The Story of Daniel Webster

by James Baldwin

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Chapter 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.


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