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John Witherspoon

Born   February 5, 1723(1723-02-05)
  Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland
Died November 15, 1794 (aged 71)
  Near Princeton, New Jersey
Nationality Scottish/American
Occupation Founding Father Clergyman, President of Princeton University
Religious beliefs Presbyterian Church or (Church of Scotland)

John Witherspoon (February 15, 1723 – November 15, 1794) was a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of New Jersey. He was both the only active clergyman and college president to sign the Declaration.


Early life and ministry in Scotland

John Witherspoon was born at Gifford, a parish of Yester, in East Lothian, Scotland, as the eldest child of the Reverend James Alexander Witherspoon and Anne Walker,[1] a descendant of John Welsh of Ayr and John Knox.[2] He attended the Haddington Grammar School, and obtained a Master of Arts from the University of Edinburgh in 1739. He remained at the University to study divinity.

Witherspoon was opposed to the Jacobite rising of 1745-46. Following the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Falkirk (1746), he was briefly imprisoned at Doune Castle,[3] which had a long-term impact on his health.

He became a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister at Beith, Ayrshire (1745-1758), where he married Elizabeth Montgomery. They had ten children, only five surviving to adulthood.

From 1758-1768, he was minister of the Laigh kirk, Paisley (Low Kirk). Witherspoon became prominent within the Church as an Evangelical opponent of the Moderate Party.[4] During his two pastorates he wrote three well-known works on theology, notably the satire "Ecclesiastical Characteristics" (1753) opposing the philosophical influence of Francis Hutcheson.[5] He was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Fife.


At the urging of Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton, whom he met in Paisley,[6] Witherspoon finally accepted another invitation (he had earlier turned one down in 1766) to become President and head professor of the small Presbyterian College of New Jersey in Princeton. To fulfill this, he and his family emigrated to New Jersey in 1768 at the age of 45. He became the sixth President of the college, later known as Princeton University.

Some of the courses he taught personally were Eloquence or Belles Lettres, Chronology (history), and Divinity. Of his courses, none was more important than Moral Philosophy (a required course), which Witherspoon considered vital for ministers, lawyers, and those holding positions in government (magistrates). He was firm but good-humored in his leadership. Witherspoon instituted a number of reforms, including modeling the syllabus and university structure after that used at the University of St Andrews and other Scottish universities. Witherspoon was very popular among both faculty and students, among them James Madison and Aaron Burr.

Upon his arrival at then College of New Jersey at Princeton, Witherspoon found the school in debt, instruction had become weak, and the library collection did not meet current student needs. At once he began fund-raising locally and back home in Scotland, added three hundred of his own books to the library, and began the purchase of scientific equipment: the Rittenhouse orrery, many maps and a "terrestial" globe. He also firmed up entrance requirements. These things helped the school be more on par with Harvard and Yale. According to Herbert Hovenkamp, his most lasting contribution was the initiation of the Scottish Common-Sense Realism, which he had learned by reading Thomas Reid and two of his expounders Dugald Stewart and James Beattie. [7]

As the College's primary occupation at the time was training ministers, Witherspoon was a major leader of the early Presbyterian church in America.  Witherspoon also helped to organize Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, N.J.

Revolutionary War

As a native Scotsman, long wary of the power of the British Crown, Witherspoon soon came to support the Revolution, joining the Committee of Correspondence and Safety in early 1774. His 1776 sermon "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" was published in many editions and he was elected to the Continental Congress as part of the New Jersey delegation [8] and, in July 1776, voted for the Resolution for Independence. In answer to an objection that the country was not yet ready for independence, according to tradition he replied that it "was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it." 

In John Trumbull's famous painting, Witherspoon is the second seated figure from the (viewer's) right among those shown in the background facing the large table.  [9]

Witherspoon served in Congress from June 1776 until November 1782 and became one of its most influential members and a workhorse of prodigious energy. He served on over 100 committees, most notably the powerful standing committees, the board of war and the committee on secret correspondence or foreign affairs. He spoke often in debate; helped draft the Articles of Confederation; helped organize the executive departments; played a major role in shaping foreign policy; and drew up the instructions for the peace commissioners. He fought against the flood of paper money, and opposed the issuance of bonds without provision for their amortization. "No business can be done, some say, because money is scarce," he wrote. He also served twice in the New Jersey Legislature, and strongly supported the adoption of the United States Constitution during the New Jersey ratification debates.

