The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Lamont stirs debate over CT state hero
Governor backtracks after his preference for Webster irks Hale camp
Among Noah Webster’s best known quotes is, “The heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head,” which is not nearly as rousing as the last words of another Connecticut son, state hero Nathan Hale, who reportedly said as he was about to be hanged, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
The bigger picture on the West Hartford native Webster (1758-1843) was his widely influential work to set American English apart from the mother tongue and his lifelong advocacy for the education of American children.
As for Hale, whether or not he made the famous declaration as the redcoats slipped a noose around his neck in 1776, all accounts agree that the 21year-old school teacherturned-spy faced death with composure and courage.
Hale and Webster were the focus of a March 6 video tweet from Gov. Ned Lamont that has prompted outrage on one side and excitement on the other. Lamont has since walked back his comments, but his apparent flippant disrespect lit a fire under Hale fans.
Saying he wanted to weigh in as the state legislature considers naming opportunities for Connecticut icons, the governor voiced his votes for state candy (Pez), state food (pizza), state dog (on the fence between husky and bulldog) and state hero.
“I know the legislature made Nathan Hale our state hero a few years ago,” Lamont said. “Nice enough guy who was captured after a week. If he had two lives to give for his country, (he) would have been a spy for us for two weeks.
“I’ll put in an early vote for Noah Webster,” the governor said. “He put together the American language as distinguished from what’s going on in Great Britain. Helped bring our country together. I think I’ll go with Noah Webster.”
John Holmy, town historian in Hale’s hometown of Coventry, called Lamont’s remarks “incredibly disrespectful.”
“This feels like treachery toward Nathan Hale on a level with Benedict Arnold,” Holmy said, noting the Connecticut turncoat’s torching of New London in 1781.
Hale may or may not have been the best spy, but he volunteered for the mission on Long Island when others shrank from such duty, knowing he would be hanged if caught, Holmy said.
Webster deserves his high place in American history, Holmy said, “but there’s no comparison between the two as far as heroism goes.”
Over at the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, however, Lamont’s choice was animating.
“Thank you Gov. Lamont.” interim Executive Director Amy Boulton said. “Founding father, author, lexicographer Noah Webster helped our fledgling nation define American culture and taught generations of Americans what it means to be American. We are thrilled to have your vote for Noah Webster as state hero.”
Confronted with Holmy’s comments, Lamont’s spokesperson walked back the governor’s remarks on Thursday.
“The governor is not actively advocating to change the state hero, and meant no disrespect to Nathan Hale or his legacy; he just prefers Noah Webster,” spokesperson Adam Joseph said. “He also likes Pez more than chocolate, prefers the Yankees to the Mets and the Giants to the Jets. That’s what is great about this country — you can have a difference of opinion.”
Joseph said Lamont is focused now “on the issues that matter to the people of Connecticut,” including a middle class tax cut, lowering health care costs and connecting residents with available jobs.
Hale has been Connecticut’s state hero since 1985, but his nationwide fame as a Revolutionary patriot was established long before. In 1914, antiquarian George Dudley Seymour began restoring the Hale family home on South Street in Coventry, calling the tall captain “the nation’s youthful hero and supreme symbol of patriotism.”
Hale’s image was featured on the U.S. Postal Service’s first half-cent stamp in 1925 and statues of him stand at the state capitol, Yale University and CIA headquarters.
Hale and Webster were Yale graduates and teachers and both expressed a deep love for their homeland. Webster believed Americans should learn from American books, according to his biography on the West Hartford historical society website, so he wrote his own textbook in 1783. Called the “BlueBacked Speller” due to its blue cover, the book taught children to read, spell and pronounce words for a century and was the most popular American book of its time, selling nearly 100 million copies.
Webster’s dictionary used American spellings such as “color” in place of the British “colour” and added Native American words such as “skunk” and “squash.” A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1806, offering definitions of about 37,000 words. Webster finished his American Dictionary of the English Language containing over 65,000 words in 1828 at age 70.
“Noah Webster accomplished many things in his life,” the historical society bio says. “Not only did he fight for an American language, he also fought for copyright laws, a strong federal government, universal education, and the abolition of slavery . ... When Noah Webster died in 1843, he was an American hero.”
As for Hale, he volunteered at the start of the war in 1775 and then again for his doomed mission the next year. Historian Mary Beth Baker, former historic site manager of the Nathan Hale Homestead, has challenged the oft-repeated narrative of Hale as a good guy, but a bad spy, yet the undisputed fact is he was caught spying and hanged from a tree in Manhattan on Sept. 22.
“He behaved with great composure and resolution,” a British officer wrote in his diary on the day of the execution, “saying he thought it was the duty of every good officer, to obey any orders given him by his commanderin-chief; and desired the spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”