Noah Webster may be best remembered for the enormous and ambitious task of writing his famous dictionary, but there was much more to his accomplishments. His goal was to streamline the language spoken in a newly formed country so it could be used as a force to bring people together and a source of national pride. Though people laughed at his ideas, Webster never doubted himself. In the end, his so-called foolish notions achieved just what he had hoped.
Here, in the only biography of Noah Webster written for teen readers, we journey through Webster’s remarkable life, from boyhood on a Connecticut farm, through the fight for American independence to his days as a writer and political activist who greatly influenced our founding fathers and the direction of the young United States.
“Capably weaves Webster’s biography into the history of America’s early years.” —Booklist
“Impeccably researched . . . Provides readers with a glimpse at historical figures such as Thomas Paine, George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.” —School Library Journal (starred review)
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|Lexile:||1090L (what's this?)|
|File size:||41 MB|
|Note:||This product may take a few minutes to download.|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including many highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland. Visit her online at catherinereef.com.
Read an Excerpt
A Boy Who Dreamed of Books and Words
The letter a is one kind of beginning; birth is another. Noah Webster, Jr., was born in the West Division of Hartford, Connecticut, in his family's farmhouse, on October 16, 1758. Like his brothers and sisters, Noah was born in the best room, the one that served as a parlor during the day and his parents' bedchamber at night. This room was furnished simply, with straight-backed chairs and a four-poster bed. A massive stone fireplace offered heat, and a black Bible sat on the writing desk, ready to be consulted. The Websters sought its guidance for even the simplest duties of daily life.
Noah's mother, Mercy Steele Webster, had a great-great-grandfather who sailed to Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Like all farm women, Mercy Webster worked hard, making cloth, sewing and mending clothes, cooking and preserving food, gardening, and sweeping out the house. Somehow she had time to school the children in spelling and arithmetic. She read to them and taught them to play the flute. Beauty touched her soul, and she cried easily if she happened on a heartfelt phrase in a book or heard a well-loved melody. She passed along her loves to Noah. As a young man, he would turn to his books and flute whenever he felt low. In his diary he marveled that "the sound of a little hollow tube of wood should dispel in a few moments, or at least alleviate, the heaviest cares of life!"
Mercy Webster led the family in singing psalms every night. As good colonial parents, the Websters made their home a godly setting, to start the children on the path to salvation. Mercy's husband, Noah Webster, Sr., had little formal schooling, but he was a bright man whose mind was open to new ideas. He was a founder of the local First Book Society, an early version of a public library. He served as a church deacon and justice of the peace.
Hartford in the 1750s was one of Connecticut's two capitals; New Haven was the other. Hartford was a growing town, where twenty or more shops lined the main street, selling everything from sugar, tea, and flour to gunpowder, nails, and axes. Some merchants were so eager for profits that they built shops on top of Hartford's old burial ground, which had been set aside as a graveyard in 1640. Others moved their businesses closer and closer to the road. In 1758, the year Noah was born, Hartford's leaders halted this inching forward by ordering property owners in the center of town to put in brick sidewalks.
Nearly all of the town's thirty-nine hundred people had English roots. About a hundred were African Americans, most of them enslaved. Slavery was legal throughout the colonies, although large-scale slaveholding never took hold in New England as it did in the South. A prosperous Connecticut family might own a slave or two, or possibly three.
In 1636, English settlers purchased the land that became the West Division from the Saukiog Indians. Generations of Saukiog had lived beside the Connecticut River, which teemed with fish. They hunted game and gathered nuts and berries in nearby forests and meadows. The Saukiog continued to live close to the West Division after the English came, because having armed settlers nearby offered protection from their enemies, the Pequot and Mohegan tribes.
In this setting, young Noah grew into a lanky boy. His gray eyes were flecked with brown, and his red hair never would behave. As soon as he was big enough, he joined his father and older brother, Abraham, in the fields. The boys pushed a plow and sowed seeds in spring, pulled weeds throughout the summer, and gathered the ready crops come fall. All children worked hard on a colonial farm, boys and girls alike. Noah's sisters, Mercy and Jerusha, churned butter, gathered eggs, and spun linen and wool. They also looked after the youngest child, Charles, who was born in 1762. At night the children slept on straw mattresses, the boys in one of two upstairs rooms and the girls in the other.
Between the fall harvest and spring planting, the children attended the South Middle School. In colonial Connecticut, towns of seventy or more households were required to provide a school for half the year. Most of these "common schools" were small buildings where children of all ages sat together on backless benches. Pupils had few supplies or textbooks. Some families owned The New-England Primer, which was first published around 1690. This reader offered simple verses on religious themes for children to read and learn by heart.
Another book, A New Guide to the English Tongue, by the British author Thomas Dilworth, came into use in the 1740s. Dilworth's book began with the alphabet and moved on to tables of two-letter syllables for pupils to memorize: "ba be bi bo bu." Next came words of two and three letters, followed by simple religious readings:
No Man may put off the Law of God. The Way of God is no ill Way ...
