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

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Posted by: Donald Paine on Mar 1, 2012

Journal Issue Date: Mar 2012

Journal Name: March 2012 - Vol. 48, No. 3

By Joshua Kendall | G.P. Putnam’s Sons | $26.95 | 355 pages | 2010

Conservator Karen always finds interesting books for gifts to this lover of law, history and literature. Christmas 2011 was no exception. I knew that Noah Webster had something to do with a dictionary. I did not know he was a lawyer. He passed the bar exam in 1781 at the age of 22. His opinion of our profession was cynical; he allowed as how a lawyer’s sense was “measured by the number of unintelligible terms he employs.” Webster did not succeed in this employment. He was unable to eke out a living for his wife and children.

His talent was wordsmithery. He assembled definitions over the years. Finally in 1818 at age 70 he published An American Dictionary of the English Language. It was a lexicographical and commercial success. Noah Webster died rich at age 84 in 1842.

His dictionary remains authoritative. I use the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate version on a daily basis, including the days I drafted and revised this review.

You will learn from Joshua Kendall’s book. He gave us a life of Roget (The Man Who Loved Lists), and now we have his gift of Noah Webster’s life.

Donald F. Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, and the Tennessee Judicial Conference.