Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Noah Webster: A Forgotten Founding Father

Noah Webster (1758-1843) was more than just America’s greatest lexicographer.  He was also a Founding Father who helped define American culture. 
While teaching in Goshen, New York, in 1782, Webster became dissatisfied with texts for children that ignored the American culture, and he began his lifelong efforts to promote a distinctively American education.
So why on earth would they want to raze this founder's home?
New Haven Register, New Haven Connecticut July 20, 1936
Can you imagine this? The folks who ran Yale University, an institute meant for higher learning, wanted to tear down a historic house that once belonged to one of our nation's Founding Fathers - someone who's importance to our own American English language cannot be overstated - because, they said, not only did it lack architectural style, but by razing it they would "relieve itself of the financial burden to maintain it."
A member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities stated, "The fact that Webster dwelt and worked on his dictionary there gives this structure singular historic interest.
That all this must disappear shortly before the crowbars of the wreckers is a matter of genuine regret, for it will further deplete New Haven's fast vanishing heritage of ancient houses. At the present rate of destruction, another generation will look for them in vain.. It is just a case of 'another old house being torn down' and nothing more."

With demolition already begun by Yale University, the home of Noah Webster's plight was, luckily, brought to Ford's attention by way of his son through one of his dealers.
This telegram shows just how close the world came to losing this wonderful piece of American History.

New Haven Register - August 2, 1936

New Haven Register - September 20, 1936

In its original location

The Webster home was soon purchased and brought to Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. The dismantling and restoration of this 1822 New Haven, Connecticut house in which Noah Webster wrote his dictionary provides us with a fine example of Ford chief architect Edward Cutler's technique.
When Cutler had first reached New Haven in September 1936, wreckers had already demolished parts of the house. The interior was also in a poor state of repair due to the home being used as a college dorm.
Once the men began the dismantling process, the house was down and packed up in two weeks. Quick but accurate. As Cutler put it, "Of course, you have to do these things right," and whenever possible, the crew removed building materials in large pieces, making reassembly easier.

The structure went up in Greenfield Village during the winter of 1936-37 and soon looked much the way it did when Mr. Webster lived there.
And now restored in Greenfield Village

In Greenfield Village, the Webster House was used as a girls home economics laboratory throughout much of the 1940's and 1950's, and was finally opened to the public as a historical home in 1962.

Noah Webster
In 1783 Noah Webster published the first edition of his legendary spelling book, called The American Spelling Book, which would teach five generations of Americans how to read. 
In his own words: "Up to that time (of our nation's Independence) we had been living in a state of colonial dependence, and were in the most complete literary vassalage to the Mother Country. All our books of elementary instruction, as well as the main part of our general literature came to us from England. In the department of theology, it is true, we were already raising up thinkers and writers of our own, who were recognized on the other side of the water as men of great ability, and not unworthy to teach Englishmen and Scotchmen...but in the world of letters generally, we were as yet like little children, looking eagerly and reverently to the Mother Country for our supplies."

Of particular interest is the closing paragraph of the book, which states:
"The author wishes to promote the honor and prosperity of the confederated republics of America, and cheerfully throws his mite into the common treasure of patriotic exertions. This country must, at some future time, be as distinguished by the superiority of her literary improvements as she is already by the liberality of her civil and ecclesiastical constitutions. Europe is grown old in folly, corruption, and tyranny---in that country laws are perverted, manners are licentious, literature is declining and human nature debased. For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the old world would be to stamp the wrinkle of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth, and to plant the seed of decay in a vigorous constitution."
The high hopes Noah Webster had for the newly-formed United States cannot be over-stated.

In May of 1785 Webster began a journey to the southern states to "induce them to grant letters of copyright or some other form of protection under existing laws or future legislative acts to authors or compilers of books."
As a purveyor for copyright laws and a leading Federalist, Mr. Webster was a confidant of both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and was acknowledged in high regard by 'Dr. Franklin' (Benjamin Franklin). He was also in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention where he  wrote a highly influential essay on behalf of the nation’s founding document. In fact, Webster felt that the American central government, the Articles of Confederation, was too weak. He found with his copyright experiences that a weak central government, granted few powers by the states, was dangerous. In his 1785 publication, Sketches of American Policy, Webster tried to convince people to call another convention to draft an amended form of the confederation, or a new plan of government. Webster showed the sketches to George Washington at Mount Vernon, and Washington showed them to James Madison. So clearly, the Sketches had something to do with the calling of the convention and the framing of the constitution.
During the greater part of the 1790s, he edited American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper.  A dedicated public servant, he served as a state representative in both Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Webster was also a founder of Amherst College – he was an early president of the college’s Board of Trustees. 

