1902 Encyclopedia > Noah Webster

Noah Webster
American lexicographer
(1758-1843)




NOAH WEBSTER (1758-1843), American lexicographer, was descended on the father's side from John Webster of Warwickshire, England, one of the original settlers at Hartford, and for a time governor of Connecticut, and on the mother's side from William Bradford, second governor of Plymouth and one of the founders of that colony. He was the son of a farmer, and was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, 16th October 1758. In his early years he was engaged in agricultural work, but attended a district school in the winter, and when fourteen years of age began the study of the classics under the Rev. Nathan Perkins, D.D. He entered the freshman's class at Yale College in 1774, and while in his junior year there he took part as a volunteer in the expedition against General Burgoyne. After graduating in 1778 he supported himself by teaching while prosecuting the study of law. Having begun at this time to note down every word whose meaning he did not properly understand, he was first led to conceive the scheme of a new dictionary from his frequent inability to find proper definitions of words in those in current use. His experience as a teacher soon convinced him also of the need of better instruction books in English, and this he endeavoured to supply by his Grammatical Lnstitute of the English Language, the first part of which appeared in 1783, and a second and third part in the following years. It comprehended a spelling-book, English grammar, and compilation of English reading, and very soon found a place in most of the schools of the United States. In 1785 he prepared a course of lectures on the English language, which he delivered in the principal American cities, and published in 1789 under the title Dissertations on the English Language. Meanwhile he also continued to take a deep interest in all prominent political questions. In his Sketches of American Policy (1784) he made the first distinct proposal for a new constitution for the United States, and when the work of the commissioners was completed in 1787 he was asked by them to recommend the new constitution to the American people, which he did in an Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution. After his marriage in 1789 he established himself in the practice of law at Hartford. In 1793 he was induced to found at New York a paper called Minerva, with which was connected the Herald, a semi-weekly ; the titles of the papers were subsequently altered respectively to the Commeixkd Advertiser and the New York Spectator. In 1795 he contributed to his paper several articles, under the signature of Curtius, in vindication of Jay's treaty with Great Britain, which were reprinted and had considerable effect in allaying opposition to it. In 1798 he removed to New Haven, which town he was chosen soon afterwards to represent in the general assembly of Connecticut. In 1802 appeared his well-known treatise on The Eights of Neutrals. Having removed in 1812 to Amherst, he took there a leading part in the establishment of the academy and then of the college, of which he was chosen the first president. He also represented Amherst in the court of Massachusetts. In 1822 he returned to New Haven. Meanwhile his lexicographical studies, though much interrupted by his professional and political duties, had never been entirely suspended. In 1806 he published his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, but this was only preparatory to a larger work. In 1824 he sailed for Europe to complete his researches, and after spending some time in Paris continued his labours in the library at Cambridge, where he finished the dictionary. It was published in 1828, and a second edition with many additions appeared in 1841. He also completed the revision of an appendix a few days before his death, which took place 20th May 1843.

In 1833 Webster published an edition of the Bible, "with amendments of the language," and again in 1839 an edition of the New Testament. In early life he wrote a History of the United States, of which a revised edition appeared in 1839. He was also the author of Historical Notices of Banking Institutions and Insurance Companies (1802), and a Collection of Papers on Political and Literary Subjects (1843). Since his death several revised aiid enlarged editions of the Dictionary have appeared. It was the result of much labour and research, and on this account, as well as for the clearness and carefulness of its definitions, it still holds a leading place among dictionaries of the English language, especially in America. A biography of Webster, by C. A. Goodrich, D.D., is prefixed to the quarto editions of the Dictionary.







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