The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture
Noah Webster (1758-1843) was more than just America’s greatest lexicographer; he was also a Founding Father who helped define American culture. In 1783, he published the first edition of his legendary spelling book, which would teach five generations of Americans how to read. A leading Federalist who was a confidant of both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Webster was in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention, where he wrote an influential essay on behalf of the nation’s founding document. During the greater part of the 1790s, he edited American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper. A dedicated public servant, he served as a state representative for both Connecticut and Massachusetts. “America’s pedagogue” was also a founder of Amherst College and an early president of the college’s Board of Trustees.
The first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828. He would continue working on revisions until the day he died. Unlike his predecessor, the renowned British wordsmith Samuel Johnson, Webster loved compiling and defining words more than just about anything else. This obsession, which was instrumental in helping a high-strung genius live an amazingly vibrant life, ended up giving America a language of its own.
Boston Athenæum member Joshua C. Kendall was born in New York City. He received his bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude) from Yale, where he studied comparative literature. He also did graduate work in comparative literature at Johns Hopkins. For his excellence in reporting on psychiatry, he has received national journalism awards from both the National Mental Health Association (now Mental Health America) and the American Psychoanalytic Association. He lives in Boston, and is currently an Associate Fellow of Yale’s Trumbull College.
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