Roger Williams Institute
for
Religious
Liberty

Home
Biographies
 
Back
 
Witherspoon, John


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion
Princeton University Press
1978


Witherspoon, John (1723-1794), was the sixth president of Princeton, a signer of
the Declaration of Independence, and from 1776 to 1782 a leading member of the
Continental Congress. He came from Scotland in 1768 to assume the presidency of
the college and held office until his death a quarter of a century later.

A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, who received an honorary doctorate
from St. Andrews in 1764, Witherspoon had become widely known as a leader of the
evangelical or ``Popular Party'' in the established Church of Scotland, of which
he was an ordained minister. The trustees of the College first elected him
president in 1766, after Samuel Finley's death; but Mrs. Witherspoon was
reluctant to leave Scotland, and he declined. Thanks very largely to the efforts
of Benjamin Rush 1760, then a medical student at Edinburgh, she was persuaded to
reconsider. Informed that Witherspoon would now accept the call if renewed, the
trustees again elected him to the presidency in December of 1767.

With their five surviving children (five others had died in early childhood),
and 300 books for the college library, the Witherspoons reached Philadelphia
early in August 1768. When a few days later they moved on to Princeton, they
were greeted a mile out of town by tutors and students, who escorted them to
Morven, home of Richard Stockton. That evening the students celebrated the
occasion by ``illuminating' Nassau Hall with a lighted tallow dip in each
window.

Witherspoon had arrived in time to provide the highlight for commencement, which
in those days was held in September. Early in October, he wrote Rush that on the
preceding 28th he had delivered "an inaugural Oration in Latin'' before "a
vast Concourse of People.'' He was obviously heartened by the warmth of his
reception, but he also reported a number of disturbing conditions in the state
of the college. He found far too many of the students inadequately prepared for
college work, a complaint frequently heard since, and one that explains the
close attention he subsequently gave to the grammar school conducted by the
college. Most worrisome of all was the low state of the college's finances.
With characteristic vigor, Witherspoon moved immediately to find the remedy.
Taking advantage of the vacation between commencement and the beginning of a new
term in November, he went first to New York and then on to Boston for
consultation with friends of the College. During the next fall's vacation, he
visited Williamsburg, where, the Virginia Gazette reported, he ``preached to a
crowded audience in the Capital yard (there being no house in town capable of
holding such a multitude) and gave universal satisfaction.'' The concrete
measure of that satisfaction was a collection taken at the end of the sermon
amounting ``to upwards of fifty-six pounds.'' The following February found him
again in Virginia, and this was not the last of his southern tours.

By no means the least of the advantages that accrued to the College from his
itinerant preaching was an increased enrollment of students, whose tuition
continued to be the major source of revenue. Enrollment had reached a peak under
President Finley, with graduating classes of 31 each in 1765 and 1766, but had
fallen off thereafter. There were 11 graduates at the commencement of 1768, but
29 in 1773, and 27 in 1776. Simultaneously, a change occurred in the
constituencies from which the students were drawn. Now, as before, most of them
came from the middle provinces, but the representation from New England, which
had been substantial, declined markedly, and a significant enrollment from the
southern colonies began to develop.

Not all of Witherspoon's preaching was done on the road. Indeed, when in
Princeton he normally preached twice each Sunday to a mixed congregation of
townspeople and students, which only recently had acquired a place of worship
apart from the Prayer Room of Nassau Hall. Their church had been constructed at
the front of the present campus, where stands today a Presbyterian church of
much later construction. According to Benjamin Rush, Witherspoon's manner in the
pulpit was ``solemn and graceful,'' his voice melodious, and his sermons
``loaded with good sense and adorned'' with ``elegance and beauty'' of
expression. But Rush was impressed above all by the fact that Witherspoon
carried no notes into the pulpit, in sharp contrast with the "too common
practice of reading sermons in America.'' Other contemporary descriptions
indicate that he depended upon no oratorical flourishes or gestures. The story
is told of a visitor who, observing that Witherspoon's enthusiasm for gardening
was confined to growing vegetables, remarked, ``Doctor, I see no flowers in your
garden,'' to which came the reply, ``No, nor in my discourses either.''
To the day of his death, his speech revealed his Scottish birth. A man of medium
height, tending toward stoutness, with bushy eybrows, a prominent nose, and
large ears, he had a quality contemporaries were inclined to describe as
``presence.'' One of his students, a later president of the College, recalled
that Witherspoon had more presence than any other man he had known, except for
General Washington. Witherspoon lived at first in the President's House (now
called the John Maclean House), but after several years he moved about a mile
north of the village to ``Tusculum,'' a handsome residence he built that still
stands on Cherry Hill Road. His route to and from the College is well enough
indicated by the street that bears his name.

President Witherspoon was obviously a very busy man, for in addition to managing
the College's affairs and preaching twice on Sundays, he bore the heaviest
responsibility for instruction of the students. His ``faculty'' normally
included two or three tutors (recent graduates who may have been pursuing, in
such free time as they could find, advanced studies in divinity before moving on
to some vacant pulpit) and one, later two, professors. Considering himself less
than an accomplished scholar in mathematics and astronomy, he secured the
appointment of a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1771. This
left to the president the main responsibility for the instruction in moral
philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, history, and chronology, and also in French, for
such students as might elect to study the language.

