John Witherspoon, clergyman, writer, President of Princeton University and signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, was born on the 5th of February, 1722.
Whiter you may go and whether you come back, John Witherspoon was a Scot, there’s no denying that fact. John Witherspoon was born in Scotland, but he was also a very important and influential American, being one of the signatories of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. In fact, of the fifty-six men who signed that historic document, twenty-one had some Scottish ancestry and Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign. Witherspoon not only signed the Declaration, he was influential in its construction and in its very signing. The first draft of the Lee Resolution, otherwise known as the Resolution of Independence, and which became the United States Declaration of Independence of the 4th of July, 1776, contained a phrase that complained of the King having had sent to America “not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries.” To a native Scotsman like Witherspoon, that was an insult and so he demanded the phrase be deleted.
Interestingly, for a man who became an American revolutionary, Witherspoon had earlier, in 1745, raised his own band of Beith Volunteer Militia “for the …defence of our only rightful and lawful sovereign, King George, against his enemies engaged in the Jacobite rebellion.” Years later, when some of the representatives from the Thirteen Colonies became apprehensive over taking on the might of Geordie’s British Empire, it was Witherspoon who urged them to sign the Declaration of Independence. In reply to an objection that the country wasn’t ready for such a step, Witherspoon witheringly replied that it was “not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it” and he went on to add, famously, that “There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery.”
John Witherspoon was born in Gifford, in the parish of Yester, a few miles from Edinburgh, on the 5th of February, 1722 (O.S.). John was first educated at school in Haddington and later, from 1736, at Edinburgh University. At the age of twenty-one, he finished his collegiate studies and commenced preaching, before being ordained as a Minister of the Auld Kirk on the 11th of April, 1745. Witherspoon then took up a post in Beith in Ayrshire, where he preached for twelve years, during which time he came to be regarded as a brilliant orator. Witherspoon moved to Paisley in 1756, where he spent ten years as Minister of the Laigh Kirk. Whilst there, he further cemented his reputation as a scholar and writer, which status got him, in 1764, an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews and invitations to ‘honourable stations’ in Dublin, Rotterdam and Dundee. Ultimately, his repute extended far beyond the confines of Paisley. In 1766, he was ‘head hunted’ for its Presidency by the College of New Jersey, an institution that later became Princeton University, but declined to leave Scotland. However, two years later, he was persuaded to leave, thanks to Benjamin Rush and letters from Benjamin Franklin.
Witherspoon arrived in Philadelphia in early August of 1768, carrying three hundred books for the college library. A couple of days later, he was greeted a mile out of Princeton by an escort of students and tutors who later illuminated Nassau Hall in celebration of his arrival. The great orator delivered his inaugural speech in Latin on the 28th of September, before “a vast Concourse of People.” Now, the nascent College was deplorably short of funds and so Witherspoon became a bit of an itinerant preacher, travelling from Massachusetts to Virginia raising contributions. On one occasion the ‘Virginia Gazette’ reported that he “preached to a crowded audience in the Capital yard and gave universal satisfaction,” to the extent that he walked away with a collection box containing “upwards of fifty-six pounds.”
According to Rush the ‘Persuader’, Witherspoon’s sermons were “loaded with good sense” and adorned with “elegance and beauty” of expression. Rather less subjectively, Rush recorded that Witherspoon didn’t use notes in the pulpit, which was unusual for the time, when most sermons were simply recited. As President of the College, Witherspoon’s main responsibility was instruction in moral philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, history, and chronology. He also taught French and, in his spare time, he was a practical gardener, but with a sense of humour. When a visitor once remarked on the absence of flowers in his garden, Witherspoon responded dryly, “Ye’ll no see ony flo’ers in my discourses either.”
According to ‘A Princeton Companion’ by Alexander Leitch, Witherspoon was a Scot from an age when the Scottish universities had a vitality possessed by no others in Great Britain. You can read that last sentence twice, if you like. Despite his religious beliefs, Witherspoon was a subscriber to John Locke’s view of the role of sensory perception in the development of the mind and to the ‘Common Sense Philosophy’ of the likes of fellow Scot, John Reid. Witherspoon is quoted as having found both “perfect sense and perfect nonsense” very interesting, but because of his insomnia and when attending the New Jersey legislature, he told his colleagues that “when there is speaking, as there often is, halfway between sense and nonsense, you must bear with me if I fall asleep.”
Witherspoon joined the Committee of Correspondence and Safety, which were collectively, shadow governments organised by the Patriot leaders, in early 1774. In June of 1776, as part of the New Jersey delegation, he was elected to the Continental Congress, a convention of delegates called together from the Thirteen Colonies and which became the governing body of the United States during the Revolution. Witherspoon served in Congress until 1782 and was one of its most influential members, serving on over one hundred committees. Those committees included the powerful Standing Committees, the Board of War and the Committee on Secret Correspondence or Foreign Affairs, in which he played a major role in shaping foreign policy Witherspoon also helped to draft the Articles of Confederation the Peace Agreement which brought an end the war. After leaving Congress in 1779, to spend the remainder of his life as he said, in “otio cum dignitate,” he was re-elected in 1781, but retired for good in November the following year.
Witherspoon was involved in the rebuilding of Princeton College, which had been destroyed during the war, and he remained its President, from his appointment in 1768 until his death. However, before that, in 1784, and aged over sixty, he was persuaded to brave the dangers of the ocean and a hostile Great Britain, in order to raise funds for Princeton. That wasn’t much of a success, but not for the want of endeavour on the part of Witherspoon. He returned to the United States and, by 1792, had succumbed to blindness, having lost an eye during his fruitless fundraising trip. Nevertheless, he was frequently led to the pulpit to continue his ministry. Finally, on the 15th of November, 1794, the man whom John Adams had pronounced “as high a Son of Liberty as any Man in America” and whom Rush called “our old Scotch Sachem” sank under the accumulated pressure of his infirmities. Born a Scot, he died an American.