Rebecca Greenleaf Webster
Noah Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf in 1789 and they had eight children: Emily Schotten, Frances Julianna (Julia), Harriet, Mary, William Greenleaf, Eliza, Henry, and Louisa.

Webster published his first dictionary in 1806, and it included an essay on the oddities of modern orthography and his proposals for reform. Many of the spellings he used, such as music, color and center, instead of the British musick, colour and centre, would become hallmarks of American English. He also added American words that weren't in English dictionaries like "skunk" and "squash".
In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded dictionary. This was the one he completed in the house featured in this posting and was published in 1828. Although it drew some protest, the reformed spellings were gradually adopted throughout the United States.

The year 1812 found the Websters in a house in Amherst, Massachusetts, living largely off the income from his published schoolbooks. While there he farmed, served in the Massachusetts legislature and continued work on his dictionary.  
This house burned down in the 1830's.
By 1822, Noah decided to move back to New Haven, Connecticut, because the Amherst house was far too cramped. He had one built to suit his needs.and chose a lot at the corner of Temple and Grove Streets as the location. This Federal-style home was originally designed and built by David Hoardley.
As Noah's daughter, Eliza, wrote, "We watched the progress of the house building with interest all that year, and a glad one was the day when we moved into more commodious quarters, and your Mother and myself could have separate rooms, and Father have a nice study and conveniently arrange his books. I remember how we sat in low chairs and sewed our parlor carpets ourselves. Happy Days, sister Julia popping in and out many times each day."

The 1822 Noah Webster House as it now sits in Greenfield Village
Not long after moving into this house, Webster decided to study abroad for a time at the great libraries in England and France, for he had exhausted the libraries of America. In fact, Noah did quite a bit of traveling and, lucky for us, many letters were passed between he and his family. He realized the importance of describing everyday life and activities in their letters, and especially treasured hearing of the minute details of domestic life that he missed while on far-away business travels.
His wife, Rebecca, and their children honored this request and wrote about their lives in great detail to her husband. Here are snippets of various letters that were written in this very house from the summer of 1824: 
Is this Rebecca Webster?
"My Dear Husband,
I am now sitting in your study, and as it is a rainy day have a prospect of a few hours uninterrupted leisure.
Harriet's piana arrived in good order, and those who are Judges pronounce it a fine instrument. Martha Denison is playing on it at this very moment, so sweetly, that I can hardly sit still and write. Mrs. Steele and Eliza, and all the family, including little black Ellen, are standing round enraptured. Harriet took her first lesson today from Mrs. Salter."
"I wish you could take a peep at us in the present moment, Adeline and Louisa at their usual employment, Mary sitting on the carpet by my side studying her sabbath lesson for next week (12 verses). Harriet is drilling at her music. She plays 6 tunes very Comfortably. And William driving around with his stick."
"Our garden yields us excellent vegetables, beets, potatoes, peas, & beans, but the corn was planted so thickly that it will come to nothing. I examined it to-day & saw but two ears on the early corn, the later will yield better, not much however.

Our vines look remarkably well and the raspberries have afforded us at least 3 quarts for a beginning."
Rebecca, herself "enfeebled" but able to "engage in quilting bed quilts with only two or three to finish." Lucy Griffin, the free black servant had taken ill as family members "sit with her" until she can walk downstairs.

Here is a photo of the study where Rebecca wrote some of her letters to her husband. It's from here that she could here the "enrapturing" music of the new 'piana.'

Webster had a rather fine library of books in his study.

As a devout Christian, Webster's 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of biblical definitions given in any reference volume, and his 'Blue-Backed Speller,' also on display, was very moralistic. Webster considered "education useless without the Bible." 

A manuscript page and a first edition of his  'An American Dictionary of the English Language,' first published in 1828,  as well as numerous hand-written letters are also on display inside the home.

Webster continued to work for better copyright legislation for the rest of his life. His efforts were rewarded in the 1830-1831 congressional session, when congress seemed ready to improve the law.  Webster was a distinguished man of letters, and people listened to him. He received three honors in Washington: he was allowed to address Congress in person on the copyright question, he was invited to dine at the White House with President Andrew Jackson, and he watched as the new bill was passed into law.  The new law granted protection of the author or his heirs for 28 years, with the right of renewal for another 14 years. 
As he wrote to his dearest 'Becca' on January 7, 1831 - "Emily and I have just returned from the Capitol, & we were in the gallery when the House of Rep passed the Copyright bill, without a division."
Webster described his dinner at the White House in uncomplimentary ways. "The president asked me to dine with him and I could not well avoid it. We sat down at 6:00 and rose at 8:00. The president was very sociable and placed me, as a stranger, at his right hand. The party, mostly members of the two houses, consisted of about 30. The table was garnished with artificial flowers placed in gilt urns, supported by female figures on gilt waiters. We had a great variety of dishes, French and Italian cooking. I do not know the names of one of them. I wonder at our great men who introduce foreign customs to the great annoyance of American guests. To avoid annoyance as much as possible, the practice is to dine at home and go to the president's to see and be seen, to talk and to nibble fruit and to drink very good wine. As to dining at the president's table, in the true sense of the word, there is no such thing."

