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NOAA WEBSTER was born in Hartford, Of his early years we have little inforConn., October 16th, 1758. His home mation. It would gratify a most rational was in that part of the town now known curiosity if we could know more than as West Hartford, about three miles from we do what was passing in the thoughts the city. His father was a substantial and what happened in the experiences of farmer and a local magistrate, and was a a child whose manhood has been 80 descendant of John Webster, one of the marked and peculiar. Enough, however, earliest settlers of Hartford, and after- remains to show that in his case, as in ward colonial governor.
others, the “ child was father of the man.” Noah was one of five children — three It is among the family traditions, that sons and two daughters, all of whom even in those silent years upon the farm, lived to an advanced age the daughters and in the quiet of the household circle, reaching very nearly their “ threescore words had a meaning in his apprehension, years and ten," and the sons their“ four- which they do not ordinarily have to score years" and upward. His life began children and youth. He weighed them amid the commotions and hardships of the one against another; he traced their Old French War. The year of his birth resemblances and their differences, and was the year of the disastrous repulse of sought to know their full and exact Abercrombie, in his attack on Ticonder- import. oga, in which he lost two thousand men The first few years of his life were
a number not great according to the passed under the ministry of Rev. Nameasure of the gigantic battles of the thaniel Hooker, of whom we know little. present day, but great in those times. In the year 1772, on the first Sabbath of That battle carried distress and mourn- January, Rev. Nathan Perkins coming into many of the scattered homes of menced his ministry in West Hartford, New England. The war was not ended over what was then called the Fourth . until the year 1763, so that among Mr. Church of Hartford. His ministry conWebster's earliest recollections must tinued for the remarkable period of have been mingled the talk that went sixty-six years, ending, by reason of on in his father's house touching the death, in January, 1838. His life furexcitements and incidents of this bloody nishes a noble illustration of the influence struggle for supremacy.
which many Congregational ministers of
New England have put forth in behalf mates was Oliver Wolcott, afterwards of a large and liberal mental culture. Secretary of the Treasury under WashDuring his connection with the Church ington, and still later Governor of Conof West Hartford, he fitted for college necticut. Joel Barlow was a member of more than one hundred and fifty young the same class. He was afterward known
He instructed also, after the fash- as one of the Hartford wits, and achieved ion of those times, some thirty candidates a somewhat doubtful fame in the departfor the ministry. Under his guidance ment of poetry, as the author of the young Webster was fitted for college; “ Columbiad.” He was an ardent repuband as he entered Yale College in 1774, lican, and was more able in his general at the age of sixteen, it is natural to con- writings than in his poetry. In 1811 he clude that his preparatory studies were was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary commenced very soon after Mr. Perkins's to France, and died near Cracow in settlement. Of the one hundred and fifty Poland, in 1812, while on a journey to pupils already mentioned, it is highly meet the Emperor Napoleon in Conferprobable that Noah Webster was the ence at Wilna. In the same class were first in the order of time, and it is doubt Zephaniah Swift, afterwards Chief Jusful if any were before him in the order tice of Connecticut, and an able legal of merit.
writer; Uriah Tracy, who distinguished Of his college life little is told us, so himself in the Senate of the United far as relates to what ordinarily goes on States; Stephen Jacob, Chief Justice of in the life of the student. But he had the State of Vermont; and many others entered college at an extraordinary and who were well known in their generation at first view a most unpropitious time. as able thinkers and writers. The class Political events were rapidly culminat- was remarkable in one respect. Though ing. There was so much in the outside numbering when it graduated forty memworld to stir the blood and rouse the bers, it produced but four ministers. In passions of young men, that there would the long history of Yale College, among seem to be little space for calm, quiet, the one hundred and sixty-two classes thoughtful study. Only a few months that have graduated, there have been not after his entrance upon his collegiate more than two or three where the percourse, the whole land was thrilled with centage of ministers has been so small. the story of Lexington and Concord. The drift of the times was strongly The still more exciting news of Bunker toward political thinking and acting. Hill soon followed.
