Four Great Americans  by James Baldwin

The Story of Daniel Webster

Part 2 of 5

IV.—Plans for the Future

One hot day in summer the judge and his youngest son were at work together in the hayfield.

"Daniel," said the judge, "I am thinking that this kind of work is hardly the right thing for you. You must prepare yourself for greater things than pitching hay."

"What do you mean, father?" asked Daniel.

"I mean that you must have that which I have always felt the need of. You must have a good education; for without an education a man is always at a disadvantage. If I had been able to go to school when I was a boy, I might have done more for my country than I have. But as it is, I can do nothing but struggle here for the means of living."

"Zeke and I will help you, father," said Daniel; "and now that you are growing old, you need not work so hard."

"I am not complaining about the work," said the judge. "I live only for my children. When your older brothers were growing up I was too poor to give them an education; but I am able now to do something for you, and I mean to send you to a good school."

"Oh, father, how kind you are!" cried Daniel.

"If you will study hard," said his father—"if you will do your best, and learn all that you can, you will not have to endure such hardships as I have endured. And then you will be able to do so much more good in the world."

The boy's heart was touched by the manner in which his father spoke these words. He dropped his rake; he threw his arms around his father's neck, and cried for joy.

It was not until the next spring that Judge Webster felt himself able to carry out his plans to send Daniel to school.

One evening he said, "Daniel, you must be up early in the morning, I am going with you to Exeter."

"To Exeter?" said the boy.

"Yes, to Exeter. I am going to put you in the academy there."

The academy at Exeter was then, as it still is, a famous place for preparing boys for college. But Daniel's father did not say anything about making him ready for college. The judge knew that the expenses would be heavy, and he was not sure that he would ever be able to give him a finished education.

It was nearly fifty miles to Exeter, and Daniel and his father were to ride there on horseback. That was almost the only way of traveling in those days.

The next morning two horses were brought to the door. One was Judge Webster's horse, the other was a gentle nag, with a lady's sidesaddle on his back.

"Who is going to ride on that nag?" asked Daniel.

"Young Dan Webster," answered the judge.

"But I don't want a sidesaddle. I am not a lady."

"Neighbor Johnson is sending the nag to Exeter for the use of a lady who is to ride back with me. I accommodate him by taking charge of the animal, and he accommodates me by allowing you to ride on it."

"But won't it look rather funny for me to ride to Exeter on a lady's saddle?"

"If a lady can ride on it, perhaps Dan Webster can do as much."

And so they set out on their journey to Exeter. The judge rode in advance, and Daniel, sitting astride of the lady's saddle, followed behind.

It was, no doubt, a funny sight to see them riding thus along the muddy roads. None of the country people who stopped to gaze at them could have guessed that the dark-faced lad who rode so awkwardly would some day become one of the greatest men of the age.

It was thus that Daniel Webster made his first appearance among strangers.

V.—At Exeter Academy

It was the first time that Daniel Webster had been so far from home. He was bashful and awkward. His clothes were of home-made stuff, and they were cut in the quaint style of the back-country districts.

He must have been a funny-looking fellow. No wonder that the boys laughed when they saw him going up to the principal to be examined for admission.

The principal of the academy at that time was Dr. Benjamin Abbott. He was a great scholar and a very dignified gentleman.

He looked down at the slender, black-eyed boy and asked:

"What is your age, sir?"

"Fourteen years," said Daniel.

"I will examine you first in reading. Take this Bible, and let me hear you read some of these verses."

He pointed to the twenty-second chapter of Saint Luke's Gospel.

The boy took the book and began to read. He had read this chapter a hundred times before. Indeed, there was no part of the Bible that was not familiar to him.

He read with a clearness and fervor which few men could equal.

The dignified principal was astonished. He stood as though spell-bound, listening to the rich, mellow tones of the bashful lad from among the hills.

In the case of most boys it was enough if he heard them read a verse or two. But he allowed Daniel Webster to read on until he had finished the chapter. Then he said:

"There is no need to examine you further. You are fully qualified to enter this academy."

Most of the boys at Exeter were gentlemen's sons. They dressed well, they had been taught fine manners, they had the speech of cultivated people.

They laughed at the awkward, new boy. They made fun of his homespun coat; they twitted him on account of his poverty; they annoyed him in a hundred ways.

Daniel felt hurt by this cruel treatment. He grieved bitterly over it in secret, but he did not resent it.

He studied hard and read much. He was soon at the head of all his classes. His schoolmates ceased laughing at him; for they saw that, with all his uncouth ways, he had more ability than any of them.

