Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Noah Webster, "The Forgotten Founding Father"

Last Thursday, I attended a lecture and book signing given by Joshua Kendall at the New Haven Museum.  Mr. Kendall's latest publication, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, explores the life of American dictionary author Noah Webster.  I have yet to read this book, so I will definitely be back to share more once I do.  I volunteer occasionally (which is not as much as I'd like!) as an interpreter at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut.  Besides the materials provided by the staff, it is surprisingly difficult to find resources about Webster.  The most comprehensive biography that I have seen so far is Harlow Giles Unger's 2000 publication, Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot, so you can all imagine my delight when I heard that there was a new book being published about one of our best known local historic personages.

Joshua Kendall shares his insights about Noah Webster.
Photo courtesy of the New Haven Museum facebook page.

Mr. Kendall shared a brief overview of Noah Webster's life that included a sprinkling of facts which were new to me.  Most interesting, though, was Mr. Kendall's claim that Mr. Webster suffered from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.  This is offered as a possible explanation for Webster's preoccupation with compiling lists.  In addition to his constant work with etymological lists, during his early "book tour" to promote his speller, he counted every house in each of the cities where he stopped (these lists subsequently became part of the first census).  He was also constantly working on large projects, which Mr. Kendall predicts kept him sane.  Webster was viewed by some as quite the curmudgeon and he managed to make a number of political foes as well, one of them being fellow federalist Alexander Hamilton.  I was not aware of his overbearing nature towards his children, which is apparently evident in some of his later correspondence with them.  I am very much looking forward to reading this new work and learning even more that I didn't know about Webster.

Noah in Connecticut 

This book and its corresponding lecture is especially relevant to our home state of Connecticut, as Noah Webster spent most of his life here.  I'll probably end up doing some more in depth posts about Mr. Webster in CT, so for now here is a brief overview.  He was born in the western division of Hartford (now the town of West Hartford) in a four room farm house built by his father.  This home was inherited by Noah's younger brother and remained in private hands until the 1960s.  Now, as the home of the West Hartford Historical Society, visitors can explore this historic house and hear stories about the Webster family and life in 18th century New England.  As the oldest son, Noah was fortunate to receive a college education at Yale.  He then moved around Connecticut working as a lawyer and a teacher.  He moved to New Haven with his wife and daughters in 1799 into what was known as the Arnold House, named for none other than Benedict Arnold (this home was unfortunately demolished in 1917).  In 1812, he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts for a brief time before returning to a newly built home in New Haven in 1823.  He died in this home, which eventually became part of Yale.  In the 1930s, Yale was scheduled to demolish the home, but Henry Ford uprooted the house and moved it to his Greenfield Village where visitors can see it today.  Today, Yale's Silliman College stands on the house's property.  Noah Webster is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery, just two blocks from where his last home stood.

 The site of Noah Webster's grave in the Grove Street Cemetery.


lahbluebonnet said...

Did Benedict Arnold live in the house named after him? We read a children's bio for school on Noah Webster years ago and enjoyed it.

Ashley said...

Yes. Benedict Arnold was born in Connecticut and prior to the Rev War he set up shop in New Haven as a bookseller and pharmacist. Here is a link to some more information from the New Haven Museum website:

lahbluebonnet said...

Thanks! We read a great bio on Benedict Arnold in school too! Knew he was from CT! Can't forget that from RC! LOL Now I know where one of his houses were!

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