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The name of Noah WEBSTER is familiar to almost the entire population of our country, as associated with the period of their first instruction in the rudiments of knowledge. As an author he has .acted an important part, in laying the foundation of American literature; and as a devoted friend to the institutions of his country, he has consecrated the best efforts of his genius, in some of the most trying exigencies of our government, to the promotion of domestic quiet and national security. In the following sketch, a brief outline will be given of the leading occurrences of his life, with particular reference to the occasions which called forth the principal productions of his pen.
Noah WEBSTER was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, on the 16th of October, 1758. His father was a respectable farmer and justice of the peace; and was a descendant, in the fourth generation, of John Webster, one of the first settlers of Hartford, who was a magistrate, or member of the colonial council from its first formation, and, at a subsequent period, governor of Connecticut. His mother was a descendant of William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth colony.
Mr. WEBSTER commenced the study of the classics, in the year 1772, under the instruction of the clergyman of the place, the Rev. Nathan Perkins, D. D., and in 1774, was admitted a member of Yale college. The war of the revolution commencing the next year, interrupted the regular attendance of the students on their usual exercises, and deprived them of no small part of the advantages of a collegiate course of instruction. In his Junior year, when the western part of New England was thrown into confusion by General Burgoyne's expedition from Canada, Mr. WEBSTER volunteered his services under the command of his father, who was captain in the alarm list, a body comprising those of the militia who were above forty-five years of age, and who were called into the field only on pressing emergencies. In that campaign, all the males of the family, four in number, were in the army at the same time.
Notwithstanding the interruption of his studies by these causes, Mr. WEBSTER graduated with reputation in 1778. This was an unpropitious time for a young man to be cast upon the world without property. The country was impoverished by the war to a degree of which it is difficult, at the present day, to form any just conception; there was no prospect of peace; the issue of the contest was felt by the most sanguine to be extremely doubtful; and the practice of the law, which Mr. WEBSTER intended to pursue, was in a great measure set aside by the general calamity. It was under these circumstances, that his father, on his return from the Commencement when he graduated, gave him an eight dollar bill of the continental currency, (then worth about a dollar in silver,) and told him that he must thenceforth rely on his own exertions for support. As a means of immediate subsistence, he resorted to the instruction of a school, and during the summer of 1779, resided at Hartford, Connecticut, in the family of Mr., afterwards Chief Justice, Ellsworth. An intimate friendship was thus formed between these two gentlemen, which was interrupted only by the death of the Chief Justice.
Not having the means of obtaining a regular education for the bar, Mr. WEBSTER, at the suggestion of a distinguished counsellor of his acquaintance, determined to pursue the study of the law in the intervals of his regular employment, without the aid of an instructor; and having presented himself for examination, at the expiration of two years, was admitted to practice in the year 1781. As he had no encouragement to open an office in the existing state of the country, he resumed the business of instruction, and taught a classical school, in 1782, at Goshen, in Orange county, New York. Here, in a desponding state of mind, created by the unsettled condition of things at the close of the war, and the gloomy prospects for business, he undertook an employment which gave a complexion to his whole future life. This was the compilation of books for the instruction of youth in schools. Having prepared the first draft of an elementary treatise of this kind, he made a journey to Philadelphia in the autumn of the same year; and after exhibiting a specimen of the work to several members of Congress, among whom was Mr. Madison, and to the Rev. S. S. Smith, D. D., at that time a professor, and afterwards president, of the college at Princeton, he was encouraged by their approbation to prosecute his design. Accordingly, in the winter following, he revised what he had written, and leaving Goshen, in 1783, he returned to Hartford, where he published his “First Part of a Grammatical Institute of the English Language.” The second and third parts were published in the years immediately following. These works, comprising a spelling book, an English grammar, and a compilation for reading, were the first books of the kind published in the United States. They were gradually introduced into most of the schools of our country; and to so great an extent has the spelling book been used, that during the twenty years in which he was employed in compiling his American Dictionary, the entire support of his family was derived from the profits of this work, at a premium for copy-right, of less than a cent a copy. Between thirteen and fourteen millions of this book have been published, in the different forms which it assumed under the revision of its author; and its popularity has gone on increasing to the present time. To its influence, probably, more than to any other cause, are we indebted for that remarkable uniformity of pronunciation in our country, which is so often spoken of with 'surprise by English travellers.
In entering thus early on his literary career, Mr. WEBSTER did not confine himself to the publication of his own works. At a period when nothing had as yet been done to perpetuate the memorials of our early history, he led the way in this important branch of literary effort, by the publication of that highly valuable and characteristic work, Governor Winthrop's Journal. Having learnt that a manuscript copy was in the possession of Governor Trumbull, he caused it to be transcribed, at his own expense, by the governor's private secretary; and risked more than the amount of his whole property in its publication. The sale never remunerated him for the expenses thus incurred.
At the period of Mr. WEBSTER's return to Hartford, in 1783, the state was agitated by violent dissentions, on the subject of a grant made by congress to the army, of half pay for life, which was afterwards commuted for a grant of full pay for five years beyond their term of service. To this grant it was strongly objected, that if the army had suffered by the reduced value of the bills in which they were paid, the country at large had sustained an equal loss by the depreciation of the currency, and by other causes. So strong was the excitement on this subject, that public meetings were held throughout the state, to prevent the laws of congress from being carried into effect, and at length a convention met at Middletown with the same design, at which two thirds of the towns in Connecticut were represented. In this state of things, Mr. WEBSTER, though