I learned something pretty fascinating today that ties together three of my favorite topics: the American Founding Fathers, identity-resonance, and self-delusion. This topic is perhaps better suited for the 4th of July, but since it is 10 degrees outside I am channeling summertime this morning.
If you have studied the American colonial period, you know that most of the power in the thirteen colonies was centralized among the landed, wealthy class who considered themselves British and were happy to stay that way. The Revolution (aka War of Independence) could easily have been avoided if King George and the House of Commons hadn’t tried to pay off British debts, built up through countless European wars, on the backs of the colonies. They added tax after tax despite protests and pleadings from the colonial leadership.
Just after the war was over, there were many thoughts of rejoining the British Empire. The similarities were too great. We spoke the same language, used the same common law system, imported and exported most of our goods with them, stole their intellectual property (a post topic for another time), and had many family ties back in the old country. Britain was still the most powerful in the world and because the British Navy controlled the Atlantic Ocean they had particular power in the western hemisphere and on these newly independent states.
To cement the separation in the minds of the population, there needed to be some salient distinction that would create an in-group/out-group difference. But of course no one in those days knew anything about identity politics. Except one person. And the name will surprise you. It surprised me when I heard about it this morning on Innovation Hub. Noah Webster
“We broke off from England in the 1780s, and Webster was the first guy to say we need to have our own cultural identity. Previous to his Speller, American kids had used British spellers. Webster wanted to get this first generation of American kids to think of themselves as Americans.
In 1783, during the period of the Articles of Confederation (when the US was a mess and could easily have reverted to British rule), Noah Webster published the “Webster’s Speller,” the precursor to his dictionary and his first big break. Apparently, it was a marketing gimmick rather than an effort to create a useful reference source. He went over all of the English words to see what spellings he could change. Colour to color. Favour to favor. He also added a slew of scientific words from chemistry and biology that British dictionaries didn’t consider real words. This way, we had some way to differentiate ourselves as a distinct and separate group from the British. We now had a different “language” (sort of). Over the following century, he sold 100 million copies. After all, no one knew how to spell anything in “American English” without checking the book because it had not previously existed. It was such a hit (or he was such a good self-promoter) that George Washington asked him to help Jefferson and Madison write the Constitution using his new spellings.
Can you believe that the only reason that we spell all of those words differently than the British is because Noah Webster needed an excuse to sell books? He just made it up.
Image Credit: MarmadukePercy