We have already intimated that the The regular exercises of the college period of Webster's collegiate life was were at times seriously interrupted, if seemingly a most unpropitious one for not wholly suspended. In his junior year, thorough discipline and culture. And young Webster, then eighteen years of yet in times of war, especially a just age, left college, and, making one of a war, there is so much to awaken the company commanded by his father, joined mind and heart in the right direction, the army. His two brothers were in the the soul is so stirred with quick-coming country's service at the same time, so thoughts and emotions, the whole man that all the male members of the family is so roused and animated, that it may were absent on this one errand; a strik- well be doubted whether the sum total ing example of patriotic devotion. But of influence, acting upon a young man notwithstanding all these interruptions, in such circumstances, may not conduce his class graduated, in order, in 1778, and more to mental grasp and enlargement proved in after-life a class of much more than in periods of quiet and tranquillity. than average ability. Among his class- We have noticed the same thing, and in
a great variety of ways, in the times While here, that peculiar bent of mind through which we now passing by which his life has been distinguished The mind of the nation was never more began to manifest itself in actual results. wakeful than now; was never working Not that there was anything narrow and itself out into results more rapidly and one-sided in his mental development. He vigorously. In every department of was not born, as some seem to suppose, mental activity, scientific, literary, edu- with any strong and uncontrollable bias cational, and religious, there is an energy toward that one kind of literary labor such as is altogether unusual. Of course which with him has been of the nature this argument is to be employed with of a specialty. When he graduated at appropriate limitations. In times of war Yale College he had no thought, apparthe sense of danger may be so pressing, ently, that the current of his life was to society may be in such an alarmed be turned into the channel in which it and disorganized state, as to render it has actually run. Every thing indicates exceedingly unfavorable to intellectual that he meant to be a lawyer; and had growth and culture. But where one can he made law his business, he would, withsit at a somewhat safe remove from per- out doubt, have been among the most sonal danger, while at the same time his learned and eminent in the profession. soul is stirred with a healthful sympathy, Even with such attention as he gave to and the thoughts and Hopes are reaching the subject of law, in the midst of other out after great and beneficent issues, the pursuits, and while he was yet uncertain man is more of a man than in a period what would be the main business of his of prevailing quiet and stillness. But life, he was nevertheless early admitted whether this suggestion be well or ill to practice in the Supreme Court of the founded, or whatever may be the expla- United States, thus attesting that his nation, it is safe to say, that the class to legal attainments were regarded as of a which Mr. Webster belonged, and which high order. Mr. Webster was far enough graduated at Yale College in 1778, in from being a man fitted and endowed for the very midst of the war of the Revo- only one kind of work, as we may herelution, in spite of all hinderances and after have occasion to show. Few men interruptions, was one of more than have thought and written on a greater usual ability.
variety of topics, literary, political, social, After leaving college, his time for a and theological, than he. Had the confew years was passed somewhat miscel- dition of the country been peaceful and laneously, though never idly. It was prosperous at the time he was admitted not in his nature to sit still and fold his to the bar, he would probably have hands. But public affairs were in such opened a law office, and the world might a confused and uncertain state, that it have lost him in his distinctive characwas difficult to determine what path in ter as a lexicographer. But as the case life to choose.
stood, he turned aside to teaching, and He was occupied more or less in teach- in the year 1782, only four years out of ing, and also in the study of law, in the college, and only twenty-four years old, office of Mr. Oliver Ellsworth of Hart- he entered upon a work which became a ford, afterwards Chief Justice of the kind of turning-point, and largely helped United States. He was admitted to the to determine the subsequent course of bar in 1781. But as circumstances were his life. He conceived the plan of preunfavorable for the commencement of paring and publishing a series of schoolthe practice of law, he still pursued the books to aid in the better education of business of teaching, and was employed the children of America. for a time as head of an academy in How thoroughly original this plan was, Goshen, New York.
for a youth of his years and in the cir
cumstances of those days, we cannot ade- the check and restraint which the requately apprehend without a moment's former needs, in order to keep him within thought. Up to that time, we had been wholesome bounds. But the look of the living in a state of colonial dependence, monster is none the less stupid and and were in the most complete literary unsightly for all this. There he sits in vassalage to the Mother Country. All his blind and unreasoning state, with his our books of elementary instruction, as one idea pertinaciously and pugnaciously well as the main part of all our general advanced, that “what has been shall be,” literature, came to us from England. In and that is the conclusion of the whole the department of theology, it is true, we matter. In a preface to this book, writwere already raising up thinkers and ten in 1803, Mr. Webster says: writers of our own, who were recognized
“The American Spelling Book, or First on the other side of the water as men of Part of a Grammatical Institute of the Enggreat ability, and not unworthy to teach
lish Language, when tirst published, encounEnglishmen and Scotchmen. Jonathan
tered an opposition which few new publi. Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bel- cations have sustained with success. It lamy, and others, natives of this same nevertheless maintained its ground, and its little Commonwealth of Connecticut, had reputation has been gradually extended and already carried theological science beyond established until it has become the principal the European limitations. But, in the elementary book in the United States. In a world of letters generally, we were as
great part of the Northern States it is the yet like little children, looking eagerly only book of the kind used; it is much used and reverently to the Mother Country
in the Middle and Southern States; and its
annual sales indicate a large and increasing for our supplies.
