April 14, 2011

You could look it up



The title page from Noah Webster's first copyrighted dictionary

On this date in 1828 Noah Webster copyrighted one of the most influential books in American history, some descendant of which most of us consult every day: An American Dictionary of the English Language.

According to Joshua Kendall, whose new biography of Webster, The Forgotten Founding Father, is fittingly published today, “This was his magnum opus, containing about 70,000 words, nearly twice as many as in Samuel Johnson‘s 1755 masterpiece.”

That Webster’s book was protected by copyright was largely the result of his own efforts. An uncommonly prolific polymath (Emily Ellsworth Ford Skeel‘s A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster, first published in 1958, is 655 pages long) who served in state legislatures, co-founded Amherst College, and edited New York City’s first daily newspaper, the American Minerva, Webster was the foremost campaigner for the country’s first copyright law, signed by George Washington in 1790.

Johnson’s heroism in (almost) single-handedly compiling the dictionary which popularly bore his name has been often cited. Not so well-known is Webster’s three-decade effort to create a radically American competitor. Like Webster’s earlier success, The American Spelling Book of 1783, a primer that became the bestselling book of its time, from which millions of Americans learned to read, the Dictionary was an explicitly political document, intended to repudiate British “pedantry” and aristocratic despotism. For whereas Webster was a prominent Federalist elitist—a confidante of Washington at the Constitutional Convention—he was a controversial republican in matters of language. As historian Jill Lepore writes in her New Yorker profile of the lexicographer, Webster  ”believed, radically for his time, that the mass of common people, not a select few, form language and establish its rules.” Joseph J. Ellis writes that “Kendall makes a convincing case that Webster invented American nationalism long before the American nation came into existence.”


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.