Noah Webster: The ultimate man of words
Noah Webster first published his American Dictionary of the English Language on April 14, 1828. In order to evaluate the etymology of words, he learned 26 languages, including Old English, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit. Taking over two decades to complete, Webster’s Dictionary provided over 30,000 new definitions, standardized spelling and gave American English its identity.
Noah Webster wrote in the preface of his 1828 Dictionary: “To that great and benevolent Being … who has borne me and my manuscripts in safety across the Atlantic, and given me strength and resolution to bring the work to a close, I would present the tribute of my most grateful acknowledgments.”
After Webster’s death the rights to the Dictionary were purchased by George and Charles Merriam. In recent times, the new owners began subtly re-editing and changing definitions.
Webster’s original 1828 American Dictionary utilized King James Bible verses within the definitions. In fact, it contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given of any reference volume.
Noah Webster wrote: “The Bible should be the standard of language as well as of faith.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined “faith” as: “That firm belief of God’s testimony, and of the truth of the Gospel, which influences the will, and leads to an entire reliance on Christ for salvation. ‘Being justified by faith’ Rom.v.; ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’ Heb.xi.; ‘For we walk by faith, not by sight’ 2Cor.v.; ‘With the heart man believeth to righteousness’ Rom.x.; ‘Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world’ Rom.i.; ‘Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God’ Rom.xiv.; ‘Children in whom is no faith’ Deut.xxxii.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined “religion” as: “A belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of His will to man, in man’s obligation to obey His commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God. … The practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined “providence” as: “The care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures … Some persons admit a general providence, but deny a particular providence, not considering that a general providence consists of particulars. A belief in divine providence is a source of great consolation to good men. By divine providence is understood God himself.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined “marriage” as: “Uniting a man and woman for life. … A contract both civil and religious … till death shall separate them. Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children. Marriage is honorable in all and the bed undefiled. Hebrews 13:4 … In a scriptural sense, the union between Christ and his church by the covenant of grace. Revelation 19:7.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined “law of anture” as: “Rule or conduct arising out of the natural relations of human beings established by the Creator, and existing prior to any positive precept. Thus it is a Law of Nature, that one man should not injure another, and murder and fraud would be crimes, independent of any prohibition from a supreme power. … A rule of direction; a directory; as reason and natural conscience. ‘These, having not the law, are a law to themselves.’ Rom.ii.”
Webster’s definition of “nature” included: “In a general sense, whatever is made or produced; a word that comprehends all the works of God.”
Webster’s defined “sodomy” as: “A crime against nature.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined “property” as: “The exclusive right of possessing, enjoying and disposing of a thing; ownership. In the beginning of the world, the Creator gave to man dominion over the earth. … It is one of the greatest blessings of civil society that the property of citizens is well secured.”
John Adams agreed with Webster, writing of “property” in his “Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States,” 1787 (“The Works of John Adams,” Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1850-56): “Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty. Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious; but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors. Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others; and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted. …”
Adams continued: “What would be the consequence of this? The idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share, and then demand a new division of those who purchased from them. The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.”
Noah Webster also wrote that “property” included a person’s genius and imagination (“An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution,” Oct. 10, 1787, Pamphlets 58-61): “The liberty of the press, trial by jury, the Habias Corpus writ, even Magna Carta itself, although justly deemed the palladia (safeguard) of freedom, are all inferior considerations, when compared with a general distribution of real property among every class of people. The power of entailing estates (limiting one’s use of personal property) is more dangerous to liberty and republican government than all the constitutions that can be written on paper, or even than a standing army. … The production of genius and the imagination are if possible more really and exclusively property than houses and lands, and are equally entitled to legal security.”
Regarding “property,” Noah Webster wrote in the preface of his Dictionary, republished 1841: “Let the people have property and they will have power – a power that will forever be exerted to prevent a restriction of the press, and abolition of trial by jury, or the abridgement of any other privilege.”
Noah Webster had served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War. In 1781, Webster received his Master’s Degree from Yale, with his dissertation: “On the universal diffuse of literature as introductory to the universal diffusion of Christianity.”
In 1783, Webster published his Blue-Backed Speller, which eventually sold over 100 million copies. He was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly for nine terms, then the Massachusetts Legislature for three more.
Noah Webster wrote to Thomas Dawes, Dec. 20, 1808: “About a year ago, an unusual revival of religion took place in New Haven … and I was led by a spontaneous impulse of repentance, prayer, and entire submission and surrender of myself to my Maker and Redeemer. … In the month of April last I made a profession of faith.”
In 1812, Webster helped found Amherst College. In 1830, Noah Webster dined with President Andrew Jackson and addressed the U.S. House of Representatives, which subsequently passed legislation guaranteeing copyright protection. In 1833, Noah Webster published his American edition of the Bible.
During the French Revolution in which 40,000 lost their heads in Paris and 300,000 were killed in the Vendee, Noah Webster penned the article “Political Fanaticism, No. III,” published in the American Minerva, Sept. 21, 1796: “The reason why severe laws are necessary in France, is, that the people have not been educated republicans – they do not know how to govern themselves (and so) must be governed by severe laws and penalties, and a most rigid administration.”
Noah Webster wrote to James Madison, Oct. 16, 1829: “The Christian religion, in its purity, is the basis or rather the source of all genuine freedom in government. … I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable, in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence.”
In 1832, in his “History of the United States,” Noah Webster wrote: “The brief exposition of the constitution of the United States, will unfold to young persons the principles of republican government; and it is the sincere desire of the writer that our citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament or the Christian religion.”
Noah Webster added: “Almost all the civil liberty now enjoyed in the world owes its origin to the principles of the Christian religion. … The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free Constitutions of Government.”
Noah Webster stated: “The moral principles and precepts contained in the Scriptures ought to form the basis of all of our civil constitutions and laws.”
In the preface of Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, Noah Webster wrote: “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed. … No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”
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