The Blue-Backed Speller – Forgotten Intellectual Legacy of the American Revolution
As the Revolutionary War was ending in 1783, a former soldier in that conflict named Noah Webster published a book that was to have an enormous influence on American culture. This was not Webster’s famous dictionary, which didn’t arrive on the scene until 1828. The book in question is the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, a three-volume work that sought to transform the way Americans were taught to speak and write English. With this publication Webster hoped to extend the ideals of the American Revolution into the realms of language and literature.
A Grammatical Institute of the English Language was a success, particularly volume one, which dealt with spelling and related topics. In 1786 the first volume’s official title changed from The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language to The American Spelling Book. However, generations of school children referred to it as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” because it usually was sold in a blue binding. Revised versions of the book remained in general use for the whole of the 19th century. The book has never been out of print, and about 100 million copies have been sold so far.
In the “Speller” Noah Webster sought to free American language from the “pedantry” of English forms and traditions. He believed that the American people were the proper arbiters of correct speech, and that spelling should be simplified and brought into better agreement with pronunciation. For Webster these changes in language were only part of a larger cultural transformation that would cut America free from what he saw as a corrupt and failing English/European mindset. His American Revolution was not just about changing political and economic institutions, it was about shaping a new American identity. Noah Webster’s incredibly popular book shows how the revolutionary spirit, once unleashed, can push change in a variety of directions. For Mr. Webster one small part of freedom was the right to drop the terminal “k” from music (“music,” not “musick”).