In November 1778, as British forces neared, Witherspoon closed and evacuated the College of New Jersey. The main building, Nassau Hall, was badly damaged and his papers and personal notes were lost. Witherspoon was responsible for its rebuilding after the war, which caused him great personal and financial difficulty.

Death and burial

John Witherspoon Statue, Princeton
John Witherspoon Statue, Paisley, Scotland

Witherspoon had suffered eye injuries and was blind by 1792. He died in 1794 on his farm Tusculum, just outside of Princeton, and is buried in the Princeton Cemetery. He was 71 when he died.


Witherspoon has been viewed as being "not a profound scholar" but "an able college president".[10]

Ideals that Witherspoon preached from the pulpit and ideas that he taught in the classroom lived on after his death. From among his students came 37 judges, three of whom made it to the U.S. Supreme Court; 10 Cabinet officers; 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. senators, and 49 United States congressmen. One student, Aaron Burr, became Vice President under Thomas Jefferson in the contested election of 1800. One of Burr's classmates was James Madison, who authored many of the Federalist Papers arguing for passage of the United States Constitution, and later became the 4th President. He was the one who got Madison so interested in theology. These men and many other alumni had a tremendous influence on the young republic. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 delegates had studied under Witherspoon. The limited-government philosophy of most of these men was due in large measure to Witherspoon's influence.

The President's House in Princeton, New Jersey, his home from 1768 to 1779 is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. A bronze statue at Princeton University by Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart is the twin of one outside The University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, Scotland.[11] In Princeton today, a University dormitory built in 1877, the street running north from the University's main gate, and the local public middle school all bear his name. Another statue stands near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., at the intersections of Connecticut Avenue, N and 18th Streets.

Paisley, Scotland honored Witherspoon's memory by naming a newly constructed street in the town center after him, in honor of his having lived in Paisley for a proportion of his adult life.

A son-in-law was Congressman David Ramsay, who married Frances Witherspoon on 18 March 1783. Another daughter, Ann, married Samuel Stanhope Smith, who succeeded Witherspoon as president of Princeton. There were many persons named Witherspoon who emigrated to America. Today, the only Witherspoons descended from the Rev. John Witherspoon in the male line also descend from John Witherspoon (b. 1790), his only Witherspoon grandson (both Frances Ramsey and Ann Smith also had sons). Reese Witherspoon, an American actress, is one of John Witherspoon's descendants.[12]

The Witherspoon Society is a body of laypeople within the Presbyterian Church (USA) in existence since 1979 that is activist in liberal and progressive causes that takes its name from John Witherspoon.[13]

The Witherspoon Institute is an independent research center that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies. Located in Princeton, New Jersey, the Institute promotes the application of fundamental principles of republican government and ordered liberty to contemporary problems through a variety of centers, research programs, seminars, consultations, and publications.[14]



  1. ^ Witherspoon's mother's name has alternatively been spelled as "Anna Walker".
  2. ^ Maclean, John, Jr. (1877). History of the College of New Jersey: From Its Origin in 1746 to the Commencement of 1854. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott & Co.. Vol. 1, p384.  
  3. ^ "John Witherspoon". The History of the Presbyterian Church. Retrieved 2007-12-30.  
  4. ^ Herman, Arthur (2003). The Scottish Enlightenment. Fourth Estate. pp. 186. ISBN 1841152765.  
  5. ^ Macintyre, Alasdair (1988). Whose Justice? Which Rationality?. Duckworth. pp. 244. ISBN 0715621998.  
  6. ^ Rampant Scotland "Rampant Scotland, John Witherspoon"
  7. ^ Science and Religion in America, 1800-1860, Herbert Hovenkamp, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978 ISBN 0812277481 p. 5, 9
  8. ^ Herman, Arthur (2003). The Scottish Enlightenment. Fourth Estate. pp. 237. ISBN 1841152765.  
  9. ^ Key to Trumbull's picture
  10. ^ Charles W. Snell (February 8, 1971), National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Maclean House / President's House (1756-1879) / Dean's House (1879-1968)PDF (32 KB), National Park Service  
  11. ^ Princeton University"Statue Unveiling"
  12. ^ Sturges, Fiona. "Reese Witherspoon: Legally blonde. Physically flawed?", The Independent, August 7, 2004. Accessed July 1, 2009. "Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon is a descendant of the Scottish Calvinist John Knox and John Witherspoon who left Scotland for America to become one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence."
  13. ^ Witherspoon Society Website
  14. ^ The Witherspoon Institute

