Noah Webster might never have published his blue-backed speller if it weren’t for setbacks in his career and disappointment in love.
In 1782 he was depressed and uncertain about his prospects. His solution to his malaise was to write a spelling book.
He could not have known his cure for the blues would teach generations of American children to read and help make America the most literate nation in Western history.
Noah Webster Beginnings
He was born Oct. 16, 1758, in what is now West Hartford. His father, Noah Webster, was a descendent of John Webster, a governor of Connecticut; his mother, Mercy Steele Webster, was a descendant of William Bradford.
Webster’s family was prominent, but poor. His father had to mortgage his farm to send him to Yale College in New Haven. The American Revolution disrupted his studies, causing food shortages and the threat of British invasion. He wanted to practice law, but after he graduated he found the war had suppressed demand for lawyers.
In late 1778, he was 20 years old and, in his own words,
…without property, without patrons, & in the midst of a war which had disturbed all occupations; had impoverished the country, & the termination of which could not be foreseen.
He returned to his family farm, where his father gave him an $8 bill of continental currency worth half its face value. Noah Webster, Sr., said, “Take this, you must now seek your living; I can do no more for you.”
Noah Webster, Jr., then shut himself in his room for three days, trying to decide what to do. He did the only thing he was qualified for: he opened a school in Sharon, Conn.
He wasn’t fond of teaching, but during his time in Sharon he studied French with a tutor who fostered his love of words, and completed his master’s degree at Yale. In his dissertation he argued that education was important to spread the Christian religion.
He also courted 19-year-old Juliana Smith, sister to a future governor, but she rejected him as too boring.
He turned his attention to Rebecca Pardee, a beautiful young woman torn between him and a Continental Army major. She went to her minister for advice, and he told her to go with the major because she’d already had a relationship with him.
In 1781 he suddenly closed the school in Sharon.
Learning the Blues
He spent the winter looking for a job, without any luck. He tried to reopen the school in Sharon, but there wasn’t enough interest, so he moved to Goshen, N.Y. There he was able to open a school.
Webster, though, was depressed and fearful. In his memoirs he described himself in the third person:
…his health was impaired by close application, & a sedentary life. He was without money & without friends to afford him any particular aid. In this situation of things, his spirits failed, & for some months, he suffered extreme depression & gloomy forebodings.
Then he came up with an idea to shake off the blues: He would write an American spelling book.
The speller then in use on both sides of the Atlantic was written by an English clergyman named Thomas Dilworth. Webster considered it wrong for a country then fighting for independence from its oppressor. Shouldn’t Americans have their own language along with their own identity?
Webster, an ardent nationalist, wanted the blue-backed speller, along with the dictionary he would eventually write, to create a uniquely American language and education. He furiously went to work on his speller with the aim of developing a new standard of spelling and pronunciation.
When he finished writing, his college classmate Joel Barlow loaned him $500 to publish the book. Another classmate, John Trumbull, lent him even more. The blue-backed speller has been published continuously since 1783 under several titles, with nearly 100 million copies printed.
It took decades longer to prevent other people from stealing his work. Noah Webster lobbied for years for a national copyright law. He finally succeeded in 1831 with the help of his distant relative, Daniel Webster.
By then he may have known how popular the blue-backed speller had become. Many of the founding fathers home-schooled their children with the book. Benjamin Franklin used it to teach his granddaughter to read.
From the depths of depression and unrequited love, Noah Webster laid the foundation for American education for more than a century.
This story was updated in 2021.