Webster’s spelling books, his grammar text, and his enormous dictionary borrowed heavily from British models, but the man was nothing if not an innovator. After graduating, penniless, from Yale, he not only helped publicize the new federal constitution, but lobbied tirelessly and successfully to introduce copyright laws to protect his publications, derivative though they were. Webster also grasped the importance of standardizing the new nation’s language and inconsistent spelling. And in the waning years of the 18th century the failed schoolteacher-journalist- attorney wheedled endorsements and references from General Washington and Ben Franklin and practically invented the lecture tour to promote book sales.
After his marriage in 1789, Webster produced a study of epidemics as well as discourses on banks, education, and other topics. Webster helped found Amherst College and served as a president and trustee. He devoted 20 years’ solitary labor to his great project, The American Dictionary of the English Language, and then continued to revise it after publication in 1828.
Late in life, Webster told a critic that “I have contributed in a small degree to the instruction of at least four millions of the rising generation, and it is not unreasonable to expect that a few seeds of improvement, planted by my hand, may germinate and grow and ripen into valuable fruit, when my remains shall be mingled with the dust.”