. His wife survived him four years. They had one son and six daughters. Dr. Webster's life has been written by one of his daughters, as an introduction to his great dictionary, and by Horace E. Scudder, in the “Men of Letters” series (Boston, 1882).