A-B-C … Easy as One, Two, Three

Noah Webster, ca. 1867. Prints and Photographs Division.

Noah Webster, ca. 1867. Prints and Photographs Division.

On Oct. 16, 1758, Noah Webster, the “Father of American Scholarship and Education” was born. Lexicographers everywhere celebrate his contributions on his birthday, also known as “Dictionary Day.”

As a young, rural Connecticut teacher, he used his own money to publish his first speller in 1783. Reissued throughout the 19th century, the 1829 “Blue Back Speller” was second only to the Bible in copies sold. After his death in 1843, the rights to his dictionary were sold to George and Charles Merriam, whose company is now known as Merriam-Webster Inc. The Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds a copy of the 1829 edition and Webster’s first speller from 1783.

An active federalist, Webster became a pamphleteer for centralized government and was critical of the politics of self-aggrandizement. Clearly setting himself with the nation’s founders, he believed that if a man was dependent financially on someone, he could not serve the public good but would only be concerned about his dependent relationship. A politician had to be independent – owning his own land and not directly involved in the marketplace. To Webster, George Washington was the epitome of this disinterested leader. You can find several letters written between the two in the online collection of the Library’s collection of the George Washington Papers. His support of the founding fathers led him to maintain correspondence with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both of whose papers are also held at the Library.

Noah Webster. Born 1758-died 1843. The schoolmaster of the republic. Print, Dec. 19, 1891. Prints and Photographs Division.

Noah Webster. Born 1758-died 1843. The schoolmaster of the republic. Print, Dec. 19, 1891. Prints and Photographs Division.

Webster was also an advocate for copyright laws and traveled widely to further legislation, including the Copyright Act of 1831. The Library is the home of the U.S. Copyright Office, where you can find information on how to register a work, learn about copyright law and search copyright records.

Author Jonathan Kendell’s book, “The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture” (2011) recounts Webster’s life as a successful publisher, public servant and political confidante. Kendall spoke at the Library following the publishing of his book.

 

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