Teaching religion in school was just as important as teaching reading, colonial leaders believed. Children needed faith to protect them from "that ould deluder, Satan."
Women taught in some small-town schools, but most colonial teachers were men. Schoolmasters needed no training, so just about any man could keep school. Some schoolmasters had college degrees, but many were drifters, drunkards, or indentured servants who had agreed to teach for a period of years if the community paid their passage from England. Towns wanting to get the most for their money often expected the teacher to serve in other ways, perhaps by leading the choir, cleaning the church, or digging graves. Keeping school was a tedious, low-paying job, so teachers tended to drift away as easily as they came. Indentured schoolmasters were known to run off to avoid serving their full term of service. In 1777, one Connecticut town offered a reward for the return of its schoolmaster, a man "of a pale complexion, with short hair" who had "the itch very bad, and sore legs."
For Noah Webster, school meant boredom. During the months when school was in session, he spent five or six hours each day "in idleness, in cutting tables and benches in pieces," he said, "or perhaps in some roguish tricks."
Noah learned no history in school, although he was growing up in a momentous time. In 1754, four years before he was born, Great Britain and France went to war in North America to decide which nation would control the continent and its profitable fur trade. At the time the war broke out, nearly all land east of the Mississippi River had been claimed by Britain or France. The French had settled along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers and in some of the northern territory that would become Canada. They were greatly outnumbered by the English, whose colonies ran along the East Coast, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains. As English settlers began to push west, the French built forts, hoping to stop them. Borders were vague, though, and each of the two powers claimed the Ohio River valley as its own.
Native people battled on both sides of this conflict, which is known as the French and Indian War. Colonial militiamen fought for the British, and among them was Noah's father. Leaving his wife to run the farm, he helped defend Fort William Henry, a British outpost on Lake George, in New York. In August 1757, the fort came under such heavy bombardment that the British and Americans had to give it up. The French promised no harm to the defeated force, but many looked the other way while their Indian allies brutally attacked the British and colonists. No one was safe, not the sick and wounded, not the women and children who had been sheltered in the fort, not the Indians and free blacks who had fought on the British side. Hundreds were hacked to death, scalped alive, or taken prisoner. "This horrid scene of blood and slaughter obliged our officers to apply to the French Guard for protection, which they refus'd," wrote a Massachusetts colonel who lived to tell the tale. Noah Webster, Sr., felt grateful to make it home alive.
A series of British victories in 1758 and 1759 led to the surrender of Quebec, the French capital in North America. The treaty ending the war, signed in Paris in 1763, gave all French land east of the Mississippi to Great Britain. When news of the treaty reached Hartford, the town erupted in celebration. People lit bonfires, set off fireworks, and rang church bells for an hour.
Trouble was just beginning for the colonists, though. Maintaining a fighting force so far from home had cost Great Britain a huge amount of money. Even with the war won, Britain planned to station ten thousand soldiers on the western frontier, near the Appalachian Mountains, to protect settlers there. The British government, under King George III, hoped to replenish its treasury by taxing the colonists. In 1765, Britain's Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a law that placed a tax on every piece of printed paper used in the colonies, from deeds and mortgages to newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards. The fee was small, but colonists objected to it on principle. Taxes like this one amounted to British treachery. How dare the mother country tax them without their approval? Since the time the colonies were founded, their legislatures — not Parliament — had raised the taxes that colonists paid. If the Stamp Act was allowed to stand, what would Parliament tax next?
In Boston, a citizens' alliance known as the Sons of Liberty ransacked the homes of British appointees and hung the tax master in effigy. In October 1765, a group calling itself the Stamp Act Congress petitioned Parliament and the king to repeal the hated tax. American merchants began boycotting British goods, and trade between Britain and America came to a halt. Soon, British exporters were losing so much business that they too demanded an end to the tax. Faced with angry protests on both sides of the Atlantic, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766.
Yet there were more taxes and outrages to come. Beginning in 1767, Britain put in place the Townshend Acts, which imposed duties on imported glass, lead, paper, and tea. They allowed British authorities to search colonial homes and businesses for smuggled goods, and they denied a trial by jury to anyone violating these acts. Boston retaliated by refusing to import any British goods on which duties had been placed.
Britain stationed infantrymen in Boston, which only caused tension to mount. On March 5, 1770, red-coated British soldiers fired into a jeering crowd, killing five Americans and wounding six others. The incident is remembered as the Boston Massacre.
In time Noah Webster, Jr., would have a great deal to say about the events of his day, but as a boy he liked to steal away from his father's fields and spend hours in the shade of an apple tree, reading books and thinking about the words in them. What did they mean, exactly? How did they fit together to form sentences and express ideas? If his father tracked him down, Noah received a scolding and a swift order: Back to work!
