Despite desperate finances Watson’s mother, ever his champion, secured a modest college loan for her son. In 1872 Watson entered Mercer College, where his hero and former Thomson schoolmaster Epenetus Alexis Steed had recently accepted a professorship in Latin. Watson’s already ravenous appetite for poetry, literature, biography and history was further cultivated in the classrooms and employed in debating societies. After his freshman year, Tom Watson had earned a reputation as an eloquent, impassioned speaker. His ability to stir college audiences hinted at the fiery oratorical powers that would distinguish his future legal and political careers.
Lack of funds forced Watson to withdraw from Mercer after his sophomore year. Following a fruitless trip to Augusta in search of a store clerk position, Watson gained a seat in a wagon bound for Screven County. There he opened schools at both Little Horse Creek and Double Heads Church, pecked out a meager living, and lived and dined among the common farming class he taught.
His poverty, frustration and obscurity notwithstanding, Watson was determined to become “one of the first men of the state,” and he turned his interests to law. At night he studied Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. In 1875, Watson’s mother gained him permission to read law in the Augusta office of Judge William R. McLaws. Watson passed the bar that fall and after a brief attempt to teach and to practice law simultaneously in Screven County, he returned permanently to Thomson to begin in earnest his legal career.