Noah Webster devoted his life to establishing a distinctly American culture. At the beginning of his literary career he noted the importance of America being, in his words, “as independent in literature as she is in politics—as famous for arts as for arms.” His best-known contribution toward this end was, of course, his American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, but his legacy includes much more. His American Spelling Book sold an incredible 100 million copies. He drafted America’s first copyright laws and was the first editor of the first daily newspaper in New York City. He served as a state legislator in both Connecticut and Massachusetts, he was involved in the founding of Amherst College, and his habit of counting houses wherever he went inspired the first census. One scholar has called him a “multiple founding father,” but most people do not remember him that way.
In his enlightening and absorbing The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall helps us understand both Webster’s achievements and the reasons why he is not recognized in the same company as his role model Benjamin Franklin. Kendall’s previous book, the widely praised The Man Who Made Lists, was a biography of Peter Mark Roget, of thesaurus fame, another word-obsessed man.
Although his contemporaries recognized Webster’s great abilities, they were also aware of his negative traits: He was arrogant and tactless, often argumentative, a perpetual self-promoter and wholly self-absorbed. Kendall has closely examined Webster’s diaries and letters, including some that the family has long suppressed, and believes that Webster could not help himself—that he suffered from what psychiatrists today would identify as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Kendall thinks that Webster’s 30-year struggle to finish his dictionary was a case in which his “pathology was instrumental to his success.” But it also may have been a factor in the many contradictory identities he displayed over the years, including patriot, political reactionary, peacemaker, ladies’ man and “prig.” Words seemed always to be his best friends, and defining them was an obsession that ruled him.
Kendall’s discussion of the content of Webster’s dictionary is eye-opening and fascinating. Although Webster borrowed generously from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, he also expanded it to 70,000 words—12,000 more than the latest edition of Johnson’s. Webster celebrated America’s founders and offered countless references to American locales. He also used many references from his own life. The definitions were often didactic, in line with Webster’s devout Christian values, and his questionable etymological ideas appeared on occasion; he had “a penchant for making wild guesses about the roots of words.”
There is so much more in Kendall’s superbly written and carefully balanced narrative of an American original. One comes away convinced that this complex and often difficult man was a major force for creating a sense of American nationalism and unity among his fellow citizens.