John Witherspoon (February 5, 1722 – November 15, 1794) was a
Presbyterian minister and a Founding Father of the
United States. Witherspoon embraced the concepts of Scottish Common
Sense Realism, and while president of the College of New Jersey
(1768–1794; now Princeton University), became an influential figure
in the development of the United States' national character.
Politically active, Witherspoon was a delegate from
New Jersey to the
Second Continental Congress
Second Continental Congress and a signatory to the July 4, 1776,
Declaration of Independence. He was the only active clergyman and the
only college president to sign the Declaration. Later, he signed
Articles of Confederation
Articles of Confederation and supported ratification of the
Constitution. In 1789 he was convening moderator of the First General
Assembly of the
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
1 Early life and ministry in Scotland
3 Revolutionary War
4 Death and burial
9 External links
Early life and ministry in Scotland
The grave of Rev James Alexander Witherspoon, Gifford
John Knox Witherspoon was born at Gifford, a parish of Yester, at
East Lothian, Scotland, as the eldest child of the Reverend James
Alexander Witherspoon and Anne Walker, a descendant of John Welsh
of Ayr and John Knox. This latter claim of Knox descent though
ancient in origin is long disputed and without primary
documentation. He attended the Haddington Grammar School, and
obtained a Master of Arts from the
University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh in 1739. He
remained at the university to study divinity. In 1764, he was
awarded an honorary doctorate degree in divinity by the University of
Witherspoon was a staunch Protestant, nationalist, and supporter of
republicanism. Consequently, he was opposed to the Roman Catholic
Legitimist Jacobite rising of 1745–46. Following the Jacobite
victory at the Battle of Falkirk (1746), he was briefly imprisoned at
Doune Castle, which had a long-term effect on his health.
He became a Church of
Scotland (Presbyterian) minister at Beith,
Ayrshire (1745–1758), where he married Elizabeth Montgomery of
Craighouse. They had ten children, with five surviving to adulthood.
From 1758 to 1768, he was minister of the
Laigh kirk, Paisley
Laigh kirk, Paisley (Low
Kirk). Witherspoon became prominent within the Church as an
Evangelical opponent of the Moderate Party. During his two
pastorates he wrote three well-known works on theology, notably the
satire "Ecclesiastical Characteristics" (1753), which opposed the
philosophical influence of Francis Hutcheson.
The President's House in Princeton, New Jersey. Completed in 1756,
John Witherspoon lived here from 1768 to 1779; it is a U.S. National
At the urging of
Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton, whom he met in
Paisley, Witherspoon finally accepted their renewed invitation
(having turned one down in 1766) to become president and head
professor of the small
Presbyterian College of
New Jersey in
Princeton. Thus, Witherspoon 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. Upon his arrival, Witherspoon found the
school in debt, with weak instruction, and a library collection which
clearly failed to meet student needs. He immediately began
fund-raising—locally and back home in Scotland—added three hundred
of his own books to the library, and began purchasing scientific
equipment (including the Rittenhouse orrery, many maps and a
Witherspoon also instituted a number of reforms, including modeling
the syllabus and university structure after that used at the
University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. He also
firmed up entrance requirements, which helped the school compete with
Yale for scholars.
Witherspoon taught personally courses in eloquence or belles lettres,
chronology (history), and divinity. However, none was more important
than moral philosophy (a required course). An advocate of natural law
Christian and republican cosmology, Witherspoon considered
moral philosophy vital for ministers, lawyers, and those holding
positions in government (magistrates). Firm but good-humored in his
leadership, Witherspoon was very popular among both faculty and
Witherspoon had been a prominent evangelical
Presbyterian minister in
Scotland before accepting the Princeton position. As the college's
primary occupation at the time was training ministers, Witherspoon
became a major leader of the early
Presbyterian Church in America. He
also helped organize Nassau
Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New
Nonetheless, Witherspoon transformed a college designed predominantly
to train clergymen into a school that would equip the leaders of a new
Protestant country. Students who later played prominent roles in the
new nation's development included James Madison, Aaron Burr, Philip
Freneau, William Bradford, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge. From among
his students came 37 judges (three of whom became justices of the U.S.
Supreme Court); 10 Cabinet officers; 12 members of the Continental
Congress, 28 U.S. senators, and 49 United States congressmen.
In 1774, Witherspoon wrote of an encounter with an unexplained
atmospheric phenomenon. Witherspoon and a few aides were walking along
Lake Carnegie, when an "orb of fire" descended and made its way over
to the group. Witherspoon wrote in his journal that it was a visit
from an angel, who informed him that he, too, was a divine
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.
Long wary of the power of the British Crown, Witherspoon saw the
growing centralization of government, progressive ideology of colonial
authorities, and establishment of
Episcopacy authority as a threat to
the Liberties of the colonies. Of particular interest to Witherspoon
was the crown's growing interference in the local and colonial affairs
which previously had been the prerogatives and rights of the American
authorities. When the crown began to give additional authority to its
Episcopacy over Church affairs, British authorities hit a
nerve in the
Presbyterian Scot, who saw such events in the same lens
as his Scottish Covenanters. Soon, Witherspoon came to support the
Revolution, joining the
Committee of Correspondence
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
Continental Congress as part of the
New Jersey delegation,
appointed Congressional Chaplain by the President of the Continental
Congress John Hancock, and in July 1776, voted to adopt the Virginia
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." He lost a son during the Battle of
Germantown in 1777.
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
New Jersey Legislature, and strongly supported the adoption of the
United States Constitution
United States Constitution during the
New Jersey ratification debates.
In November 1776, 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. In 1780 he was
elected to a one-year term in the
New Jersey Legislative Council
representing Somerset County. At the age of 68, he married a
24-year-old bride, with whom he had two more children.
Death and burial
Witherspoon suffered eye injuries and was blind by 1792. He died in
1794 on his farm Tusculum, just outside Princeton, and is buried along
Presidents Row in Princeton Cemetery. An inventory of
Witherspoon's possessions taken at his death included "two slaves ...
valued at a hundred dollars each", indicating that he owned slaves
during his life.
Witherspoon and his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery, had a total of 10
children, only five of which survived to accompany their parents to
America. James, the eldest, a young man of great promise, graduated
from Princeton in 1770, and joined the American army as an aide to
General Francis Nash, with the rank of major. The next youngest son,
John, graduated from Princeton in 1774, practiced medicine in South
Carolina, and was lost at sea in 1795. David, the youngest son,
graduated the same year as his brother, married General Francis Nash's
widow, and practiced law in New Bern, North Carolina. Anna, the eldest
daughter, married Reverend Samuel Smith on June 28, 1775. Reverend
Samuel Smith succeeded Dr. Witherspoon as president of Princeton in
1775. Frances, the youngest daughter, married Dr. David Ramsay, a
delegate from South Carolina to the continental Congress, on March 18,
John Witherspoon Statue, Paisley,
Scotland by Alexander Stoddart
According to Herbert Hovenkamp, Witherspoon's 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.
Witherspoon revised the moral philosophy curriculum, strengthened the
college's commitment to natural philosophy, and positioned Princeton
in the larger transatlantic world of the republic of letters. Although
he was a proponent of
Christian values, Witherspoon's common sense
approach to the public morality of civil magistrates was more
influenced by the Enlightenment ethics of Scottish philosophers
Francis Hutcheson and
Thomas Reid than the
Christian idealism of
Jonathan Edwards. In regard to civil magistrates, Witherspoon thus
believed moral judgment should be pursued as a science. He held to old
concepts from the
Roman Republic of virtuous leadership by civil
magistrates, but he also regularly recommended that his students read
such modern philosophers as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and David Hume,
even though he disapproved of Hume's "infidel" stance on religion.
Virtue, he argued, could be deduced through the development of the
moral sense, an ethical compass instilled by God in all human beings
and developed through religious education (Reid) or civil sociability
(Hutcheson). Witherspoon saw morality as having two distinct
components: spiritual and temporal. Civil government owed more to the
latter than the former in Witherspoon's
Presbyterian doctrine. Thus,
public morality owed more to the natural moral laws of the
Enlightenment than to revealed Christianity.
In his lectures on moral philosophy at Princeton, required of all
juniors and seniors, Witherspoon argued for the revolutionary right of
resistance and recommended checks and balances within government. He
made a profound impression on his student James Madison, whose
suggestions for the
United States Constitution
United States Constitution followed both
Witherspoon's and Hume's ideas. The historian
Douglass Adair writes,
"The syllabus of Witherspoon's lectures . . . explains the conversion
of the young Virginian to the philosophy of the Enlightenment."
Witherspoon accepted the impossibility of maintaining public morality
or virtue in the citizenry without an effective religion. In this
sense, the temporal principles of morality required a religious
component which derived its authority from the spiritual. Therefore,
public religion was a vital necessity in maintaining the public
morals. However, in this framework, non-
Christian societies could have
virtue, which, by his definition, could be found in natural law.
Witherspoon, in accordance with the Scottish moral sense philosophy,
taught that all human beings,
Christian or otherwise, could be
virtuous, but he was nonetheless committed to Christianity as the only
route to personal salvation.
Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia
University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, Scotland, United Kingdom
Doctor John Witherspoon,
Connecticut Avenue and N Street, N.W., near
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.
