Caleb Atwater

Caleb Atwater

CIRCLEVILLE — Education in Ohio has an important tie to Circleville through the work of 50-year Circleville resident Caleb Atwater.

Atwater was born on Christmas Day, 1778 in North Adams, Mass., at the height of the Revolutionary War. After graduating from Williams College in 1804 as Valedictorian, he practiced ministry, but turned to law following the death of his first wife, Diana, and due to a lack of satisfaction with the ministry.

He then ran a successful glass business until a fire in 1810 caused the business to go bankrupt.

Following his bankruptcy, Atwater moved to Circleville in 1815, just five years after the town was established in 1810.

Atwater then became a member of the state legislature in 1821, where he supported the Ohio-Erie Canal Legislation and also, publicly funded education.

In 1822, Atwater successfully lobbied the legislature and Governor Allen Trimble to establish a commission to study the feasibility of creating common schools in Ohio to be financed by the state.

Atwater served as chairman of the commission, which also included John Collins, James Hoge, Nathan Guilford, Ephraim Cutler, Josiah Barber and James Bell. The commission spent the summer and fall of 1822 researching the condition of Ohio’s educational system, as well as studying public education in other states.

Atwater wrote three pamphlets to educate Ohioans on the need for state-financed education — one on the condition of school buildings in Ohio, another on the type of public school system Ohio should create and a third on the value of common schools to Ohio’s future. Atwater modeled his plan after New York’s public school system. “Ohio,” said Atwater, “should not finance schools through taxation, but through the sale of state property.”

Not all members of the commission favored Atwater’s plan. Guilford and Bell advocated a property tax. They felt that the sale of public lands would not provide the funds needed to pay for the schools. A property tax would result in a regular flow of money to guarantee the funding of the schools.

The commission made its final report to the Ohio General Assembly in 1823. The legislators, for the most part, opposed public funding for internal improvements and public education. In the General Assembly’s session in 1824, public opinion forced the legislature to look once again at the education issue. The legislature agreed and established common schools in Ohio in 1825.

After Ohio’s creation of a public school system, Atwater remained a supporter of public education and internal improvements by publishing a newspaper called the Friend of Freedom.

The paper also called for the end of slavery in the southern United States. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson appointed Atwater one of four commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the Winnebago people of Wisconsin.

Atwater published one of the earliest histories of Ohio in 1838. In 1841, he published “An Essay on Education.” He called for coeducational schools, better textbooks, a heavier emphasis on science in the classroom and well-trained teachers.

Atwater died on March 13, 1867, and was at that time, survived by his wife, Belinda Butler, who died 10 years later. He had his six sons and three daughters, Butler, Douglass, DeWitt Clinton, Henry, George, Caleb, Belinda Ann, Aurelia and Lucy, all with his second wife.

Atwater had a street, Atwater Avenue, and in turn, a school named after him on the north side of Circleville.

Atwater has an Ohio Historical Marker at the corner of North Court Street and Pinckney Street, where one of his homes used to be, which reads in part, “{span}Atwater’s writings on geology, meteorology, archaeology, and history formed a catalyst in the scholarly ferment of the Ohio Valley, and scholars today are still intrigued by this eccentric and fascinating visionary.”

Information provided by the Pickaway County Historical Society and the Ohio History Connection.

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