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.
From Witherspoon's legacy at Princeton, out of his students came: thirty-seven judges, three of whom made it to the Supreme Court, ten of his former students became Cabinet officers, twelve were members of the Continental Congress, twenty-eight sat in the Senate, and forty-nine were United States congressmen. One, Aaron Burr, became Vice President, and another, James Madison, became President. These men and many others 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.
Witherspoon also helped to organize Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ.
Upon his arrival at then College of New Jersey at Princeton, he 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 intiation 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 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.
In November, 1778, as British forces neared, he 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. 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.
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. Paisley honored Witherspoon's memory by naming a newly constructed street in the town center after him, in deference to his having lived in Paisley for a proportion of his adult life. 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.
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.
James Madison, John Witherspoon, and Oliver Cowdery: The First Amendment and the 134th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants
Jan 01, 2003; A number of years ago, as I completed an article regarding the history of the framing and ratification of the First Amendment's...