John Witherspoon was one of the signers of our Declaration of Independence. He was the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration on July 4th, 1776. There were other signers who had graduated with Theology Degrees from seminaries, but John Witherspoon was a practicing Church of Scotland Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (1768–94; now Princeton University) where he trained many leaders of the early nation.
He was born February 4, 1723 in Gifford, Scotland in 1723, he received the finest education available to a bright young gentleman of that era. John attended the preparatory school in Haddington Scotland. He proceeded to Edinburgh where he attained a Master of Arts, then to four years of divinity school. At this point he was twenty. In 1743 he became a Presbyterian Minister at a parish in Beith, where he married, authored three noted works on theology. He was later awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of St. Andrews, in recognition of his theological skills. It was only through a protracted effort on the part of several eminent Americans, including Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush, that the colonies were able to acquire his service. In colonial American, the best educated men were often found in the clergy. The College of New Jersey needed a first rate scholar to serve as its first president. Witherspoon was at first unable to accept the offer, due to his wife’s great fear of crossing the sea. She later had second thoughts, and a visit from the charming Dr. Rush secured the deal. He emigrated to New Jersey in 1768.
Upon his arrival at the 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 orrery1 , many maps and a “terrestrial” 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.
Witherspoon believed that common sense could be cultivated in his students or 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). Contrary to modern distinctions of morality, 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 traditional sources of Christian ethics. However, as a Christian, Witherspoon saw 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.
Thus, while “public morals” were derived from natural virtue, its ultimate source lay in the public religion of Christianity. 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. Nonetheless, in keeping with the direction of destiny taught by the English Reformation, Scottish Reformation, and Irish Reformation colonial founders, he saw the new American national leaders, guided by their Christian religion, natural virtues, and republican sense of government, would be the most Protestant, Christian, free, and, therefore, noble nation, a light to the world. Many of his students, including James Madison, Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, William Bradford, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, played prominent roles in the development of the new nation.
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). An advocate of Natural Law within a Christian and republican Cosmology, which Witherspoon considered Moral Philosophy 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 Edinburgh and other Scottish universities.
Dr. Witherspoon enjoyed great success at the College of New Jersey. He turned it into a very successful institution, and was a very popular man as a result. He also wrote frequent essays on subjects of interest to the colonies. While he at first abstained from political concerns, he came to support the revolutionary cause, accepting appointment to the Committees of Correspondence and Safety in early 1776. Later that year he was elected to the Continental Congress in time to vote for R. H. Lee’s Resolution for Independence. He voted in favor, and shortly after voted for the Declaration of Independence. He made a notable comment on that occasion; in reply to another member who argued that the country was not yet ripe for such a declaration, that in his opinion it “was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it.” Witherspoon was a very active member of congress, serving on more than a hundred committees through his tenure and debating frequently on the floor.
In November, 1776, he shut down and then evacuated the College of New Jersey at the approach of British forces. The British occupied the area and did much damage to the college, nearly destroyed it. Following the war, Witherspoon devoted his life to rebuilding the College. He also served twice in the state legislature. In the last years of life he suffered injuries, first to one eye then the other, becoming totally blind two years before his death. He died on his farm, “Tusculum,” just outside of Princeton in November of 1794, a man much honored and beloved by his adopted countrymen.
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. 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. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 delegates had studied under Witherspoon. Dr. John Witherspoon died November 15, 1794.
Information was taken from the following references: