Noah Webster was a know-it-all who was always certain that he was right. He was also awkward in social situations. It is not surprising that he had very few real friends. Even time has been cruel to him. Most modern readers think that his more famous cousin Daniel Webster wrote the renowned An American Dictionary of the English Language. Biographer Joshua Kendall address this misconception and the misunderstood character of a polymath in The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture.
Ironically, Webster was most popular when he was little known or even anonymous. Though Kendall labels him a founding father, he was only involved in one military campaign during the American Revolution and spent most of the war as a student, sometimes in a school displaced by enemy occupation. He was unsuccessful in landing diplomatic assignments upon graduation. He did, however, impress both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin with his ideas for forming an American culture by rejected elements of British language. He was chosen soon by Washington to edit the Federalist newspaper American Minerva. In the political realm, Webster made his strongest mark as the writer of patriotic and persuasive essays published in newspapers of New England and New York. In keeping with the time, he signed many with pseudonyms, such as Honorius.
The idea for writing a dictionary came late to Webster, after his early success in writing spelling and grammar books for schools and then his many failed efforts in literature, business, and public service. Few scholars supported his dictionary, arguing that Samuel Johnson's old dictionary was all that was needed, but Webster worked for over twenty years compiling a dictionary anyway. His family suffered more than he did from the want of stable finances.
In The Forgotten Founding Father, Kendall entertainingly reveals the world of the early United States and a character who should be remembered. If you enjoy this book, you should also try the author's biography of another polymath, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesarus.
Kendall, Joshua. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2010. 355p. ISBN 9780399156991.