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Samuel Finley
President of the College of New Jersey
Succeeded by
Samuel Stanhope Smith

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

JOHN WITHERSPOON (1723-1794), Scottish-American divine and educationalist, was born at Gifford, Yester parish, East Lothian, Scotland, on the 5th of February 1722/1723, the son of a minister of the Scotch Established Church, James Witherspoon (d. 1759), and a descendant on the distaff side from John Welch and John Knox. He studied at Haddington, and graduated in 1739 at the university of Edinburgh, where he completed a divinity course in 1743. He was licensed to preach by the Haddington presbytery in 1743, and after two years as a probationer was ordained (1745) minister of the parish of Beith. His Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753), Serious Apology (1764), and History of a Corporation of Servants discovered a few years ago in the Interior Parts of South America (1765), attacked various abuses in the church and satirized the "moderate" party. In 1757 he had become pastor at Paisley; and in 1769 he received the degree of D.D. from Aberdeen. He was sued for libel for printing a rebuke to some of his parishioners who had travestied the sacrament of the Lord's Supper; and after several years in the courts he was ordered to pay damages of £150, which was raised by his parishioners. He refused calls to churches in Dublin and Rotterdam, and in 1766 declined an invitation brought him by Richard Stockton to go to America as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University); but he accepted a second invitation and left Paisley in May 1768. His close relation with the Scotch Church secured important material assistance for the college of which he now became president, and he toured New England to collect contributions. He secured an excellent set of scientific apparatus and improved the instruction in the natural sciences; he introduced courses in Hebrew and French about 1772; and he did a large part of the actual teaching, having courses in languages, divinity, moral philosophy and eloquence. In the American Presbyterian church he was a prominent figure; he worked for union with the Congregationalists and with the Dutch Reformed body; and at the synod of 1786 he was one of the committee which reported in favour of the formation of a General Assembly and which drafted "a system of general rules for. .. government." In politics he did much to influence Irish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to support the Whig party. He was a member of the provincial congress which met at New Brunswick in July 1 774; presided over the Somerset county committee of correspondence in 1774-1775; was a member of the New Jersey constitutional convention in the spring of 1776; and from June 1776 to the autumn of 1779 and in1780-1783he was a member of the Continental Congress, where he urged the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, being the only clergyman to sign it. He became a member of the secret committee of correspondence in October 1776, of the Board of War in October 1 777, and of the committee on finance in 1778. He opposed the issue of paper money, supported Robert Morris's plan for a national bank, and was prominently connected with all Congressional action in regard to the peace with Great Britain. He had lost the sight of one eye in 1784, and in 1791 became quite blind. He died on his farm, Tusculum, near Princeton, on the 1 5th of November 1794.

There is a statue of Witherspoon in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, and another on the University Library at Princeton. His Essay on the Connexion between the Doctrine of Justification by the Imputed Righteousness of Christ and Holiness of Life (1756) was his principal theological work. He also published several sermons, and Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament (1774), sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin. His collected works, with a memoir by his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith (who succeeded him as president of the college), were edited by Dr Ashbel Green (New York, 1801-1802). See also David Walker Woods, John Witherspoon (New York, 1906); and M. C. Tyler, Literary History of the American Revolution, vol. ii. (1897).

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