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January 15, 1788

February 08, 2021 - 5 minute read

Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of English

While debate over ratification of the Constitution carried on in the newspapers of Pennsylvania was rousing and robust, opposition to the Constitution in Connecticut newspapers was all but absent. Pro-Constitution Federalists controlled all nine newspapers and were anxious to secure ratification as soon as possible. Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman were ready to lend their pens to the effort, submitting essays many weeks before the Connecticut ratifying convention convened on January 3 where Ellsworth had been designated to give the opening address.

Enoch Perkins, a Hartford attorney who observed Ellsworth’s opening speech, noted that Ellsworth was “a complete master of the subject” and “armed at all points.” Ellsworth had artfully focused on union and mutual defense, concluding with an emotional appeal to the disarray in which the union found itself. “If we go on as we have done, what is to become of the foreign debts?” he asked. “Will foreign nations forgive us this debt because we neglect to pay? Or will they levy it by reprisals as the laws of nations authorize them? Will our weakness induce Spain to relinquish the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi or the territory which she claims on the east side of that river? Will our weakness induce the British to give up the northern posts? If a war breaks out, and our situation invites our enemies to make war, how are we to defend ourselves? Has the government the means to enlist a man or buy an ox? Or shall we rally the remainder of the old army?”

European nations “were pleased to see us disconnected from Great Britain,” he continued, but “if we suffer the Union to expire, the least that can be expected is that the European powers will form alliances, some with one State and some with another, and play the States off one against another, and we shall be involved in all the labyrinths of European politics.”

Signing his thirteen essays as “A Landowner,” Ellsworth elaborated on the Constitution and rebutted its critics, including their objections to the structure and power of the national government, stressing that “no alteration in the state governments is even proposed, but they are to remain identically the same that they now are. Some powers are to be given into the hands of your federal Representatives, but these powers are all in their nature general, such as must be exercised by the whole or not at all, and such as are absolutely necessary.” Why are we told of the dissolution of the States, he asked, “when by this plan they are indissolubly linked? They must stand or fall, live or die together.”

Ellsworth’s detailed defenses of the Constitution were supported by a smaller series of five essays by Roger Sherman, writing as “A Countryman.” Ellsworth, Sherman, and William Samuel Johnson were formidable advocates for the Constitution in a State where little opposition surfaced, and ratification was easily secured by a vote of 128-40 on January 9, 1788. Enoch Perkins attributed the success to “the learning and eloquence of a Johnson, the genuine good sense and discernment of a Sherman, and the Demosthenian energy of an Ellsworth.” All three would go on to represent Connecticut in the United States Senate and Ellsworth would serve as the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

On September 18, 1787, the day after the Constitutional Convention adjourned, Benjamin Franklin delivered a copy of the Constitution to Thomas Mifflin, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Among observers in the gallery was a thirty-year-old writer and editor – Noah Webster. Three years earlier, he had been invited to Mount Vernon by George Washington to discuss Webster’s new pamphlet Sketches of American Policy, a series of proposals pointing out deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation and calling for a new government that would unite the States. Now, he was seated in the gallery at the invitation of Thomas Mifflin who had asked him to use his considerable writing skills to support ratification of the Constitution.

For two weeks in early October, Webster sequestered himself in his room to produce An Examination into the Leading Principles of the New Federal Constitution Proposed by the Late Convention held at Philadelphia, dedicated to his friend, Benjamin Franklin. Considered by many to be second in influence only to the Federalist Papers, written later by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, An Examination appealed directly to the American people and what would later be known as American Exceptionalism.

“The origin of the American Republic is distinguished by peculiar circumstances,” he wrote. “Other nations have been driven together by fear and necessity…the result of a single man’s observations or the offspring of particular interests. In the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected…In short, it is an empire of reason.” In forming this government, “it is not only the right, but the indispensable duty of every citizen to examine the principles of it.”

Born in Hartford, Connecticut and educated at Yale, Webster, like Benjamin Rush, is less known for his impact on politics and far more recognized for his chosen life’s work – medicine for Rush and words for Webster. Like Rush, he associated with important leaders of his time such as Rush, Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and others. It was Hamilton who arranged a loan for Webster to establish the American Minerva, New York’s first daily newspaper. Oliver Ellsworth tutored him in the law. During the Constitutional Convention, Webster spent a great deal of time with “the Convention Men.” His An Examination was widely circulated and, according to David Ramsey, a South Carolinian delegate to the Confederation Congress, “it will doubtless be of singular significance in recommending the new Constitution.”

Most Americans know Webster because of his An American Dictionary of English, published in 1828 after twenty-eight years of painstaking research. Two years after his death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam purchased rights to the dictionary, subsequently known as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Webster’s three books dedicated to spelling, grammar, and reading revolutionized teaching in America. His “Blue-Backed Speller,” written in 1783, was the most popular book of its time; by 1837, 15 million copies had been sold.

Descended from Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, Webster crossed the United States advocating for copyright laws, was a founder of the Connecticut Society for the Abolition of Slavery and Amherst College, and dedicated himself to the belief that “every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.”   Noah Webster is truly a “forgotten Founding Father.”

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