"For a quarter century and more, no one in the fields of education and religion was better known than Moses Waddell."
-- Ellis Merton Coulter
Many books could be written about Columbia County, but none would need more superlatives than the one on education. And though we are often defined by our quality schools today, this description is far from a modern phenomenon. Dig into the past and you'll learn that the founders and/or first presidents of Georgia's three oldest colleges were all from Columbia County.
Abraham Baldwin wrote the charter and served as first president of Franklin College (later the University of Georgia); Dr. Ignatius Few Jr., was founder and first president of Emory; and Billington Sanders was the first president of Mercer. Three other men with Columbia County connections also became presidents of these schools, including Moses Waddell, Columbia County's first educator and the fifth president of UGA.
Waddell didn't plan to become one of the most renowned educators of his day, but he perhaps set the mold for Columbia County's high educational standards to this day. Though born into a poor, North Carolina family in 1770, he was fortunate to live near a school where classic subjects were taught, and where he excelled so quickly he began helping his teachers instruct other students by the age of 14.
Being of a "contemplative and religious nature," Waddell entered a Presbyterian seminary in Virginia to prepare for the ministry. While there he became engaged to Elizabeth (or Eliza) Woodson Pleasants. However, when her parents learned he intended to move to Georgia and become a missionary-schoolteacher, they were very much against their daughter going off to "the wilds of Georgia."
Waddell went on with his plans anyway, leaving college and Elizabeth behind in 1793, and stopping briefly in South Carolina to begin his mission work there. During that time he boarded at the home of Patrick Calhoun, whose son John became his student, and whose daughter Catherine would later become his wife.
Waddell arrived in Columbia County the next year and set up Mount Carmel School just east of Appling. In 1795 he married Miss Calhoun. Sadly, Catherine barely survived the marriage a year, dying at the age of 22 while giving birth to their first child. The infant, a girl, also died.
Waddell poured his life into his school, establishing a fine reputation for Mount Carmel and himself, and teaching students like William Crawford and John C. Calhoun who would have fine reputations someday themselves.
Waddell also continued his religious interests, as he would throughout his life. The very name of his school has a Biblical origin (I Kings 18), and in 1796 he is listed among the trustees charged with finding a site for an "Augusta Meeting House," perhaps a prelude to Augusta's First Presbyterian Church, established in 1804.
Sometime after his wife's death, the widower reestablished his friendship with Elizabeth Pleasants, and in 1800 she became his second wife. A year later, whether to be closer to her protective parents or for a new challenge, the Waddells moved across the Savannah River to South Carolina (near Abbeville) to establish another school.
Waddell's reputation as an educator soon drew him to the attention of the Franklin College trustees, and he accepted their invitation to become the school's president in 1819. By all accounts his reputation only increased at the college level. According to trustee and later governor George Gilmer, "Under Waddell's direction Franklin College became the most flourishing literary institution in the Southern States."
Historian L.L. Knight gives us a glimpse of Waddell's personality by calling him "a rigid disciplinarian who believed in the birch, and advocated flogging freshmen and recitations before breakfast." He also believed students should eat a strict, healthy diet, except on Wednesdays when they were allowed to add dessert to their substantial lunch.
By 1829 Waddell decided his work at the college was done, and he resigned. He left following commencement exercises, after which the entire student body marched to his house to bid him farewell.
Waddell returned to South Carolina for a while, but was soon struck by ill health. He died in Athens at the home of his son, and is buried in the little cemetery on Jackson Street facing the college he served so well.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. This column is an excerpt from As Long As The Rivers Run, her manuscript in progress on the history of Columbia County.)
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