The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture

  • By Joshua Kendall
  • Putnam
  • 368 pp.

Likable he wasn’t, but who could dispute the importance of the dictionary-maker's legacy?

I don’t like Noah Webster. He’s arrogant and antisocial. He’s obsessive-compulsive and anal-retentive. He’s a shameless self-promoter, a notorious griper and, later in life, a pious blowhard. And as Joshua Kendall shows us in his fine biography Forgotten Founding Father, those were exactly the kinds of traits that made Noah Webster so good at what he did. Indeed, as a compulsive compiler and hunter and gatherer of information, Webster was of the ideal temperament to organize the first uniquely American dictionary — and America, argues Kendall, is all the better for it.

Even before his famous dictionary, Webster’s obsession with words rocketed him to national fame, while only his mid-20s, with his hugely successful American Spelling Book. Webster marketed his work masterfully, figuring out how to secure laudatory blurbs from all the right people, offering bulk discounts and promoting shamelessly by booking speaking engagements for himself in which he openly bad-mouthed the competition. Calling for a “uniformity and purity of language — to add superiority to this infant empire and to human nature,” Webster’s speller was, as Kendall artfully describes it, “a linguistic declaration of independence.” American English — though it took some time before Webster would call it that — would become Webster’s lifelong obsession.

A staunch Federalist, Webster was also an early advocate for a stronger central government, laying out his views in newspaper editorials and, by 1785, in the 50-page pamphlet “Sketches of American Policy.” While Webster would always contend that his “Sketches” were a key influence in the design of the U.S. Constitution — and Kendall seems willing to follow him there — I’m not sure I give him quite that much credit. Webster’s was one of many voices engaged in the debate, but I’m not convinced his was as loud as Webster, and Kendall, claims it was. His “Sketches” seem to have had more of what we might consider a cult, rather than mainstream, following — though Webster, as an aggressive networker and self-promoter, certainly had a knack for ensuring his publications ended up in the most influential hands. Indeed, his strengths as a Federalist writer were so highly regarded that George Washington personally put him at the helm of New York’s leading Federalist mouthpiece (now Rupert Murdoch’s mouthpiece), the New York Post. For that reason, I think Webster can fairly be considered our First Political Think Tank, strongly influencing the debate though not quite leading it.

However, it would be unfair to Webster — that great parser and definer of words — to too quickly dismiss him as a Founding Father simply because he doesn’t seem to conform to our traditional sense of the term. While Webster may have overstated his influence in founding the American form of government, the Webster’s Dictionary on my desk more broadly defines “Founding Father” as “someone who founds or is instrumental in founding an institution, nation, etc.” Casting that wider net, then, I’m more than willing to give Webster credit for — as Kendall says in his subtitle — the creation of an American culture.

To Webster, language mattered. It was as closely aligned with a nation’s sense of identity as the country’s chosen form of government or the foods its citizens ate (indeed, Webster would privately sneer at the overtly European cuisine Andrew Jackson served during Webster’s visit to the White House). It’s almost quaint to read how angry our forebears could get arguing over spelling and grammar. Is “boating” a word? What about that pesky extra “u” in words like “honour” and “labour”? Did profanity have a place in the dictionary? These were serious matters for serious debate, and Webster was never one to turn from a fight, though the term “respectfully disagree” seems as foreign to Webster as the food in Jackson’s White House. Webster can’t just disagree with opponents, he has to disparage them as well, spraying even the much-admired Samuel Johnson in his crossfire as he defends his own contributions to lexicography— a tactic that ruffled even Webster’s supporters.

Webster’s famous dictionary doesn’t make its appearance until the final third of book, at which point it begins to take up all of Webster’s time and suck up all his money. Webster derails himself more than once, at one point chasing down etymological vapor trails in an effort to trace all languages back to one common ancestor. And even as he works, Webster becomes grumpier and more reclusive. At age 50, he finds religion and becomes a tiresome zealot, managing to offend friends, family and benefactors with his insensitive, pious remarks. The staunch patriot and Federalist now lobbies hard for secession that would break New England away from the rest of the states. In a July 4 speech, he rather obtusely argues that all men are not created equal because inequality cements the social structure of the United States.

Still, it’s tough to grumble about him too much, for Webster, for the most part, picked the right fights. He demanded American English for and by Americans. And he appreciated early on that the American language needed to be inherently flexible, allowing for new words to be added as the language required — “without a license from Englishmen,” He stressed. To this day, in fact, it still makes national news when new words like “blogosphere” or “chick flick” are formally incorporated into the dictionary. (Oddly, despite this aggressive stance, Webster himself would create only one new word, “demoralizing,” which, given his temperament, seems like just the kind of word he would coin.)

And Webster’s almost hand-wringing obsession with lists is part of what still makes Webster’s Dictionary so much fun today; those lists of presidents, state capitals and universities, weights and measures and metric conversion tables still found at the back of today’s dictionary are there because the obsessive-compulsive Webster insisted that they should be.

I still don’t like Noah Webster, but in Kendall’s hands, Webster’s faults, obsessions and abrasive personality become part of his strangely compelling charm. Kendall is deft at pointing out the little details that the perpetually obsessive Webster couldn’t help but incorporate into his endless lists — an attention to details that makes Webster eye-rollingly endearing. When compiling a list of the number and causes of death in London in April 1788, for instance, the very thorough Webster deems it necessary to inform readers that the number of deaths attributed to “Bit by mad dog” is exactly zero.

Later, when Webster, who fancied himself an expert in etymology, begins making sweeping and ultimately incorrect statements on the origins of words, we can’t help but admire his colossal nerve. When talent isn’t enough, Webster always gets by on sheer perseverance alone. Founding Father or not, what can be more quintessentially American than that?

Brian Jay Jones is the author of the award-winning 2008 biography Washington Irving: An American Original. He is presently at work on the first authorized biography of Muppet creator Jim Henson. He lives in Maryland with his wife and daughter and a very excitable dog.

comments powered by Disqus