 As one walks through the two open floors of this Webster house it's very easy to visualize the activity that took place here nearly 200 years ago; a family living and enjoying life in their time much in the same way as we do in our time. 
Is this Noah in the Webster dining room?

Here is another example of everyday life in this Webster home, this time a bit later in life in a letter to married daughter Eliza from her mother: "Papa longs to see you all. I heard someone conversing in the drawing room (parlor) the other day and found him standing before your portraits. We often talk together of our singular happiness in our sons-in-law and daughters and such a promising bunch of grandchildren."
The original portraits of daughter Eliza and her husband, Henry Jones, that Mr. Webster was found speaking to hang once again in the drawing room above the Empire black horsehair sofa, one of Mrs. Rebecca Webster's most treasured pieces of furniture. Though most of the pieces in this house are from the collection of The Henry Ford and were selected to fit the period in time from when Noah and Rebecca lived here, some are original to the Websters, and were acquired over time from Webster descendants.
I believe we can all identify with the longing that Mr. Webster felt as he gazed upon the portraits of his daughter and son-in-law. But where we have phones, e-mail, Facebook, and Skype...and even photo albums, Webster had only the paintings you see here and letters to satisfy his desire to see his family.
And it's this sort of thought that really does bring a house like this alive.
And to think of how close the world was to losing it.
Another picture taken in the parlor
 
This is an angle of the parlor most don't get to see. I took this picture through a window.


Granddaughter Mary's bedchamber


Granddaughter Mary's bed

Youngest daughter Louisa's bedchamber


Here's the fireplace in the guest bedchamber


For me as a social historian to be able to walk through these rooms knowing that the words I read from letters which were passed between family members back in the 1820's and 30's were written (and read) right inside these walls just gives me chills. And then understanding the important contributions Noah Webster made to America, especially being so instrumental in giving American English a dignity and vitality of its own - both his speller and dictionary reflected his principle that spelling, grammar, and usage should be based upon the living, spoken language rather than on artificial rules.
And much of that occurred right in this house in rooms which I can now stand!  
It just leaves one in awe.

Reading Room: It can be hard to photograph a few of these rooms due to the fact that they can only be seen through ceiling-high framed plexi-glass barriers. Only two or three of the houses at Greenfield Village has this and the Webster House is one of them.

The framing makes it rather difficult to get good photographs.

It is easy to imagine life as once lived by this notable American family as you walk through this nearly 200 year old home; the study where letters were written, the parlor where the grandkids played, the dining area, the upstairs bedrooms...there is also a shrine to Noah that the historians of the Village put together, which holds his original Dictionary, Blue Back Speller, and other documents. I'm not sure how this room came about, but even though it's not accurate to the house, it is something I agree should be there and doesn't take away from any of the historical look.
Also there is an addition to the back of the building where one can see a short documentary (through a power-point type media) of Mr. Webster, although I have not taken the time to watch it. The only change I would make would be to remove the shrine from the second floor and, instead, put it into the back addition on the first floor, allowing the whole second floor to become as it once was during Webster's time.
A rare view of the "Reading Room" from a window.

However, for the most part, this is another fine example of history presented as it should be.
And to have an actual Founding Father's house relocated right here in Michigan!
(Hint to the powers-that-be at the Village: maybe you can continue to use period-dressed presenters here at the house instead of only at Christmas. What a great presentation that would be!)

Besides the Benson Ford Research Center located on the grounds of The Henry Ford, I also found information for this posting in an amazing two volume book collection by Emily Ellsworth Ford called "Notes on the Life of Noah Webster."
My wife surprised me with this set, written in 1912, for Christmas. It is fascinating reading, to say the least.


I hope you enjoyed this bit of information on one of our Forgotten Founding Fathers. There is so much great history in our country that is not being taught, which is a shame.
But I hoped I may have piqued your interest to search out more wonderful American history.
See you next time!










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3 comments:

Shelley said...

I enjoyed this post and learning more about Webster's house. Thank you!

Kim and Dustin said...

Hi, I enjoyed your post! Do you happen to have any photos of the "parlor" carpets mentioned in one of the letters? When I visited years ago I remember being so impressed by Rebecca's sewing work and the shear number of hours it must have taken to sew all those little circles together! Unfortunately I didn't get a picture myself. Thanks!

Robert Webb said...

Thank - You

I learned a lot , just reading the news .. So glad Mr Ford got there in time

I never miss going into the Webster Home

a real treasure at the Greenfield Village

R. Webb