Noah Webster, Jr. was born on October 16, 1758, in the Western Division of Hartford (later West Hartford), Connecticut. His parents were Noah Sr. (1722-1813) and Mercy (Steele) Webster (1727-1794), and their family was well “established.” Noah Webster, Sr. descended from Connecticut Governor John Webster, and Mercy Webster descended from Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony.
Noah Webster, Sr. did not have a college education, but he prized education and was curious intellectually. He was a farmer but was also a deacon in the local Congregational church, captain of the town’s militia, and a founder of a local book society – now known as a public library. He was appointed a justice of the peace after Americans achieved independence.
Mercy Webster home schooled her children in spelling, mathematics, and music – at least in their early years. Noah Webster, Jr. began school at age six years in a “dilapidated one-room primary school built by West Hartford’s Ecclesiastical Society. He did not appreciated the teachers and later called them the “dregs of humanity” while complaining that the “instruction was mainly in religion.” One very important result of Webster’s experience was his motivation to “improve the educational experience of future generations.”
When Webster was fourteen years old, his pastor at church began teaching him Latin and Greek to prepare him to enter Yale. His father mortgaged his farm to send his son to Yale. Young Webster enrolled at Yale just before he turned sixteen years old; during his senior year he studied with Ezra Stiles, the President of Yale. Webster was at Yale for part of the Revolutionary War and attended many of his classes in other towns due to threatened British invasions and food shortages. Webster served in the Connecticut Militia; he was on his own and “had nothing more to do with his family.”
Although he had a degree from Yale after graduating in 1778, Webster lack any plans for a career. He later wrote that an education in liberal arts “disqualifies a man for business.” He tried teaching school in Glastonbury but found the working conditions to be “harsh and the pay low.” He began studying law under future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth while teaching full time but found he could not continue. He quit studying the law for a year and then found another attorney to teach him. He completed his studies and passed the bar examination in 1781 but could not practice law due to the Revolutionary War. He gave an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class and received a master’s degree from the school. Later in 1781 he opened a successful but small private school in western Connecticut. He soon closed the school and left town, probably from a broken heart.
In an effort to “overcome his losses and channel his ambitions,” Webster began writing for a prominent New England newspaper. In his “series of well-received articles” he justified and praised the American Revolution and “argued that the separation from Britain was permanent.” He founded a private school for the children of wealthy parents in Goshen, New York. By 1785 he had written and published a speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools. “Proceeds from continuing sales of the popular blue-backed speller enabled Webster to spend many years working on his famous dictionary.”
Noah Webster, Jr. became a “lexicographer, textbook pioneer, English-language spelling reformer, political writer, editor, and prolific author. He has been called the `Father of American Scholarship and Education.’ His blue-backed speller books taught five generations of American children how to spell and read, secularizing their education. According to Ellis (1979) he gave Americans `a secular catechism to the nation-state.’”
The name Webster became “synonymous with `dictionary’ in the United States, especially the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary that was first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. He was one of the Founding Fathers of the nation.”
Webster “married well” when he married Rebecca Greenleaf (1766-1847) on October 26, 1789, in New Haven, Connecticut. The couple became the parents of eight children: Emily Schotten (1790-1861) (married William W. Ellsworth; he was the executor of Webster’s will; their daughter Emily married Rev. Abner Jackson, president of Trinity College and Hobart College); Frances Julianna (1793-1869); Harriet (1797-1844); Mary (1799-1819); William Greenleaf (1801-1869); Eliza (1803-1888); Henry (1806-1807), and Louisa (b. 1808).
Webster never had much money but was among the elite in Hartford.
Webster moved his family to Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1812, and there helped to found Amherst College. He moved his family back to New Haven in 1822; the following year he was awarded an honorary degree from Yale.