Mr. Wood put me upon Virgil and Tully; and I conceived a pleasure in the study of them, especially the latter, which rendered application no longer a task... In the spring I began the Greek grammar, and at midsummer Mr. Wood said to me: "I expected to keep you till next year, but I am tired of you, and I shall put you into college next month." (Lewis 10)Students wishing to enter the College presented a school certificate, a $300 bond, and a letter of recommendation from a previous instructor. The students were then given a rigorous oral examination to make certain that they are "versed in Virgil, Cicero's Select Orations, the Greek Testament, be able accurately to translate English into Latin and also understand the fundimental [sic] rules of arithmetic" (Foster 510).
Feuss relates an anecdote of Lyman's regarding Webster's first journey to Hanover. It seems that Webster left Salisbury wearing "a new suit of blue cloths." On the way he was caught in a storm, and drenched to the bone. He arrived in Hanover to discover that the dye from the suit had started to bleed, making him "as blue as an indigo bag." He didn't have time to do anything to alleviate the situation before his scheduled appearance before the faculty, and thus appeared to them as "not only black Dan, but blue Dan." Feuss admits that this story is of questionable veracity (Feuss 43).
Whether or not the above is true, Daniel passed his examination, although he would later admit that he was "miserably prepared, both in Latin and Greek; but Mr. Wood accomplished his promise, and I entered Dartmouth College, as a Freshman, August, 1797" (Lewis 10)
Dartmouth was a much smaller school, with an average of 141 students at any given time (Foster 609). Reports Feuss, "The College and village bore only a slight resemblance to those of to-day" (Feuss 45). And yet, as revealed by an 1804 watercolor by George Ticknor, the main feature of the campus of the time was Dartmouth Row, situated very much as it is now. Dartmouth Hall "was burned down in 1904, but it was almost immediately restored... on its old location" (ibid.).
At the time, "There were four teachers of professorial rank: Bezaleel Woodward, an unpretentious and friendly person, the sanest and most respected member of the staff, whose field was mathematics and natural philosophy... John Smith, known as 'Professor Johnny,' who taught the languages... Nathan Smith, of the Medical School... and the President himself, who lectured on Civil and Ecclesiastical History and assumed entire charge of the work of the Senior Year" (ibid. 44). If Woodward was the most respected member of the staff, President Wheelock was probably the least. Even Webster commented in a letter to Henry Fuller on the "longitude" of Wheelock's nose.
The course of study at Dartmouth then was not as broad as it is today, but its curriculum was much more cumulative. Readings included Virgil, Cicero, Greek Testament, and others. Subjects covered included Arithmetic, English Grammar, Rhetoric, Geography, Geometry, Surveying, Mensuration, the Belles Lettres, Logic, and others (Foster 513).
Regarding Webster's studies, there had been rumors later in his life that Webster had been idle as a student, perhaps precipitated by his failure to play a part in the 1801 Commencement, but more likely a ploy to discredit him politically. Webster responded to these rumors angrily, saying, "What fools they must be to suppose that anybody could succeed in college or public life without study!" (qtd. by Richardson in Hopkins 35). On a less vehement note, Webster describes his method of study in his autobiography.
The opinion of my scholarship was a mistaken one. It was overestimated. I will explain what I mean. Many other stduents read more than I did and knew more than I did. But so much as I read, I made my own. When a half hour or an hour, at most, had elapsed, I closed my book and thought over what I had read. If there was anything particularly interesting or striking in the passage, I endeavored to recall it and lay it up in my memory, and commonly could effect my object. Then, if in debate or conversation afterwards, any subject came up on which I had read something, I could talk very easily so far as I had read, and then I was very careful to stop. Thus, greater credit was given me for extensive and accurate knowledge than I really possessed" (Lewis 11).Webster obviously succedded in impressing his classmates and peers, all of whom held him in high regard. The following are from accounts taken shortly after Webster's death by Professor E. Sanborn. They may be colored by the passage of time to favor Webster, but there is significant overlap in their descriptions of Webster in his college days.
James Hervey Bingham:
Daniel Webster's habits in college were good. He had the highest sense of honor and integrity. He was sure to understand the subject of his recitation; sometimes, I used to think, in a more extended and comprehensive sense than his teachers. He never liked to be confined to small technicalities or views; but seemed to possess an intuitive knowledge of whatever subject he was considering. He did not find it necessary, as was the case with most of us, to sit down to hard work three or four hours to make himself master of his lesson, but seemed to comprehend it in a larger view, and would sometimes procure other books on the same subject, for further examination, and employ hours in close thought, either in his room or in his walk, which would enlarge his views and might at the same time, with some, give him the character of not being a close student.(W&S v. 17 55)Elijah Hotchkiss:
I can truly say that all his exercises, through his whole collegiate course, improved in excellence as time advanced. He was always punctual in all the recitations, exercises, and studies of the class. Daniel Webster never required as much time to make himself familiar with the subjects of his studies as many others, who also performed well their parts. His range of study was more general than that of his classmates. The ease with which he acquired knowledge afforded him much time for promiscuous reading. His leisure hours were not lost; they were occupied in the way of literary improvement... Webster was nver an idle student, as some persons falsely and erroneously belive... There were, perhaps, as many good scholars in our class as could be found in any other class of the same number. Webster was considered the best. Often, in our private circles, the subject of his superior scholarship and fine talents was discussed. (ibid. 66)Rev. Elihu Smith
With respect to Daniel Webster's college life, his habits of study were good. He was a strict observer of order. His mind was too dignified to do otherwise. He never engaged in college disturbances. I should as soon have suspected John Wheelock, the President, of improper conduct as Daniel Webster. He looked with contempt on all lawless projects. I never knew him to waste study hours. He was constant at the recitation, and always well prepared. He was peculiarly industrious. In addition to college studies, he read more than any one in his class. He read with great rapidity, and seemed to remember all. He would accomplsih more labor, in a given time, than any one of his classmates. As a general scholar, Webster was good. He was not deficient in a single study. In composition and speaking there was not his equal in the class. The truth is, that, by his thorough investigation of every subject and every study, while in college, by the aid of his giant mind, he rose to the very pinnacle of fame; and all he had to do was sustain himself where he was, and fame would roll in upon him; and all his classmates have been compelled to loook up high to see him, which I have ever been proud to do. (ibid. 45)