Today in History: Noah Webster Born
On this date in 1758, Noah Webster was born.
Webster is best known for his dictionary and his work in education, but he was also a prominent political writer who was influential in both the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.
Webster was born on Oct. 16, 1758, in West Harford, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale College and went on to study law under future Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. Webster never found work as a lawyer and instead focused on education.
Webster attended a dilapidated one-room schoolhouse as a child. He described the teachers there as “the dregs of humanity.” * The experience fueled his desire to provide a better educational experience for future generations. Webster founded two private schools and wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, more commonly known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” Five generations of American schoolchildren used the book to learn spelling and reading. Webster has been called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education”.
In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. He published an expanded version, the American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828.
Webster’s political writings aren’t as well-known today, but they were influential at the time.
Webster was an ardent patriot and wrote a series of articles for a prominent New England newspaper justifying the Revolution and advocating for permanent independence from Great Britain. He was a member of the Connecticut militia and saw combat during the Battle of Saratoga.
An advocate for a strong national government, Webster was also influential in the development and ratification of the Constitution.
In 1785, Webster wrote a pamphlet titled Sketches of American Policy that outlined his vision for a stronger central government. He wrote that because a single state could veto any congressional act under the Articles of Confederation, “our pretended union is but a name and our confederation, a cobweb.”
“We cannot and ought not wholly to divest ourselves of provincial views and attachments, but we should subordinate them to the general interests of the continent.”
A strong executive was central to Webster’s plan and he cited his home state of Connecticut as a model.
“The state elects a governor or supreme magistrate and cloaths him with the power of the whole state to enforce the laws. Thus the whole power of the state is brought to a single point — it is united in one person.”
Webster even discussed his proposal with George Washington and James Madison. A copy of Sketches has a handwritten note in Webster’s writing.
“The following sketches were written in the month of February, 1785, before any proposal had even been made to remodel the government of the States. In May, I carried one copy of them to Virginia and presented it to General Washington. Mr. Madison saw and read it at the General’s soon after, and in November the same year, he, in conversation with me, expressed a warm approbation of the sentiments it contains. At the next session of the Legislature, which indeed began the same month, a proposition was made in the Assembly, for appointing the commissioners, who afterward met at Annapolis and whose recommendations originated the convention at Philadelphia in 1787.”
Webster was not a member of the Philadelphia Convention, but he was in the city as the delegates hammered out a new Constitution and served as Washington’s unofficial policy adviser.
Webster didn’t get the strong central authority he wanted, but like fellow nationalist Alexander Hamilton, he immediately threw his weight behind the new Constitution. Shortly after the Constitution was approved, Webster published An Examination of the Leading Principles of the New Federal Constitution Proposed by the Late Convention Held in Philadelphia under the pen name “A Citizen of America.” His essay highlighted what he saw as the virtues of the new Constitution, emphasizing how it separated powers, specifically the division of power between the states and the federal government.
“The bounds of jurisdiction between federal and respective state governments are marked with precision.”
He also emphasized the benefit of dividing Congress into two houses as a way to tame the human tendency to get swept away by “sudden and violent passions” that silence reason.
“This fact suggests the expedience of dividing the powers of legislation between two bodies of men, whose debates shall be separate and not dependent on each other; that if at any time, one part should appear to be under any undue influence, either from passion, obstinacy, jealousy of particular men, attachment to a particular speaker, or other extraordinary causes, there might be a power in the legislature sufficient to check every pernicious measure.”
Webster’s essay covered other aspects of the constitutional structure such as the powers of the presidency, noting that “they are not so extensive as those of the British king.”
The essay circulated widely and was influential outside of Webster’s home state. South Carolinian David Ramsay, who served as president during the Second Continental Congress, called Webster’s work an “ingenious pamphlet” and said, “it is now in brisk circulation among my friends… It will doubtless be of singular significance in recommending the adoption of the New Constitution.”
Webster also wrote numerous articles in support of ratification under various pseudonyms.
After ratification, Webster continued writing about political matters. In 1793, Alexander Hamilton recruited him to move to New York and edit the Federalist Party newspaper. In 1798, he returned to Connecticut and served in the state House.
Webster died in 1843 at the age of 85.
* Source — The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall
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