Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758, in the West Division of Hartford, Connecticut, to a family who had lived in Connecticut since colonial days. His father, Noah, Sr. (1722-1813), was a farmer and a sower. His father was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother, Mercy (née Steele; d. 1794), was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. Noah had two brothers, Abraham (1751-1831) and Charles (b. 1762), and two sisters, Mercy (1749-1820) and Jerusha (1756-1831). His childhood home, the Noah Webster House, is now a National Historic Landmark and a museum.
At the age of 16, Noah began attending Yale College. His four years at Yale overlapped the American Revolutionary War, and, because of food shortages, many of his college classes were held in Glastonbury, Connecticut. During the American Revolution, he served in the Connecticut Militia.
Having graduated from Yale in 1778, Webster wanted to continue his education in order to earn his law degree. He taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford, and West Hartford in order to pay for his education. He earned his law degree in 1781, but did not practice law until 1789. He found the law not to his liking, so he tried teaching, setting up several very small schools that did not thrive.
Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf (1766-1847) on October 26, 1789, in New Haven, Connecticut. They had eight children: Emily Schotten (1790-1861), who married William W. Ellsworth, named by Webster as an executor of his will; Frances Julianna (1793-1869); Harriet (1797-1844); Mary (1799-1819); William Greenleaf (1801-1869); Eliza (1803-1888); Henry (1806-1807); and Louisa (b. 1808). Webster liked to carry raisins and candies in his pocket for his children to enjoy.
Webster married well and had joined the elite in Hartford but did not have much money. In 1793, Alexander Hamilton loaned him $1500 to move to New York City to edit a Federalist newspaper. In December, he founded New York's first daily newspaper, American Minerva (later known as The Commercial Advertiser), and edited it for four years.
For decades, he was one of the most prolific authors in the new nation, publishing textbooks, political essays for his Federalist party, and newspaper articles at a remarkable rate (a modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages).
The Websters moved back to New Haven in 1798. He then served in the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1800 and 1802-1807.
As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They could be overcrowded, with up to seventy children of all ages crammed into one-room schoolhouses, poorly staffed with untrained teachers, and poorly equipped with no desks and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. Webster thought that Americans should learn from American books, so he began writing a 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 clamor 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", which meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language. "The truth is general custom is the rule of speaking—and every deviation from this must be wrong.
The Speller was arranged so that it could be easily taught to students, and it progressed by age. From his own experiences as a teacher, Webster thought the Speller should be simple and gave an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. He believed 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. Ellis argues that Webster anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Webster said that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a three-year-old how to read; they could not do it until age five. 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 entitled 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 one hundred years, Webster's book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time; by 1861, it was selling a million copies per year, and its royalty of less than one cent per copy was enough to sustain Webster in his other endeavors. Some consider it to be the first dictionary created in the United States, and it helped create the popular contests known as spelling bees.
Slowly, he changed the spelling of words, such that they became 'Americanized'. He chose s over c in words like defense; he changed the re to er in words like center; he dropped one of the Ls in traveller; at first, he kept the u in words like colour or favour, but he dropped it in later editions.
Unauthorized printing of his books, and disparate copyright laws that varied among the thirteen states, led Webster to champion the federal copyright law that was successfully passed in 1790.
In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language The following year, at the age of 43, Webster began writing an expanded and comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, which would take twenty-seven years to complete. To supplement the documentation of the etymology of the words, Webster learned twenty-six languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit. Webster hoped to standardize American speech, since Americans in different parts of the country spelled, pronounced, and used words differently.
During the course of his work on the book, the family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1812, where Webster helped to found Amherst College. In 1822, the family moved back to New Haven, and Webster was awarded an honourary degree from Yale the following year.
Webster completed his dictionary during his year abroad in 1825 in Paris, France, and at the University of Cambridge. His book contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousands had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster believed that English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex, so his dictionary introduced American English spellings, replacing "colour" with "color", substituting "wagon" for "waggon", and printing "center" instead of "centre". He also added American words, like "skunk" and "squash", that did not appear in British dictionaries. At the age of seventy, Webster published his dictionary in 1828.
Though it now has an honoured place in the history of American English, Webster's first dictionary only sold 2,500 copies. He was forced to mortgage his home to bring out a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt.
In 1840, the second edition was published in two volumes. On May 28, 1843, a few days after he had completed revising an appendix to the second edition, and with much of his efforts with the dictionary still unrecognized, Noah Webster died.
Webster was a devout Christian. His speller was very moralistic, and his first lesson began "Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink ; nor for your body, what ye shall put on ; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things."
His 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume. Webster considered education "useless without the Bible". Webster learned 20 different languages in finding definitions for which a particular word is used. [Preface to the 1828 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language]
Webster released his own edition of the Bible in 1833, called the Common Version. He used the King James Version as a base, and consulted the Hebrew and Greek along with various other versions and commentaries. Webster molded the KJV to correct grammar, replaced words that were no longer used, and did away with words and phrases that could be seen as offensive.