A history lesson about vision: Noah Webster’s definition

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

There are few quotes that I carry around in my head – that speak to me so directly that I feel compelled to memorize them – but this is one of the few. It actually sings, I think, of the power of true vision.

I’d happily argue that Noah Webster (1758-1843) was one of the most influential and accomplished men of all time because of his vision for a post-revolutionary America. He didn’t create the first dictionary as a compulsive act to list every word he knew or could imagine; he single-handedly composed a new national language for an emerging nation. He wanted to build a tool for social reform and identity. In today’s nomenclature, he did it to create America’s first brand identity.

I think of him as “Uncle Noah” – this cousin to my (seventh) great-grandfather, Amos Webster. One of our family’s most prized possessions, later destroyed in a Detroit fire as the family pioneered westward, was an original dictionary signed by “Cousin Noah.” I’ve visited the historical landmark that was Noah’s Connecticut home, and left a prayer at his graveside; I am connected to the man in a very personal way, and so I enthusiastically reintroduce him today.

Foremost a journalist and teacher

Noah Webster was a lawyer, teacher, and U.S. legislator, but foremost he was a prolific writer, perhaps the most often published person of his day. His Yale law education was financed by a mortgage on the family farm – a debt that crippled the Webster family during the Revolutionary War. One of the original revolutionaries, in 1793 Noah borrowed money from Alexander Hamilton and created the first daily newspaper in New York. He wrote textbooks, outlined all that was known about infectious diseases, and wrote hundreds of political essays.

Noah then plunged into the business of education. He was a founder of Amherst College and other institutions that did not fare so well. He did not want colonial children to learn to spell for the sake of spelling – or to get bogged down by elaborate and elitist Latin usage rules. Instead, he wanted them to appreciate America’s newfound independence by learning a new, more native language.

To craft a new yet common language that would be most intuitive to the most speakers, Noah first learned 26 languages. He then “Americanized” the English language by changing spellings of known words to make them more consistent with pronunciation, changing around “re” to “er” (think “theatre” and “theater”). He removed extra vowels or consonants that weren’t pronounced and therefore unnecessary (think “colour” and “color”). He changed “ey” to “ay” when it was so pronounced (think “grey” and “gray”). That was straightforward. To better thumb his nose at English aristocracy, he then changed pronunciations of other common words (think “labor-a-tory” and “lab-ra-tory”) to promote a new sense of separate nationalism. As a kicker, he added thousands of new and slang words that had never been recorded before.

The heart of the dictionary project: The blue-black speller

The actual dictionary was a three-part body of work called A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It included a speller (published in 1783), a grammar (published in 1784), and a reader (published in 1785). It took Noah Webster 27 years to amend the dictionary, with over 350 different editions (before the invention of the typewriter) from first printing to last. It was finished and published as a work when he was 70. He mortgaged his home to finance the second edition, and he never recovered from the stigma of the debt he accumulated. But his motivation wasn’t money.

The “blue-black speller” (the cardboard cover was blue/black) immediately caught on; it eventually sold over 15 million copies. Literally every single American school child was taught how to read with Webster’s speller.
The speller was also a critical component in the (illegal) movement to teach slaves how to read. It was small in size, contraband that could be hidden in a pocket. It taught not only spelling but reading – beginning with the alphabet and moving, in the way a child learns to read, from simple to more complex words. Webster, like his statesman first cousin Daniel Webster, was anti-slavery, and it reputedly was very well understood by him that he was almost single-handedly helping to educate slaves. After his lifetime, when reading became a condition to vote, a surprising number of slaves proved they could read, regardless of the prior death threats for learning, because of that very coveted blue-black speller.

And then he (re)wrote the Bible …

Did he imagine a new national religion, too? One divining rod for Noah Webster was religiosity. In his early years, he fervently believed in tolerance for all religions as well as stringent separation of church and state, and so he did not refer to biblical foundations in his educational works. In later years, he reversed that position after joining a Calvinistic Christianity movement. He adopted the hope of a unified national Christian religion and, in 1833, contributed to the cause his own translation of the Bible (known as The Common Version). However, it never gained popular acceptance since he removed from the King James Version the words and phrases he found to be offensive.

The legacy that binds generations: Vision

A modern bibliography of Noah Webster’s published works required 655 pages – not to envelop his completed words, but to give a list of titles of his articles and books! – that is testimony to the man’s unbelievable dedication to his projects. But Noah Webster didn’t set out to write a book to define the thousands of words within it. He set out to help define a new nation’s identity. That was his vision.

I am committed to our vision at In Business magazine. Our staff is not composed of a bunch of people tasked to write sentences andor to paste clip art together or to sell white space. Our editors help people save their businesses or share the best practices of peers by sharing stories that matter. Our artists take those words and use their talent to select or create appropriate images to catch your attention and pull you into the stories. Our advertising consultants love to brainstorm the best ways to put a message in front of decision makers, and our circulation manager enjoys the thrill of discovering the best audience for our products, and then helping connect them to those products. Our events manager loves the thrill of watching two strangers connect at one of our functions, understanding that friendships and new customer relationships are created in those moments. Our digital media publisher believes in the power of connectivity, and our role in promoting it. We all believe in our products – it is like a love of the sea, these stories and experiences we work together to bring you.

What is your vision?

What sea do you sail in? Next week we’ll hear from a man who writes a personal witness about the power of family traditions. Likewise, you’re invited to share your inspirational stories – professional and personal both – at “After Hours.”

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