Witherspoon's administration marks an important turning point in the life of the
college, but the changes he made were mainly of method and emphasis within the
broad objectives which had been originally set. Thus, he brought to Princeton a
fresh emphasis upon the need of the church for a well-educated clergy, a purpose
to which the college had been dedicated at the time of its founding, but by men
who at the height of a stirring religious revival may well have given first
place to the church's need for a ``converted'' ministry. There is no indication
that Witherspoon discounted the importance of a conversion experience, but on
balance he tended to place the primary emphasis on education. His influence in
helping to bring about a final reunion of all Presbyterians, who earlier had
been sharply divided, in support of the College was one of his major
accomplishments.

The founders had hoped too that the College might produce men who would be
``ornaments of the State as well as the Church,'' and Witherspoon realized this
hope in full measure. His students included, in addition to a president and
vice-president of the United States, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators,
thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state
governors. Five of the nine Princeton graduates among the fifty-five members of
the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were students of Witherspoon.
Witherspoon broadened and enriched the curriculum of the College. He was the
first to introduce the new rhetoric of the eighteenth century, accomplishing his
purpose by extending and intensifying instruction in English grammar and
composition. He added substantially to the instructional equipment of the
College, especially books for the library and ``philosophical apparatus'' for
instruction by demonstration in the sciences, including the famous Rittenhouse
Orrery acquired in 1771.

He was not an original thinker, but he was a product of Scotland's leading
university in an age when the Scottish universities had a vitality possessed by
no others in Great Britain. Although certain leniencies encouraged by the
Scottish Enlightenment had offended his orthodox Presbyterianism, Witherspoon
introduced to Princeton, and through it to other institutions, some of the more
advanced ideas of that movement. He subscribed to John Locke's view of the role
of sensory perception in the development of the mind, but vigorously rejected
all esoteric interpretations of that view. He saw no conflict between faith and
reason; instead, he encouraged his students to test their faith by the rule of
experience. He was much inclined to apply the test of common sense to any
proposition, and to reduce it to its simplest terms. In lecturing on rhetoric he
advised his students of the multiple components into which a discourse
traditionally had been divided, and then suggested that it was enough to say
that every discourse or composition ``must have a beginning, a middle, and an
end.'' His name is rightly identified with certain attitudes and assumptions,
considered to be of importance in the development of our national life, that are
associated with what is known as the Common Sense Philosophy.
Though a man of strong convictions, he showed no inclination to protect his
students from exposure to ideas with which he disagreed. The many books he added
to the library gave the undergraduate access to a wide range of contemporary
literature, including authors with whom he had publicly disputed. In his famous
lectures on moral philosophy, not published until after his death and then
probably contrary to his wish, his method was to lay out contending points of
view and to rely upon persuasive reasoning to guide the student toward a proper
conclusion of his own.

Witherspoon had a helpful sense of humor. He suffered from insomnia, and his
tendency to drowse, particularly after dinner, led him, during one of the two
terms he served in the New Jersey legislature, to move that the daily sessions
be concluded before dinner. When his motion lost, he informed his colleagues
that ``there are two kinds of speaking that are very interesting . . . perfect
sense and perfect nonsense. When there is speaking in either of these ways I
shall engage to be all attention. But when there is speaking, as there often is,
halfway between sense and nonsense, you must bear with me if I fall asleep.''
In his support of the American cause there is no occasion for surprise. He
subscribed to John Locke's political philosophy as wholeheartedly as to his
psychology, and brought from Scotland a strong sense of ``British liberty,''
which he came to see as greatly endangered by the course of British policy. When
John Adams stopped over in Princeton on his way to the first meeting of the
Continental Congress in 1774, he met Witherspoon and pronounced him ``as high a
Son of Liberty, as any Man in America.''

Through the years he served in Congress, Witherspoon's patriotism and judgment
won the respect of his colleagues, as evidenced by his assignment to many
committees, some of them among the most important. He struggled through these
years -- not always successfully -- to keep the College in session, and he
became a frequent commuter between Princeton and Philadelphia. He resigned from
Congress in November 1782, when a war that had cost him the life of his son
James (who graduated from the College in 1770 and was killed in Germantown) was
ended, and peace, with American independence, seemed assured.

Witherspoon's later years were filled with difficulty. The college had suffered
extensive damage to its building and instructional equipment, and its finances
were in disarray. Two years before his death he became totally blind. His wife
died in 1789, and a second marriage in 1791 to a young widow of twenty-four
occasioned more than a little comment. Through these later years his son-in-law,
Samuel Stanhope Smith, increasingly carried the responsibility for conduct of
the College's affairs.

But through these later years, too, Witherspoon remained remarkably active and
influential. He was a member of the ratifying convention that brought to New
Jersey the honor of being the third state to ratify the Constitution of the
United States. He contributed greatly to the organization of a newly independent
and national Presbyterian Church and in 1789 opened its first General Assembly
with a sermon and presided until the election of the first moderator. Above all,
the name he had won as a divine, an educator, and a patriot brought returning
strength to the College. He is rightly remembered as one of the great presidents
of Princeton.
W. Frank Craven


 

Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty