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Noah Webster

From 1758
 to 1843

The great American lexicographer Noah Webster was born in pre-Revolutionary New England to a Puritan family. He embarked on a career in law after the completion of his studies at Yale College in 1778, which were interrupted by a swift tour of duty in the Revolutionary War. After 1782, he discovered his true vocation in the study and teaching of the English language. His grammars, readers, and spellers began to be published in 1784, with many remaining in print through the first decade of the twentieth century. Webster had a conversion experience during the Second Great Awakening, whereupon he became an orthodox Calvinist and an ardent Congregationalist.

For Webster, the preservation of property was one of the chief ends of good government: “To render every man free, there must be energy enough in the executive, to restrain any man and any body of men from injuring the person or property of any individual in society.” Indeed, Webster held that the preservation of private property is one of the surest bulwarks against the encroachment of liberty and that all other rights are “inferior considerations, when compared with a general distribution of real property among every class of people.” Insofar as property is a result of man's labor, taking another's property without his consent or compensation is tantamount to enslaving him. Thus Webster concludes: “Let the people have property and they will have power-a power that will forever be exerted to prevent the abridgment of any other privilege.” For this reason, he lobbied for the passage of copyright laws at both the state and federal levels to protect the “authors of useful inventions.” According to Webster, “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.”

Furthermore, Webster thought a virtuous and well-educated citizenry ensured the preservation of freedom. “Information is fatal to despotism,” he wrote, and part of his life's labor was the writing and publishing of textbooks to be used in local schools and in homes that would convey the rudiments of spelling and grammar, as well as provide both moral formation and civic education. These latter projects were pivotal for Webster: “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”

Sources: The Founder's Constitution: Major Themes edited by Kurland and Lerner (University of Chicago Press, 1987), and “Noah Webster: Founding Father of American Scholarship and Education” by Rosalie J. Slater (Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967).