Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

The Forgotten Founding Father

Reading this biography, I realized that my knowledge of the people of the revolutionary and federal periods in American History is limited to the big names: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and maybe a half dozen others. Webster knew many of these Bright Lights, but they flit by on the outskirts of his life, visible for a moment or two and then leaving the field to the less famous, many of whom are familiar to me only as names. I know nothing about who they are or what they did. In this, reading the book felt a lot like reading Miracle at Philadelphia (and what I imagined it’d be like to read about Irving Thalburg without knowing who Hawks or Joan Crawford were).

What’s clear despite my lack of context is that Webster was a very difficult person and could be quite unpleasant to be around. Kendall makes a good case that this was linked to mental illness—anxiety and obsessive traits— without making that argument overbearing. Instead, he gives the basic contours of Webster’s on-going difficulties and then takes them for granted as the context for his interpretation of his behavior. I can’t make any judgement of whether this approach is warranted by the evidence, but it is definitely effective.

My one concern is that it seems to me—and again I don’t know the evidence—that this consideration causes Kendall in some moments to mistake statements by Webster’s contemporaries, which seem carefully constructed to avoid provoking him, as endorsements of Webster’s view of situations. A good example is a letter from Madison cited to suggest he accepts Webster’s assertion that he was an originator of the Constitution’s ideas. My reading of the cited text is less generous than Kendall’s: Madison seems to be telling Webster who invented these ideas while attempting to avoid contradicting him overtly as far as his claim to be among them. There are other citations coming from correspondents I know less about that ring a similar tone to me. I have to trust Kendall but wonder if he’s not taking Webster’s side a bit too much.

Posted February 27, 2019