Witherspoon Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
John Witherspoon Middle School, Princeton, New Jersey
Witherspoon Building, in the Market East neighborhood of
The former Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children, Princeton,
John Witherspoon College, a non-denominational
arts college in Rapid City, South Dakota
Witherspoon Institute, a research center, in Princeton, New Jersey
Witherspoon Society, an organization of laypeople within the
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Witherspoon Street, in: Princeton, New Jersey; Louisville, Kentucky;
and, Paisley, Scotland
SS John Witherspoon, a
Liberty ship class United States Merchant
Marine ship during World War II; participated in an Allied convoy,
code named PQ-17, and was sunk in the
Barents Sea by the German
submarine U-255 on July 6, 1942
Portrayed in the musical 1776, about the debates over and eventual
adoption of the Declaration of Independence, by
Edmund Lyndeck in the
1969 stage play and by James Noble in the 1972 film
^ Longfield, Bradley J. (2013). Presbyterians and American Culture: A
History. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster Johh Knox Press.
pp. 40–41. Retrieved November 6, 2015. .
^ "Princeton Presidents". Princeton University. Retrieved
^ Pyne, F. W. Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of
Independence. 3 Pt. 1 (2nd ed.). Rockport, Maine: Picton press.
^ Witherspoon's mother's name has alternatively been spelled as "Anna
^ Maclean, John, Jr. (1877). History of the College of New Jersey:
From Its Origin in 1746 to the Commencement of 1854. Philadelphia: J.
B. Lippincott & Co. Vol. 1, p384.
^ Waters (1910). Witherspoon, Knox. The New England historical and
genealogical register, Volume 64. Retrieved 2010-10-16.
^ "John Witherspoon". ushistory.org.
Independence Hall Association.
Archived from the original on 7 June 2015. Retrieved 17 June
^ Tait, L. Gordon (2001). The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit,
and Public Forum. Westminster
John Knox Press. p. 13.
^ "John Witherspoon". The History of the
Presbyterian Church. Archived
from the original on February 20, 2008. Retrieved 2007-12-30.
^ Herman, Arthur (2003). The Scottish Enlightenment. Fourth Estate.
p. 186. ISBN 1-84115-276-5.
^ Macintyre, Alasdair (1988). Whose Justice? Which Rationality?.
Duckworth. p. 244. ISBN 0-7156-2199-8.
Scotland "Rampant Scotland, John Witherspoon"
^ Rush and Stockton's recruiting letters can be found in Butterfield,
L. H., "
John Witherspoon Comes to America", Princeton University
Library, Princeton, New Jersey. 1953
^ Jeffry H. Morrison,
John Witherspoon and the Founding of the
American Republic (2005)
^ Pyne, F. W. Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of
Independence. 4 Pt. 4 (2nd ed.). Rockport, Maine: Picton press.
^ americanrevolution.org Key to Trumbull's picture
^ Herman, Arthur (2003). The Scottish Enlightenment. Fourth Estate.
p. 237. ISBN 1-84115-276-5.
^ a b "Politics and the pulpit: Signer John Witherspoon" Founding
John Knox Witherspoon at Find a Grave
^ Knowlton, Steven. "LibGuides: African American Studies: Slavery at
Princeton". libguides.princeton.edu. Retrieved 2017-09-15.
^ MacLean, Maggie. "Elizabeth Montgomery Witherspoon". History of
American Women. History of American Women. Retrieved 25 October
^ Science and Religion in America, 1800–1860, Herbert Hovenkamp,
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978 ISBN 0-8122-7748-1 pp. 5,
^ Adair, "James Madison", Fame and the Founding Fathers, ed. Trevor
Colbourn (ndianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1974) 181.
Princeton University "Statue Unveiling"
^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-02-19. Retrieved
2008-01-04. Who Is That Man, Anyway?
^ Princeton University
^ "National Historic Landmarks & National Register of Historic
Places in Pennsylvania" (Searchable database). CRGIS: Cultural
Resources Geographic Information System. Note: This includes
Richard J. Webster (July 1977). "National Register of Historic Places
Inventory Nomination Form: Witherspoon Building" (PDF). Retrieved
^ "Liberal Arts? Are You Kidding? Archived 2015-04-09 at the Wayback
John Witherspoon College
Witherspoon Institute Archived 2010-04-10 at the Wayback
^ Witherspoon Society
Burns, David G. C. (December 2005). "The Princeton Connection". The
Scottish Genealogist. 52 (4). ISSN 0300-337X.
Collins, Varnum L. President Witherspoon: A Biography, 2 vols. (1925,
Ashbel Green, ed. The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon, 4 vols.
(1802, repr. with a new introduction by L. Gordon Tait, 2003)
Morrison, Jeffrey H.
John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American
Pomfret, John E.. '"Witherspoon, John" in Dictionary of American
Tait, L. Gordon. The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit, and
Public Forum (2001)
Moses Coit Tyler "President Witherspoon in the American Revolution"
The American Historical Review Volume 1, Issue 1, July 1896.
pp. 671–79. 
Woods, David W..
John Witherspoon (1906)
An Animated Son of Liberty – A life of
John Witherspoon J. Walter
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Photographic tour of John Witherspoon's grave at Princeton Cemetery.
Biography by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856
Partial photo of his tombstone at Princeton Cemetery.
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