Founding Fathers - John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon

Born: February 15, 1723 (Yester, East Lothian, Scotland)

Died: November 15, 1794 (Princeton, New Jersey)

No other Founding Father that we have studied can boast a similar resume to this week's subject, but if you were to select the kind of person to give your cause credibility you certainly could do much worse than John Witherspoon.  As the oldest son of Reverend James Witherspoon and his wife, Anne, young John received the best education available to a young Scottish man at the time and was an impressive student.  After his mother taught him to read at four years of age, he began to follow in his father's footsteps by studying and memorizing the Bible.  Once he had learned his basics at the local preparatory school in Haddington, John was sent to Edinburgh and enrolled in university courses by the time he was 13.  In three years he had completed a four-year program, published his thesis, and was awarded a Master of Arts shortly after his sixteenth birthday.  Without wasting any time, John immediately set out to earn a Doctorate of Theology, which he earned from St. Andrews at the age of 20 in 1743.  The young Presbyterian minister was soon given his own parish in Beith, a small town several miles southwest of Glasgow, where he would remain for twelve years.  It was there that John married Elizabeth Montgomery in 1748, and conflicting records show that the couple had either nine or ten children together.

Both highly educated and articulate, John Witherspoon did not shy away from conflict.  He published several theological works and waded into a number of church debates, and in 1757 his family moved to his new, larger parish of Paisley.  There, on the outskirts of Glasgow, his sphere of influence continued to grow as well as his reputation for effective speaking.  A pair of American colonists, Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton, met Witherspoon and in 1766 attempted to convince him to cross the Atlantic to assume the leadership of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) upon the death of the school's president, Dr. Samuel Finley, which he initially refused because of his wife's fear of sea travel.  The determined pair did not give up, however, and over time Dr. Rush was able to charm the Witherspoons into reconsidering.  In 1768, Witherspoon left Scotland for New Jersey alongside his wife and their five surviving children, bringing along some 300 books for his new school's library.  He was quite a successful leader, transforming and revitalizing the school into one of the most respected institutions of higher learning, while also helping the Presbyterian church repair a significant internal schism.

Politically, John Witherspoon was wary of centralized power, and his enthusiasm for the prospects of an American nation was evident in his speeches and writings within a short time of his arrival.  The practice of state-appointed bishops controlling church affairs was especially distasteful to the Presbyterian clergyman who strongly argued for the right of congregations to select ministers.  After just six years of living in New Jersey, Witherspoon was elected to represent Somerset County in the provincial assembly in 1774, where he successfully worked to have the Royal Governor unseated and imprisoned.  He participated in the Committee of Correspondence the following year, and in 1776 was sent to the Second Continental Congress.  Among those who joined him were Stockton and Rush, the two men who had originally persuaded him to come to America.  He became the only clergyman and only college president to sign the Declaration, and afterwards Witherspoon remained in Congress until 1782 despite many personal challenges.  When the British invaded New Jersey in 1776, he closed and evacuated the school, which was then occupied and nearly destroyed by the invading army.  Witherspoon's oldest son, James, lost his life during the Battle of Germantown one year later.  Shortly after he was able to reopen his school, due largely to his own personal expense and significant fundraising efforts, he had to also mourn the death of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1779.  Witherspoon returned to New Jersey in order to serve on the state assembly, where he worked on a wide range of priorities from promoting manufacturing to public morality to vital statistics to treatment of prisoners.  Although records show that he owned two slaves and he had previously delivered lectures that argued for gradual emancipation rather than the total abolition of slavery, he also chaired a committee later in life tasked with the ending of that very institution throughout New Jersey.  In 1791 he married a 24-year-old widow named Anne Marshall Dill, and despite an age difference of 44 years the couple had two children.  A pair of accidents resulted in Witherspoon's blindness in each eye by 1792, but although his political career had long since ended he remained the president of Princeton in spite of the handicap until his death in 1794.  His son-in-law succeeded him as the school's seventh president, and Witherspoon was laid to rest in the Princeton Cemetery.

The signature of John Witherspoon can be found as the sixth name on the fifth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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