The Life of Moses Waddel: Part 3

Moses the Teacher

In 1804, Moses and his family relocated to an area just six miles from Vienna, to an area known as Willington. Willington was a more rural area beside the river, where a population of fellow Scotch-Irish lived with a sizable portion of French Huguenots who had fled from the persecution they faced in France. This was where Moses began a school called Willington Academy, which would grow to be one of the most prominent schools in all of the southeast United States.

In his History of South Carolina (Volume 2), David Ramsay describes the school location:

“The schoolhouse is a plain log building in the midst of the woods in a hilly and healthy country, and too small to accommodate all the scholars in the hours of study. To obviate this inconvenience they are permitted and encouraged to build huts in the vicinity. These are the rough carpentry of the pupils, or constructed by workmen for about four dollars. In these, when the weather is cold, and under the trees when it is warm, the different classes study.”

MacLeod adds:

“There were no prescribed rules as to where a boy might study. He might study in a log cabin, where the clay chinking was taken out from between the logs for ventilation in the spring and summer. He could study in a beech tree or by the stream, or farther back in the woodlands around the clearing.”

When school was in session, few of the boys returned home for time and distance sake, and rather many would house together in cabins built nearby-not official dorms, but places that the boys themselves kept up.

So when it was time for the boys to come in for class (and Moses Waddel was a stickler for punctuality), a ram’s horn signaled for them. It was said that “when Moses Waddel sounded it at night for bed, in the morning for prayers, and during the day for class changes, it could be heard for miles.”

In class, Moses lead about seventy to eighty students, versing them in Latin, Greek, French, and in other arts and sciences to prepare them for entrance into higher colleges. He pushed a rigid course load. For instance, Moses would drill them daily on memorization, translation, and recitation of large sums of texts of Greek or Latin, keeping score of who could manage the largest section (that was over 1200 lines recited by George McDuffie from Horace). This was one of the many ways in which Moses motivated his students.

MacLeod writes:

“Willington had so many things to appeal to boys that A. B. Longstreet bragged that it was the finest town in the world for boys, that the boys seemed to consider all other schools “very small affairs,” compared with Willington. It made parents happy too, he added, because the school provided a morally safe atmosphere, gave good instruction, enabled the boys to grow physically as well as mentally, and taught self-reliance.”

At one point, “Dr. Smith, the president of Princeton College, was quoted as saying that he received no students from any school in the United States who stood better examinations than those of Dr. Waddel.”

As for the relationship between the boys themselves and Moses Waddel, there seemed to be a respect for the man-even as he was a stickler for rules and discipline.

Some may have considered him uptight, or take the notion of MacLeod that he was a “tortoise, awkward, bizarre, sometimes downright ugly.” In fact, the students took to calling him “Old Moses” in a sort of snickering fashion. And yet, it came with a kind of endearment, as Moses was “always puritanically enduring and mystically carrying on in his dome shell.”

In one story,

“Dr. Waddel, whip in hand, was chasing a disobedient boy across a field, with both Sam, the offender, and Waddel going faster and faster as delighted boys came from everywhere to watch, whistle and jeer: ‘Look at Old Moses go! He is catching up!’ Sam, hoping to escape, jumped a hedge, but as he went over the hedge, Waddel, presented with a perfect target, gave Sam a swipe that made him go higher than either Sam or any of the onlookers thought possible. His work accomplished, Waddel went back to his office as adolescent watchers laughed till their sides hurt and a chastened Sam dusted himself off on the other side…The story of the chase was to be told over and over by men who would always think of themselves as Old Moses’ boys.”

Even as excitable as this particular anecdote seems, it was not a typical occurrence when it came to Moses. He took a particular attention to the moral upbringing of the boys. He was not just concerned with their intellectual state, but their emotional and spiritual as well.

MacLeod writes:

“Waddel cultivated informal relationships by visiting the boys at night in their various log cabins and boarding houses, where he was able to evaluate their progress in an informal setting. The letters from his students to him unanimously mention a fond appreciation of his interest his advice, his regard, his concern for their moral betterment.

In supervising he was also tactful. If he found boys idle or mischievous, he did not explode into a tirade. Instead, at chapel he would describe (mentioning no names) what he had observed, moralize on this theme, and expound the moral ruin of such a course. The guilty boys, known only to Old Moses, squirmed silently while their temporarily innocent classmates snickered.”

Even despite his strict rule and serious nature, he was not entirely without humor.

MacLeod notes:

“He was a cheerful man even playful in his disposition. He maintained a personal interest in each boy. He had a wry sense of humor. When boys on second floor dumped water on him as he went in a door, he said nothing, but later raised an umbrella as he went in the door to the delight of the boys.”

He ran his school with the utmost of high standards and rigid discipline. Moses Waddel was, frankly, a tough teacher. Yet, he was incredibly passionate and genuine in his pursuit to better the boys under his care. It is perhaps best stated that “his goodness and sincerity touched his students so that many of them frankly loved him.”

Moses Waddel spent nearly fifteen years with Willington under his care. During that time, he received a doctorate from the College of South Carolina, and ushered through over one hundred students, many which went on to be prominent men across the southeast and all of the United States.

During this time, he had also written his most famous work, a biography and memoir written about a young woman, entitled “Memoirs of the Life of Miss Caroline E. Smelt.” His son notes that “this task to him was a labor of love” and once published in 1819, it became “a highly-interesting and popular work, which soon reached a third edition in this country and at least two in Great Britain.”

Towards the end of his tenure at Willington, he had several times been approached to take up the Presidency of the University of Georgia, formerly known as Franklin College in those days. He turned it down for many reasons that he counted for himself, one among them was observed by his friends and family to be because of the state of his health. He was often prone to deep anxiety, and the idea of picking up such a weighty responsibility terrified him.

However, as he sought counsel from those around him, and after time seemed to move in his heart, he finally accepted the position in 1818. At forty-eight years of age, Moses Waddel left South Carolina with his wife and children to Athens, Georgia in May of 1819.

University of Georgia president

The Church-Waddel-Brumby house was where Moses lived during his tenure as President of UGA. Now, it functions as a historical marker and the Athens Welcome Center.
The Church-Waddel-Brumby house was where Moses lived during his tenure as President of UGA. Now, it functions as a historical marker and the Athens Welcome Center.

Moses Waddel was welcomed to the University with great esteem.

MacLeod writes in his account:

“‘Success to the University of Georgia,’ President Monroe toasted in 1819 to a dinner party given in his honor at Athens. Seated at the table with Monroe was Moses Waddel, the new president of that institution, and the man upon whom success depended. Earlier in the day Waddel had conducted Monroe to his hotel and made a speech of welcome to him. That night a dinner party was given Monroe, and the college held a festival ‘illumination’ or lighting of all rooms in the college buildings. This had been the fashion since the illumination of all Paris on the night of Napoleon’s wedding to Marie Louise.

Had the students and town of Athens been wiser, they might have rejoiced over the arrival of Moses Waddel, the new president of the University, rather than a passing tourist President of the United States. The former came to accomplish and put down roots. The latter was one more celebrity passing through.”

The presence of President Monroe and a welcome party had little to reflect the actual state of the college. Though Moses Waddel’s arrival was celebrated, it would not be long before he had to take up the hard labor of attempting to turn around a failing college, evidence even by his family’s lack of home for the first several years. When they had first arrived, the President’s house was in a decrepit condition, as it had been neglected for over fifteen years. In this circumstance, Moses, his wife, and all five children boarded in what was known as “Steward’s hall” or the “Commons” for the students.

When Moses arrived, the University consisted only of seven students and one faculty member. He once mentioned to a Rev. Dr. S. G. Hillyer that upon his arrival, he found the seven students “playing ‘hide and seek’ in the rooms of the old college building.”

Hillyer went on to mention:

“He had found a fallen Institution lying low in apparently irretrievable desolation. The number of students present on his arrival he found to be only seven, all told! He found that the public had become dead to all interest in the institution, and almost hopeless of its resuscitation. He found a straggling little hamlet stretching along the public highway, with no prospect of revival and enlargement. To give a description of the condition of things in Athens we may adopt Dr. Hull’s language as the true record by one whose childhood, youth, and honored age had been spent upon the spot: ‘Prior to 1820 there were no improvements west of Lumpkin street. . .  All that part of the town was in woods, not a stick amiss.’ Such is a graphic description of what was then the seat of the State University.”

The school, more than any physical or financial problem, seemed to have faced a crisis of identity and a lack of interest from the people, and the greater academic community. As MacLeod puts it, “when Waddel went to the University, his work was far harder than a founder’s because he had to push uphill against a bad reputation.”

With time and diligence, though, Moses’ former experience of building up grammar schools and churches across South Carolina and Georgia served him well in the administration of a University, and the building up of a town.

Over the course of the next decade, the attendance of the University increased from seven to over a hundred at a time. Several of his own sons would later graduate: James, Isaac, and William and both William and James would take up a professorship at the University in later years.

Waddell Hall was completed in 1821 during Moses Waddel’s tenure and is the oldest building on campus.

Indeed, the respect that Moses gained of his students in past stations, he received ten-fold also in the men that attended the University. Yet, there were still instances of his reprimands which put the boys in their place.

Dr. S. G. Hillyer relates a story:

“A student had been guilty of some impropriety. Dr. Waddel sent for him and gave him a private lecture in his room. When he returned to his fellow students they were curious to know what had passed between him and the President. He put on quite an air of importance, and gave such an account of the interview as to make the impression that he had pretty successfully ‘ bullied ‘ the Doctor. Not long afterwards another student was sent for to the President’s room. Remembering what the former culprit had said, he concluded to play a similar game. Accordingly, as soon as the President opened the case the young man put on an air of offended surprise, and, in rather a haughty tone, began to ask why he was singled out for reprimand-but before he had proceeded farther, the Doctor stopped him with a frown, saying: ‘My young friend, if you cannot speak to me in a more becoming manner than you have assumed, there is the door, and the sooner you take it the better.’ The student saw at a glance that he was on the wrong track, and promptly changed his course. At once he made apologies, which Dr. Waddel so far accepted as to give the lecture, which was received with be coming meekness. The student told me this story on himself, and then added: ‘Granby, when you hear the boys bragging how they have ‘bullied’ Dr. Waddel, you just quietly conclude that they are lying ‘ for I tell you no student ever did it. It can’t be done.’”

He garnered the utmost respect from his students and commended them always to great things. Here is an excerpt of a speech delivered by Moses Waddel on August 7, 1822 during a graduation ceremony:

“…before you pass the threshold of public life, I would suggest to you a few rules, the observance of which will infallibly conduce to your public usefulness and personal happiness…make daily improvements in the acquisition of useful knowledge…in order to attain eminence in every useful and laudable pursuit, diligence and industrious application are absolutely necessary…punctilious attention to the fulfillment of promise…To respect and desire the good opinion of our fellow men is a duty incumbent upon all…your Creator requires your supreme affection, your reverential homage, and your filial confidence.”

Dr. Alonzo Church, a professor appointed under Moses’ tenure, said,

“The circumstances of the university were, when Dr. Waddel was called to preside over it, peculiarly embarrassing. They wore such as no one can fully comprehend who was not connected with it ; they were such, I am fully persuaded, as few men would have been able to meet, without ultimately abandoning it in despair. And to the wisdom and prudence and reputation of that good man is Georgia very largely indebted for the respectability and usefulness of her State College. The success which attended his efforts in raising the Institution so rapidly as he did to respect ability has been to many inexplicable; but to those who well understood his character, the success is by no means surprising.”

MacLeod further notes that,  “…‘character’ is too vague a word. He was honest, of course, but many unsuccessful college presidents are. To begin with, he brought a famous name with him. Furthermore, an examination of his diary shows that he diligently raised academic standards, promoted good public relations, proclaimed a moral atmosphere, and made himself constantly visible and accessible to students. All these factors together made his success.”

While he wasn’t the “first” president of the University of Georgia, it’s safe to say that he began an era of success that led to the impressive standing it holds today. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, a prominent writer and lawyer of the time, wrote in his eulogy of Moses, “The effect of his coming to this Institution was magical. It rose instantly to a rank which it had never held before, and which, I am happy to add, it has maintained ever since.”

To be continued in part 4






About the author


I write comics, draw penguins, and research family genealogy. Sometimes, all at once.

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