Meet the American who defined a new national identity, Noah Webster, New England patriot armed with the pen

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Noah Webster fought for American independence with the one weapon mightier than the sword.

He wielded his pen with great influence on the identity of the sprawling, proud and ambitious new United States.

The New England native’s impact on our national heritage proved far greater than just the new words of the American-English dictionary that still bears his name.

"Webster was very much in the truest sense of the word a patriotic American," Peter Sokolowski, "dictionary ambassador" and editor at large for Merriam-Webster, based in Massachusetts, told Fox News Digital.


"He believed the new political America also needed a new cultural America, that there had to be cultural identity as distinct from Britain as our new political identity was distinct from Britain."


Webster was an outspoken advocate of American independence during the era of rebellion and early nationhood.

Dictionary namesake
American philologist, lexicographer and journalist Noah Webster (1758-1843), circa 1800.

The lexicographer was pen pals with Founding Fathers John Adams, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and the new nation’s greatest swordsman, George Washington.

Webster has been dubbed "The Forgotten Founding Father," most notably in the 2012 biography of that name by Joshua Kendall.

He was also known as "The Schoolmaster of the Republic" — a testament to the remarkable success of his spelling book, ubiquitous in American schoolrooms throughout the 19th century.

Webster almost singlehandedly ensured that a nation, now 330 million strong and rooted in almost every language on the planet, has a common way to communicate.

American English has proven a unifying force in the world's most dynamic and diverse immigrant nation.

Schoolmaster of the Republic
Noah Webster, the schoolmaster of the Republic, circa 1886.

The word "immigrant" was actually one of the 12,000 new words first used by Americans — and first defined by Webster.

"Now is the time, and this [is] the country," Webster wrote in 1789 in his "Dissertations on the English Language," dubbed America’s linguistic Declaration of Independence.

"Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government."

Noah Webster Jr. was born on Oct. 16, 1758, in what’s now West Hartford, Connecticut.

Noah Webster Sr. was a farmer and descendant of John Webster, an Englishman who became one of the first settlers of Hartford in 1636.

Mother Mercy Steele was the great-great-granddaughter of Pilgrim leader William Bradford.

Noah Webster birthplace.
Noah Webster was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1758. His schoolhouse spelling book sold an estimated 100 million copies, while he defined 70,000 words — thousands unique to the United States — in his 1828 "American Dictionary of the English Language."

The younger Webster apparently had little appetite for the hard work required on the family’s 90-acre farm.

"I wish to enjoy life, but books and writing will ever be my principal pleasure," Webster wrote years later in a letter to George Washington. "I must write; it is a happiness I cannot sacrifice."


Webster was a teenager during the outbreak of the American Revolution. He spent much of war years as a student at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.

He proved willing to sacrifice all for the cause of independence.

British forces marched south through New York in the summer of 1777, leaving a path of "terror and devastation," according to period reports.

Attack on Trenton
Washington crossing the Delaware, near Trenton, New Jersey, America, Christmas 1776. George Washington (1732-1799), first president of the United States. From English and Scottish History, published 1882.

Webster Sr. was the captain of the local militia and gathered his men to meet the British forces. Webster Jr. joined the 60-mile march.

The British were defeated and turned back by a colonial force led by fellow Connecticut native, and still-American hero, Benedict Arnold, before the West Hartford group could join the fight.

"The little band of militia men from the West Division of Hartford returned home without firing a shot, but were most willing to fight and die for their country," Jeffrey Mainville, executive director of the Noah Webster House, told Fox News Digital via email.

Webster’s prolific pen began shaping the new nation with his "Sketches of American Policy," written in 1785.

Spelling book by Noah Webster
1804: A book of American spelling containing the rudiments of the English language, for use in American schools. The book, written by Noah Webster, was published in Philadelphia in 1804.

"Virtually every educated man in America who participated in the affairs of government read Webster’s Sketches," Harlow Giles Unger wrote in his biography, "Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot."

Webster made his biggest impact on the new nation, however, in the schoolroom with his spectacularly successful textbook, commonly known as the "Blue-Backed Speller," first published in 1783.


The schoolbook "taught children how to read, write, spell and pronounce words for over 100 years," says the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland.

The "Blue-Backed Speller" was, by many reports, the bestselling book in America of the 19th century, after The Bible, with estimates of total sales as high as 100 million copies.

Noah Webster
Statue of Noah Webster at Blue Back Square in West Hartford, Connecticut. The area is named for Webster's influential schoolbook text, the "Blue-Backed Speller."

The windfall from the textbook afforded Webster the opportunity to pursue his true passion: defining the language of the new nation.