He had, as I have said, a wonderful memory. He had also a quick insight and sound judgment.

But he had had so little experience with the world, that he was not sure of his own powers. He knew that he was awkward; and this made him timid and bashful.

When it came his turn to declaim before the school, he had not the courage to do it. Long afterwards, when he had become the greatest orator of modern times, he told how hard this thing had been for him at Exeter:

"Many a piece did I commit to memory, and rehearse in my room over and over again. But when the day came, when the school collected, when my name was called and I saw all eyes turned upon my seat, I could not raise myself from it.

"Sometimes the masters frowned, sometimes they smiled. My tutor always pressed and entreated with the most winning kindness that I would venture only once; but I could not command sufficient resolution, and when the occasion was over I went home and wept tears of bitter mortification."

Daniel stayed nine months at Exeter. In those nine months he did as much as the other boys of his age could do in two years.

He mastered arithmetic, geography, grammar, and rhetoric. He also began the study of Latin. Besides this, he was a great reader of all kinds of books, and he added something every day to his general stock of knowledge.

His teachers did not oblige him to follow a graded course of study. They did not hold him back with the duller pupils of his class. They did not oblige him to wait until the end of the year before he could be promoted or could begin the study of a new subject.

But they encouraged him to do his best. As soon as he had finished one subject, he advanced to a more difficult one.

More than fifty years afterwards, Dr. Abbott declared that in all his long experience he had never known any one whose power of gaining knowledge was at all equal to that of the bashful country lad from the New Hampshire hills.

Judge Webster would have been glad to let Daniel stay at Exeter until he had finished the studies required at the academy. But he could not afford the expense.

If he should spend all his money to keep the boy at the academy, how could he afterwards find the means to send him to college where the expenses would be much greater?

So he thought it best to find a private teacher for the boy. This would be cheaper.

VI.—Getting Ready for College

One day in the early winter, Judge Webster asked Daniel to ride with him to Boscawen. Boscawen was a little town, six miles away, where they sometimes went for business or for pleasure.

Snow was on the ground. Father and son rode together in a little, old-fashioned sleigh; and as they rode, they talked about many things. Just as they were going up the last hill, Judge Webster said:

"Daniel, do you know the Rev. Samuel Wood, here in Boscawen?"

"I have heard of him," said Daniel. "He takes boys into his family, and gets them ready for college."

"Yes, and he does it cheap, too," said his father. "He charges only a dollar a week for board and tuition, fuel and lights and everything."

"But they say he is a fine teacher," said Daniel. "His boys never fail in the college examinations."

"That is what I have heard, too," answered his father. "And now, Dannie, I may as well tell you a secret. For the last six years I have been planning to have you take a course in Dartmouth College. I want you to stay with Dr. Wood this winter, and he will get you ready to enter. We might as well go and see him now."

This was the first time that Daniel had ever heard his father speak of sending him to college. His heart was so full that he could not say a word. But the tears came in his eyes as he looked up into the judge's stern, kind face.

He knew that if his father carried out this plan, it would cost a great deal of money; and if this money should be spent for him, then the rest of the family would have to deny themselves of many comforts which they might otherwise have.

"Oh, never mind that, Dan," said his brother Ezekiel. "We are never so happy as when we are doing something for you. And we know that you will do something for us, some time."

And so the boy spent the winter in Boscawen with Dr. Wood. He learned everything very easily, but he was not as close a student as he had been at Exeter.

He was very fond of sport. He liked to go fishing. And sometimes, when the weather was fine, his studies were sadly neglected.

There was a circulating library in Boscawen, and Daniel read every book that was in it. Sometimes he slighted his Latin for the sake of giving more time to such reading.

One of the books in the library was Don Quixote. Daniel thought it the most wonderful story in existence. He afterwards said:

"I began to read it, and it is literally true that I never closed my eyes until I had finished it, so great was the power of this extraordinary book on my imagination."

But it was so easy for the boy to learn, that he made very rapid progress in all his studies. In less than a year, Dr Wood declared that he was ready for college.

He was then fifteen years old. He had a pretty thorough knowledge of arithmetic; but he had never studied algebra or geometry. In Latin he had read four of Cicero's orations, and six books of Virgil's Æneid. He knew something of the elements of Greek grammar, and had read a portion of the Greek Testament.

Nowadays, a young man could hardly enter even a third-rate college without a better preparation than that. But colleges are much more thorough than they were a hundred years ago.