Noah loved music almost as much as he loved books. When he was twelve he formed a singing group with his friends from neighboring farms. On Sundays the boys sat together in church and practiced their harmonies while singing hymns. Noah was shocked when churchgoers sitting near them complained about the noise. Convinced that the criticism was unfair, he defended himself and his friends in Hartford's newspaper, the Connecticut Courant. Claiming to have a "considerable degree of knowledge in the art of Music," he explained that the boys meant no harm; they hoped singing would teach them obedience and good manners. But did they receive support from their fellow churchgoers? They did not, he wrote. Instead, they met with opposition "from the envious and ilnatur'd." This unsigned letter from August 1771 was Noah Webster's first published writing.
Noah's family worshiped at the Fourth Church of Christ, a large, plain meetinghouse. In October 1772, the church welcomed a new minister. Nathan Perkins was young, just twenty-four, but he was learned. He had graduated with distinction from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). A small, stocky man with a big voice, Perkins was "an intelligent and agreeable companion," said one of his lifelong friends, a minister named Daniel Waldo. "He was always ready to converse on any subject, and was particularly at home on subjects connected with Theology." Waldo added, though, that Perkins "rarely indulged in sallies of wit." Serious Mr. Perkins "was eminently devoted to the interests of his flock. He visited them frequently and familiarly, and was regarded by them all as their common friend."
Perkins gave sermons on "sinless perfection," which he said was impossible to achieve. He lectured on "the right way to understand the inspired writings." As Noah listened to Perkins speak, he saw a future for himself that had nothing to do with tilling the soil. He wanted to be an educated man — to go to Yale College, in New Haven.
When Noah told his father about his dream, the older man hesitated. He knew that Noah loved to learn, and how proud he would have been to have a son graduate from Yale! But how could he afford to send young Noah to college? The tuition, room, and board would cost about twenty-five pounds a year. This was a huge sum to a farmer who could not spend ten pounds for a second horse. Noah Webster, Sr., thought the matter over, weighing the pros and cons. If Noah went to Yale, the family would struggle financially. Land had value, though, and if strapped for cash, Noah Senior could mortgage his farm. Besides, it would be impossible for all three of his sons to take over the farm one day; it was simply too small. It made sense for Noah to do something else with his life. When Noah Senior gave his son an answer, it was yes.
This was happy news for young Noah, but it meant that hard work lay ahead. To be admitted to Yale, he had to pass an examination in Latin, classical Greek, mathematics, and the rules of poetry. He would never learn all he needed to know at the South Middle School; but luckily for Noah, Nathan Perkins agreed to be his tutor. Youths planning to go to college often studied under a minister's guidance. There was no set amount of time for preparation, just as there was no usual age for entering college. A young man went when he was ready.
No women went to college in the eighteenth century. Most people believed that women should learn to read the Bible but that too much study drew their attention away from home and family. People also thought that studying might harm women's brains.
Over the next two years, Noah met often with Perkins and spent every spare minute learning on his own. At last, when he was nearly sixteen, Perkins handed him a certificate stating that his scholarly achievements and high moral character made him fit to enter Yale. Perkins would spend sixty-six years as a pastor in the West Division of Hartford. He would help more than a hundred young men prepare for college, but Noah Webster was the first. Like all the best teachers, he taught his students the joy of learning. Decades later, when Webster read of Perkins's death, he noted, "To his instruction and example I am somewhat indebted for my taste for the study of languages."
In September 1774, Noah said goodbye to his friends and loved ones, and embarked with his father on the forty-mile journey south to New Haven, on the Connecticut coast. Because the Websters had only one horse, father and son took turns riding and walking. After Noah Junior proved to the Yale faculty that he was worthy of admission, Noah Senior traveled home alone.CHAPTER 2
College in Wartime
THE STREETS of New Haven formed nine neat squares that pleased Noah Webster's sense of order. There was a public green at the center, one of the largest in New England. Gulls cried in the clean, brisk sky over New Haven's harbor as winds filled the sails of ships bound for Boston, New York City, and the far-off West Indies.
Amid such lovely tidiness, Yale College was an eyesore. No trees grew on the campus. Anyone could see that the earliest of Yale's buildings, Old College, was falling apart. Back in 1750, twenty-four years before Noah Webster arrived on the scene, a British traveler noted that Old College was "very much decayed." Since then, Yale's trustees had never found the money to fix it.
The forty freshmen slept two to a tiny room in Connecticut Hall, a building that was freezing in winter and hot as a baker's oven in summer. It was no wonder the students called Connecticut Hall the "Brick Prison." Ranging in age from twelve to twenty, the freshmen were the lowliest students at Yale. They wore plain street clothes while the upperclassmen walked about in black gowns. They chopped firewood and ran errands for the sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and always addressed them as "sir." If an upperclassman wanted to pass through a doorway, a freshman had to step aside and let him go first.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Noah Webster"
Copyright © 2015 Catherine Reef.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Boy Who Dreamed of Books and Words,
College in Wartime,
Seeking a Living,
A New Book to Teach a New Nation,
A Friend to His Country,
Coxcomb General of the United States,
Compiler of Facts,
Mixing Weeds and Flowers,
The Silent Current of Time,
"His Work Was Done",
The Major Works of Noah Webster,
About the Author,