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Political Bookworm
Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 04/14/2011

Webster and American nationalism


About this blog: Noah Webster is best known as the father of Webster’s Dictionary but as Joshua Kendall reveals in “The Forgotten
Founding Father,” published today by Putnam, the language man had a role in fostering American nationalism. In Kendall’s telling, Webster was a complex figure who helped shape early American culture. Here, Kendall describes how Webster’s roles as political advocate and lexicographer converged.

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The bitter divisions that that today pit Red States against Blue States are nothing new; such internal discord was around even before the birth of political parties in the 1790s. And without the dogged efforts of Noah Webster, Jr., the 1778 Yale graduate who helped give us our cultural identity, America might well have been ripped apart in her infancy.

Our nation never enjoyed much of a honeymoon. Soon after the British surrender at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the colonists – suddenly reclassified as “Americans” – began sniping at one other.

In the 1780s, the central conflict that divided us was how to pay off war debts. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress lacked the power to levy taxes; to raise revenue, it had to petition the states. While some complied, other didn’t. America was broke and could barely govern itself.

This lack of national cohesion motivated Webster, then a lowly grade-school teacher, to write his legendary spelling book called “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” upon its release in 1783. As he saw it, linguistic unity was necessary to help bring about political unity. If children throughout the land could all be taught the same language, Webster insisted, the American experiment had a fighting chance.

Eager to encourage Americans to bond with each other, Webster sought to “demolish those odious distinctions of provincial dialects.” After he personally went to all thirteen states to ensure passage of copyright law, the book became a mega-seller and the first of five generations of students began learning American English the Webster way.

While the Yankee wordsmith then put his obsession with organizing words on the back burner, he continued to be a fierce advocate for American nationalism. Webster was in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention, where he authored a pamphlet in support of America’s founding document which, as some historians have argued, may well have been as influential as the Federalist Papers in promoting ratification.

Several years later, at George Washington’s behest, he became editor of America Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper. This Federalist party organ proved instrumental in uniting Americans behind President Washington’s decision to steer clear of another war with England.

Webster’s ultimate monument to American unity was of course his American Dictionary of the English Language, which he started shortly after his retirement from journalism in 1798.

First published in 1828, Webster’s finally forced Americans to pull Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language -- a half century after Independence, this British text was still revered on our side of the pond -- from their bookshelves.

With his massive work, which defined some 70,000 words – 12,000 more than were contained in the most recent edition of Johnson – Webster made Americans proud of their own unique manner of thinking and communicating. Quoting Johnson, Webster declared, “The chief glory of a nation arises from its authors.”

Inserting quotations from Franklin, Madison and Marshall into his definitions, Webster showed that America’s icons could hold their own against such British immortals as Milton, Dryden and Addison.

American culture had officially arrived.

By Joshua Kendall  |  05:30 AM ET, 04/14/2011

 
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