David Howell (1747-1824), first professor at the College, was born in Morristown, New Jersey, on January 1, 1747. He was educated at Hopewell Academy and at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), as James Manning had been. Before his graduation in 1766, he received a letter from Manning, suggesting that he come to Rhode Island to teach school. In 1768 he was appointed a tutor at the College to assist Manning at a “Salary of Seventy two Pounds Lawful Money,” and was “authorized to collect the Tuition Money as it became due as part of his Salary.” In 1769 he was appointed professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. As the only professor other than Manning, he also gave some instruction in French, German, and Hebrew. His teaching career ended when college exercises were suspended in 1776 because of the Revolutionary War. In 1779 he resigned, writing to the Corporation, “Having at length given over all hopes of a revival of classical instruction in this College during the continuance of the war, and not feeling disposed so far to take advantage of public munificence as to continue to avail myself of the emoluments of an office without discharging its duties, I have thought fit, not without weighty deliberation, to resign the professorship.” In 1793 Howell was appointed professor of law with the duties of taking care of the law books and lecturing at least once a year. He continued his interest in the College, being a member of the Board of Fellows from 1773 to 1824 and secretary of the Corporation from 1780 to 1806. Upon the death of James Manning, Howell served as president ad interim until the election of Jonathan Maxcy in 1792.
He had been admitted to the bar in 1768. He was a member of the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1785, associate justice of the supreme court of Rhode Island from 1786 to 1787, attorney general in 1789, and judge of the Rhode Island district court from 1812 until his death on July 30, 1824. Describing Howell, Professor William G. Goddard wrote:
“Judge Howell was endowed with extraordinary talents, and he superadded to his endowments extensive and accurate learning. An able jurist, he established for himself a solid reputation. He was, however, yet more distinguished as a keen and brilliant wit, and as a scholar extensively acquainted not only with the ancient, but with several of the modern languages. As a pungent and effective political writer, he was almost unrivalled; and in conversation, whatever chanced to be the theme, whether politics or law, literature or theology, grammar or criticism, a Greek tragedy or a difficult problem in mathematics, he was never found wanting.”