The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture
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America's own The Professor and the Madman: the story of Noah Webster, author of the first dictionary of American English-and a forgotten leader during a turning point in our nation's history.
Noah Webster's name is now synonymous with the dictionary he created, but although there is much more to his story than that singular achievement, his rightful place in American history has been forgotten over time. Webster hobnobbed with various Founding Fathers and was a young confidant of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, among others. He started New York City's first daily newspaper, predating Alexander Hamilton's New York Post. His "blue- backed speller" for schoolchildren, his first literary effort, sold millions of copies and influenced early copyright law. He helped found Amherst College and served as a state representative for both Connecticut and Massachusetts. But perhaps most important, Webster was an ardent supporter of a unified, definitively American culture, distinct from the British, at a time when the United States of America were anything but unified-and his dictionary of American English is a testament to that.
In The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall, author of The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus, gives us a well-researched and absorbing look into the life of Webster, another man driven by his obsessions and compulsions to compile and organize words. The result is a treat for word lovers and history buffs alike.
frenzy, which, in turn, put the spotlight on his books and boosted their sales still further. WEDNESDAY, MAY 19, 1784, was to be a day of reckoning for both Webster’s state and his country. The Lower House of Connecticut’s General Assembly was slated to consider the subject of the national impost. And Noah Webster was eager to witness both the dramatic debate and the ensuing vote, which would also be a referendum on the power of his own words. That afternoon, Webster walked out of his rented
his singing school, Webster had forged a cordial relationship with its pastor, the Reverend Patrick Allison. Called “a man of substance” by his peers, the erudite Allison had a taste for belles lettres, championing the work of British writers such as Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison. A personal friend of George Washington, Allison had served as chaplain for both the Continental Congress (during its brief tenure in Baltimore) and the Continental army. Webster and Allison were frequent breakfast
in a letter praising his Grammatical Institute. To the recently retired quartermaster general, whom he was looking forward to meeting soon in Philadelphia, Webster wrote, “I shall make one general effort to deliver literature and my countrymen from the errors that fashion and ignorance are palming upon Englishmen.” For Webster, his personal quest to sell more books was synonymous with the heroic effort to rescue America and its language from the clutches of the fashion-loving, theater-addicted
to do his own digging. “As to the history of our family,” Noah Webster, Sr., wrote from Hartford on July 28, 1787, “I have made some inquiry of old people, but cannot be very particular. . . . my desire is you may rise superiour in whatever is excellent and praiseworthy to your ancestors.” Rebecca’s father, William Greenleaf, possessed the worldly sophistication that Webster’s own father sorely lacked. A tall, slim man, fond of his single-breasted coat and gold cane, Greenleaf was a successful
the delegates, was impressed. Their unanimous verdict was summed up in a note passed on to the inventor by a servant the following day that began, “Dr. Johnson presents his compliments to Mr. Fitch and assures him that the exhibition yesterday gave the gentlemen present much satisfaction.” All of Connecticut would soon be immensely proud of this stunning feat by its ingenious native son. When meeting Ezra Stiles a few days later in New Haven, a beaming Ellsworth, who hailed from Fitch’s hometown