How Webster’s Spelling Book Sought to Unify a Nation

Webster’s famous spelling book (and later, his dictionary) was not what you probably think.  Noah Webster created such texts for use by teachers and parents, yes.  But his aim was not simply that of textbook seller.  Rather, he viewed such resources as essential instruments in helping the newly founded nation unify.  In his American Spelling book (1793), Webster writes in his preface:

The advantage of familiarizing children to the spelling and pronunciation of American names is very obvious, and must give this work the preference to foreign Spelling Books.  It is of great importance to give our youth early and correct information respecting the geography of this country. We have a multitude of books which give us the state of other countries, but scarcely one which affords us any account of our own.

What might sound like a savvy business move at first–pulling the rug out from the foreign market with appeals to one’s patriotism–seems far more sincere just two paragraphs later:

To diffuse any uniformity and purity of language in America–to destroy the provincial prejudices that originate in the trifling differences of dialect, and produce reciprocal ridicule–to promote the interest of literature and the harmony of the United Staes–is the most ardent wish of the Author; and it is his highest ambition to deserve the approbation and encouragement of his countrymen.

Of particular joy for me was reading Webster’s defense of breaking up the many lists of words he provides with hyphens.  Clearly, critics of the method were in no short supply.  Yet, Webster holds his ground with a justification that holds merit even today: it is better for children while being easier for teachers.  He writes:

The syllables of words are divided as they are pronounced; and for this obvious reason, that children learn the language by the ear. Rules are of no consequence but to Printers and adults. In Spelling Books, they embarrass children, and double the labour of the teacher. The whole design of dividing words into syllables at all, is to lead the pupil to the true pronunciation; and the easiest method to effect this purpose will forever be the best. Reason might teach this truth; but experience places the matter beyond a controversy…

Webster’s work had enormous effects on how we conceptualize literacy instruction in our country.  Though far from perfect, his intentions and their later manifestations offer us historical points for reflecting on our present ped-a-go-gy.

Original Image from NYPL Digital Collections

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