demand." It was therefore a truly bold conception when Noah Webster, in the year
In a note, written in 1818, and pub1782, determined to compile and issue a
lished in the edition then issuing from series of school-books. It was the first the press, we are told that “ The sales thing of the kind which had ever been
of the American Spelling-Book, since attempted in the United States. After its first publication, amount to more than the preliminary work of preparation was five millions of copies, and they are done, he returned from Goshen to Hart- rapidly increasing." From this time ford, and in 1783 published the Ameri- onward, the circulation was greatly can Spelling Book. In the years imme- extended. In the year 1817, when Prof. diately following, he published an Eng- Goodrich wrote and published his memoir lish grammar and a reading-book.
of Dr. Webster, then deceased, he tells The fortunes of this spelling-book us, have been truly remarkable. Though “ About twenty-four millions of this book humble in form and modest in its preten- have been published down to the present sions, it has at length acquired a celebrity year, (1847,) in the different forms which it of which any author might well be proud. assumed under the revision of its author ; When it first made its appearance, at the and its popularity has gone on continually very door of its existence, it encountered increasing. The demand for some years the ugly form of that conservatism whose past has averaged about one million of only motto is, “ As it was in the begin- copies a year.” ning, is now, and ever shall be, world Soon after, as we learn from good auwithout end, amen." Perhaps it is thority, the publication and sale of this well, on the whole, that society has to little work were still farther increased. move forward, confronted forever by this The annual demand came to be about one kind of conservatism. It may be just million two hundred and fifty thousand
copies, and so continued down to the lation, by closing to us the trade with opening of the present war. Since 1861, the Southern States. the sale has diminished to about five hun- As the case stands, there can be no dred thousand copies annually. Taking question that this little work is intithese several estimates, and combining mately associated with the primary eduthem, we find that the whole circulation cation of a greater number of minds of this work down to the present time is than any other book ever used in this not far from forty-two millions. This country. The present generation of number is so enormous that the mind is living men and women, in almost every staggered in any attempt to follow out part of the land, when they go back in the details, and we only think of the memory to their early school-days, find whole as something vast and indefinite. their thoughts resting upon this, as
It has been computed, that at the open their only and all-important text-book. ing of the present century, there were Many a gray-haired man in the world not far from four millions can remember the time when every hard of copies of the Bible, and that the rate word in its columns, on which they were of production, at that time, by all the liable to stumble, was mapped out in various agencies at work among the their minds; its exact latitude and lonnations, was about one hundred thousand gitude fixed; its location definitely copies annually. Since that time, the marked; just as a pilot knows the place British and Foreign Bible Society have of every rock and shoal on which a ship issued, of Bibles and Testaments, about may strike when entering a harbor. forty-three millions; and the American As we write, the picture of the old Bible Society not far from nineteen mil- district school-house, of forty years lions. These two organizations have ago, rises before us — the older scholars been the great sources of supply for the turned about, with their faces toward world; though other cooperative agen- the wall, engaged in writing or ciphercies, if they could be estimated, would ing, i. e. provided they are not doing help to swell somewhat the sum total. anything else the younger set, down Here we have an enterprise of world- even to the little toddles, ranged on wide interest and of the most command- hard oak benches about the middle of ing importance. Our only purpose in the room, while the master walks abroad, making this reference is to convey some ferule in hand, “monarch of all he suradequate idea, by the aid of such a com- veys." Here two youngsters, on the parison, of the enormous issue and sale small benches, are putting their heads of this humble little volume.
together, in grave consultation over the It was a matter of surprise to us, and picture of “ The boy who stole apples." may be to the reader, that the sales of There a little girl is inspecting, for the this book have been larger in these thousandth time, “ The country maid latter years than they were twenty and and her milk-pail,” as she stands wringthirty years ago. Knowing the fact, ing her hands in agony, and looking that other spelling-books had taken fearfully at the milk, “ lying around the place of Webster's in most of our loose." Anon comes on the slow and New England schools, we had naturally solemn operation of hearing the little enough concluded that the same was ones say their “ A, B, C's," as they call true generally. But the book, of late, out each separate letter loud enough, has found its great and growing market as though they meant to make their in the spreading fields of the West and mothers hear at home. Even now, also, South. As already intimated, the war there is ringing in our ears the painful has most seriously diminished the circu- utterance of the class which has just set