John Witherspoon


John Witherspoon (February 15, 1723November 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-born child to the Reverend James Alexander Witherspoon and Anne Walker, a descendant of John Welsh of Ayr and John Knox. 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 and following the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Falkirk (1746) he was briefly imprisoned at Doune Castle, 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 (Low Church) in Paisley. 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) opposing the philosophical influence of Francis Hutcheson. 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, he finally accepted another invitation (he had turned it down in 1766) to become President and head professor of the small Presbyterian College of New Jersey in Princeton, and he and his family emigrated to New Jersey in 1768, at the age of 45, where he took up the position of 6th President of the college which was later to become Princeton University. Of the several courses he taught, including Eloquence or Belles Lettres, Chronology (history), and Divinity, none was more important than Moral Philosophy, a required course, and one he considered vital for ministers, lawyers, and those holding positions in government (magistrates). He was firm but good-humored in his leadership and instituted a number of reforms, including modeling the syllabus and university structure on 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. As the College's primary occupation at the time was training ministers, Witherspoon was a major leader of the early Presbyterian church in America.

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.

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 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."

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.

Death and burial

He 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.


Ideals that Witherspoon preached from the pulpit and ideas that he taught in the classroom lived on after his death. 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.

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.


  • *Burns, David G. C. (2005). "The Princeton Connection". The Scottish Genealogist 52 (4):
  • Collins, Varnum L. President Witherspoon: A Biography, 2 vols. (1925, repr. 1969)
  • 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 Republic (2005)
  • Pomfret, John E.. '"Witherspoon, John" in Dictionary of American Biography (1934)
  • Tait, L. Gordon. The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit, and Public Forum (2001)
  • Tyler, Moses C. (1896). "President Witherspoon in the American Revoltuion". The American Historical Review 1 (1): 671–679. – Scholar search}}
  • Woods, David W.. John Witherspoon (1906)


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