Noah Webster & Preserving Liberty

Noah Webster & Preserving Liberty

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Noah Webster 

Noah Webster was and is key to preserving liberty. He is often called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education” and lived from 1758 to 1843. In his lifetime, he was also a lawyer, schoolmaster, author, newspaper editor, and outspoken politician.

In 1807, Webster began compiling an American dictionary of the English language. It took twenty-eight years to complete. He learned twenty-six languages, including Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and evaluated the etymology of words.

Noah Webster’s fundamental idea was “There is a primary sense of every word, from which all others have proceeded; and whenever this can be discovered, this sense should stand first in order.” He traced the primary meaning of a word from its source (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French) or headwaters through the various tributaries of its meaning. This exactness in finding the original idea of a word kept him from using synonyms as substitutes for exact meaning. This gave a richness and depth to his definitions.

Webster completed his dictionary in 1825, and it was published in 1828. He did this in an effort to standardize the American language in order to preserve and propagate American liberty.

American Education and Noah Webster

Political separation alone would not suffice to keep the young republic on its constitutional course. The Founding Fathers recognized the relationship between education and the success of the American philosophy of government. A great concern for the youth of the country and posterity is evident among the founders.

A primary object should be the education

of our youth in the science of government.

In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing…

than…communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?

—George Washington

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue,

diffused generally among the body of the people,

being necessary for the preservation 

of their rights and liberties,

and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education 

in the various parts of the country,

and among the different orders of people.

—John Adams

They recognized that the nature of the American republican form of government demanded a quality of individual character and the capacity for self-government never before required of any nation. The public school system was developed in order to teach students the principles of liberty, in order to preserve this form of government. Consequently, education extended liberties into every field of activity.

Noah Webster and Education

Noah Webster established an American system of education that would support the American philosophy of government in order to extend the blessings of liberty to every individual. He produced school texts on American spelling, pronunciation, and grammar, as well as American history, civics, geography, and literature. Noah Webster’s American dictionary was significant in marking the independence of the United States and severing its dependence from the mother country, for it included a new vocabulary directly related to the American philosophy of government.

For more than one hundred years, Webster’s American speller or catechism, known as the Blue Back Speller, taught Americans how to read, spell, and pronounce words and the fundamental principles of the constitutional republic. More than one hundred million copies were used by Americans, from north to south, from east to west.

A catechism is a summary of principles in the form of questions and answers. Students would recite and memorize these catechisms as a part of their primary learning. The following are some examples from the catechism:

Q. What is a constitution of government?

A constitution of government, or a political constitution, consists in certain standing rules or ordinances, agreed upon by a nation or state, determining the manner in which the supreme power shall be exercised over that nation or state, or rather how the legislative body shall be formed.

Q. How many kinds of constitutions are there; or in how many ways may the sovereign power be exercised over a people?

Constitutions are commonly divided into three kinds; monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

Q. Explain the sorts of government.

When the sovereign power is exercised by one person, the constitution is a monarchy. When a few rich men, or nobles, have the whole supreme power in their hands, the constitution is an aristocracy. When the supreme power is exercised by all the citizens, in a general meeting or assembly, the constitution is a democracy.

Q. What are the faults of despotic governments?

In a despotic government, a whole nation is at the disposal of one person. If this person, the prince, is of a cruel or tyrannical disposition, he may abuse his subjects, take away their lives, their property, or their liberty.

Q. What objections are there to aristocracy?

In an aristocracy, where a few rich men govern, the poor may be oppressed, the nobles may make laws to suit themselves and ruin the common people. Besides, the nobles, having equal power one with another, may quarrel and throw the state into confusion; in this case there is no person of superior power to settle the dispute.

Q. What are the defects of democracy?

In democracy, where the people all meet for the purpose of making laws, there are commonly tumults and disorders. A small city may sometimes be governed in this manner; but if the citizens are numerous, their assemblies make a crowd or mob, where debates cannot be carried on with coolness and candor, nor can arguments be heard: Therefore a pure democracy is generally a very bad government. It is often the most tyrannical government on earth; for a multitude is often rash, and will not hear reason.

Q. Is there another and better form of government than any of these?

There is. A representative republic, in which the people freely choose deputies to make laws for them, is much the best form of government hitherto invented.

Q. What are the peculiar advantages of representative governments?

When deputies or representatives are chosen to make laws, they will commonly consult the interest of the people who choose them, and if they do not, the people can choose others in their room. Besides, the deputies coming from all parts of a state, bring together all the knowledge and information necessary to show the true interest of the whole state; at the same time, being but few in number, they can hear arguments and debate peaceably on a subject. But the great security of such a government is, that the men who make laws, are to be governed by them; so that they are not apt to do wrong willfully. When men make laws for themselves, as well as for their neighbors, they are led by their own interest to make good laws.

Q. Which of the forms or kinds of government is adopted by the American States?

The states are all governed by constitutions that fall under the name of representative republics. The people choose deputies to act for them in making laws; and in general, the deputies, when assembled, have as full power to make and repeal laws, as the whole body of freemen would have, if they were collected for the same purpose.

Understanding American government was primary in the education of early Americans. Specifically taught was a discussion of the “defects of democracy” and a definition of a “better form of government,” a “representative republic.” Students learned distinctly that the United States is “a federal representative republic” and that the states are governed by constitutions.