Noah Webster

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As noted yesterday, Noah Webster was a cousin to prominent Albany publisher Charles Webster, who set up shop on the Old Elm Tree Corner at State and Pearl Streets. Although he was a Connecticut native and Yale graduate who taught in Glastonbury, West Hartford, and Hartford, Connecticut, Noah was a frequent visitor to Albany and the surrounding area. Noah Webster was a strong advocate of American independence and nationalism. Brought to New York City by Alexander Hamilton to edit the Federalist Party newspaper, he founded the city’s first daily paper, American Minerva. His development of a speller, a grammar and a reader in the 1780s were aimed at providing an American approach to education. His “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” came in 1806, followed by a 27-year effort to create “An American Dictionary of the English Language.”

A much-sought-after speaker, Webster visited his cousin in Albany with some frequency, at least annually from 1786 to 1792. Far from taking in only Albany, he also visited Claverack, Hudson, Schenectady, Cohoes falls, Lansingburgh, and Bennington. He lectured along the way, but also listened to others. He also witnessed the strange customs of the Shakers: “Visit the Shakers at the evening worship. Monsters of absurdity! But absurdity exists every where under different shapes.”

In planning to lecture in Albany in 1786, his friend Richard Sill told him “A visit from you would be peculiarly agreeable to me and all your friends with us, but am sorry to confess to you that I do not think any pecuniary motive ought to induce you to visit this place. The Inhabitants are all, or principally the descendants of the first settlers from Amsterdam who have been taught to read and write their native language, and as is the case with all nations, are strongly prejudiced in favour of it. The English tongue has ever been disagreeable and the majority of them now speak it more from necessity than choice.” He did lecture, and also went to hear a sermon at the Dutch church: (May 14, 1786: “Hear the Dutch Parson Westils — understand not a word”).

A competitor in early American orthography, Lyman Cobb, wrote a long criticism of Mr. Webster’s dictionary that was originally published in a series of editions of the Albany Argus in 1827-8.  Included in the criticism was the charge that Webster hadn’t written his dictionary himself, but instead engaged a Mr. Aaron Ely to compile it.

After his death in 1843, the rights to the dictionary were purchased by George and Charles Merriam, who developed the Merriam-Webster dictionary series. Those Merriams were the brothers of Homer Merriam, who had a little map- and globe-making business in Troy.

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