In 1806, when Noah Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the
English Language, [see also the Wikipedia entry on Webster's
Dictionary] purists were horrified. Webster Americanized the British
spellings in Samuel Johnson's famous dictionary, turning "defence" and
"honour" into "defense" and "honor." Webster included new American words
like "subsidize" and "caucus," and left out hoary Britishisms like
"fishefy." John Quincy Adams, the future president, was shocked by the
Webster's Compendious Dictionary, which was published 200 years
ago this month, defied the skeptics to become a success, and it was the
forerunner to his much larger 1828 American Dictionary of the English
Language. Webster is remembered today almost exclusively as America's
great lexicographer, but he was also a founding father of the first rank.
The dictionaries he wrote actually helped shape the kind of nation America
Webster was a brilliant polymath, in the style of Ben Franklin. His great
passion, though, was politics, and he held many views that now seem
surprisingly modern. He kept religion and God out of his spelling books.
He argued that the Constitution should include universal compulsory
education and abolish slavery.
When the new nation formed, British culture was still dominant, and it was
not yet clear what it meant to be American. Webster thought it was vital
to shake off "foreign manners" and build an independent national culture.
He believed that his dictionaries could contribute to this homegrown
culture by reflecting the language that Americans were actually speaking.
It was especially important, he thought, for America to define its own
A National Language as a Key to National Unity
Webster's other political purpose in writing his dictionaries was
promoting national unity. He was disturbed to find, in his travels, that
Southern whites, blacks, old-line Yankees and newly arrived immigrants
were in many cases unable to talk to each other. He believed a "federal
language" could be a "band of national union."
But he also knew that linguistic efforts would not be enough. He was
troubled by the sharp political divisions he saw: North vs. South, rural
areas vs. cities and, above all, his Federalist Party vs. Thomas
Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. During the bitter battles over the
Embargo Act of 1807, Webster called on the parties to "renounce their
present warfare, and unite on some general points of policy."
The United States has more than achieved the cultural independence
Webster dreamed of. He would be amazed to see that it now not only
controls its own culture, but also exports it to the world
His hopes for national unity have proven more elusive. Today's
red-state-blue-state divide, and Washington's vicious partisan battles,
are an uncanny parallel of the war over the 1807 embargo.
If Webster were here, he would be clamoring for leaders willing to look
beyond party affiliation. The great wordsmith was never more eloquent than
in his screeds against excessive partisanship. "The party which, while in
a minority, will lick the dust to gain the ascendancy," he warned,
"becomes, in power, insolvent, vindictive and tyrannical."