The Forgotten Founding Father
I just finished reading The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall’s biography of Noah Webster.
Preceding President Trump’s “America First” campaign by some 230 years, Webster was an adamant supporter of breaking from European influence and promoting development of resources within the United States:
At dinner, [George] Washington happened to mention that he was looking to hire a young man to tutor his two step-grandchildren—Nelly and Wash Custis, then living at Mount Vernon. He told Webster that he had asked a colleague in Scotland to offer recommendations. A stunned Webster shot back, “What would European nations think of this country if, after the exhibition of great talents and achievements in the war for independence, we should send to Europe for men to teach the first rudiments of learning?” Immediately grasping Webster’s point, a humbled Washington asked, “What shall I do?” But even before he had finished his question, the General himself knew the answer. Out of respect for the emerging new nation, he would restrict his job search to Americans.
If we are ever tempted to look at the current state of United States politics and pine for the good old days of the 1830s, we might remember that Webster was pretty distraught back then too:
He detested President Andrew Jackson as the second coming of Jefferson. In the 1832 election, he supported the third-party candidate William Wirt, as he no longer wanted anything to do with either of the major political parties. By 1836 … he also looked down on his fellow Americans: “I would, if necessary, become a troglodyte, and live in a cave in winter rather than be under the tyranny of our degenerate rulers. But I have not long to witness the evils of the unchecked democracy, the worst of the tyrannies. . . . We deserve all our public evils. We are a degenerate and wicked people.”
The impact of humans on the environment was also a popular topic in Webster’s time:
Ever since the Revolution, numerous writers had taken the position that American winters were becoming milder. These advocates for the eighteenth-century version of “global warming” included Thomas Jefferson, who had addressed the question in his Notes on Virginia; Benjamin Rush; and Samuel Williams, a Harvard historian. The man-made cause was allegedly the rapid deforestation of states such as Vermont. Webster challenged his predecessors on the basis of their lack of evidence. Noting Jefferson’s reliance on personal testimony rather than hard data, Webster wrote disparagingly, “Mr. Jefferson seems to have no authority for his opinions but the observations of elderly and middle-aged people.” Though Williams, in contrast, did engage in some statistical analysis, Webster convincingly argued that he had misconstrued the facts at hand. While Webster acknowledged that winter conditions had become more variable, he maintained the America’s climate had essentially remained stable….
The work of compiling his American English dictionary apparently demanded intense concentration. In one house, “to make sure that he wouldn’t be disturbed by the children, he packed the walls of his second-floor study with sand.” In another house, the construction of which he personally oversaw, “Webster had double walls installed in his second-floor study.” Adding mass to the wall and constructing two layers of walls both remain recommended tactics for sound isolation today.
The story of Webster’s life itself was fascinating to learn about, but perhaps just as interesting are the various side remarks about the people and places he encountered. In this book we learn bits of history about New England states; the founders of familiar cities and organizations; and details about Revolutionary-era battles, pamphleteering, and government development from a more personal perspective than usual.
What about the implication of the book’s title? Was Noah Webster a founding father of the United States? Others certainly appear more instrumental in initiating and developing the foundations of the country, but Webster clearly played a major role in supporting the new republic through a prolific number of articles and numerous speeches. Webster’s role may have been more supportive than creative, but that does not diminish his importance.
As usual, I read a paperback edition, but as the cover became worn from being stuffed into the back of the seat in front of me on several airplane trips, I thought a digital edition might have been nice too, at least for reading as a travel passenger.