Webster’s collection of words expanded with the breathless expansion of the new United States.

The "Blue-Backed Speller" was published in the same year that British crown recognized American Independence with the Treaty of Paris.

He began exercising his power to define the national lexicon with his "Compendious Dictionary of the American Language."

Lewis & Clark expedition
Sacagawea guiding the Lewis & Clark expedition. The epic journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back ended in 1806, the same year that Noah Webster published his first dictionary.

It expanded American English with 5,000 new words and was published in 1806 — the same year that Lewis & Clark returned from expanding the nation’s sense of identity all the way to the Pacific Coast.

Among new American words defined for the first time by Webster: "skunk," "chowder" and, most profoundly, "immigrant."

"Immigrate" existed as a verb. But it was first used as a noun in spoken American English vernacular in 1789, according to Merriam-Webster "dictionary ambassador" Sokolowski.

Webster defined "immigrant" as "one who removes into a country."

"He was on top of the word ‘immigrant’ almost from the get-go," said Sokowlski, marveling at the speed at which Webster discovered, defined and published the new word with limited technology.

Ellis Island
Immigrants representing four countries, Poland, Norway, Germany and Russia, look from Ellis Island toward the promised land, New York, New York, circa 1913.

"He collected words the way all the lexicographers did," said Sokolowski. "He used little slips of paper."

With that rudimentary system, Webster published his staggering landmark "American Dictionary of the English Language" in 1828.


It spelled and defined 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had never appeared in British English dictionaries — further distancing the new nation from its former colonial master.

Webster was singularly responsible for many of the differences between British English and American English spellings today: colour became color; analyse became analyze; and defence became defense, among other notable examples encoded by Webster.

first Noah Webster dictionary
Noah Webster wrote his first dictionary in 1806, adding 5,000 words "to the number found in best English compends," he wrote.

Brits travelled — but Americans traveled.

Yet Americans don’t travel too far today to find proof of their distinct form of English.

Canada still uses traditional British spellings of words that America changed 200 or more years ago, despite the two nations sharing common pop culture, pro sports and a 5,525-mile border.

"We had a revolution, and they didn’t," Joseph Janes, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School in Seattle, told Fox News Digital.

He added, "Webster feels very deeply about America as a concept and as a country distinct from everywhere else."

Webster added his last words to the dictionary 1841, at 82 years old. Among the newcomers that year: feminism and terrorism.

Feminism was essentially a synonym for feminine, notes Sokolowski — while terrorism referred specifically to the horrors of the French Revolution.

Noah Webster died on May 28, 1843. He was 84 years old.

His legacy is best kept today at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, a saltbox-style colonial where the educator was born and raised.

It’s now a National Historic Landmark, open to the public six days a week.

Noah Webster
Noah Webster (1758-1843) was an American lexicographer author and editor. From a 19th century engraving by Kellogg after Morse.

"He had no real ability to look this far and see what America would become." Jeffrey Mainville, executive director of the Noah Webster House in West Hartford told Fox News Digital.

"But the fact is that he took a path to document a truly American language and culture."


The Noah Webster House celebrates its patriotic son with an online game show each spring called "Webster’s War of the Words."

The landmark works with the American Legion to distribute Webster’s dictionary to local schoolchildren today.

Blue Back Square in West Hartford is a popular retail and residential development in West Hartford, the name a nod to Webster’s influential spelling primer.

Birthplace of Noah Webster
The Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut. "America's Schoolmaster" and dictionary namesake was born here on Oct. 16, 1758.

Webster’s other achievements are almost too numerous to mention.

He was tapped by Alexander Hamilton to edit his Federalist newspaper in New York City in the 1790s.

He served in the Connecticut House of Representatives in the early 1800s.


Webster moved to Amherst, Massachusetts in 1815, helping to found Amherst College six years later. Today’s it’s a small, elite liberal arts college.

He helped establish intellectual property law with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1831. The rights to his dictionary were purchased by brothers George and Charles Merriam after Webster’s death.

American flag and Noah Webster
Noah Webster, right, helped shape the destiny of our powerful new nation with language.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is published today in Springfield, Massachusetts, just 30 miles from where America’s patriot with a pen was born and where he began capturing the language of brave new nation.

The Merriam-Webster archives house a remarkable treasure trove of collected knowledge, said Sokolowski: There are 16 million slips of paper with individual words, some of which date back to Webster’s original 18th-century curiosity and research.

"This country must, in some future time," Webster wrote in 1783, "be as distinguished by the superiority of her literary improvements as she is already by the liberality of her civil and ecclesiastical constitutions."

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Original article source: Meet the American who defined a new national identity, Noah Webster, New England patriot armed with the pen