Witherspoon, John

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Witherspoon, John Knox (1723-1794): Scottish, educator and leader of the American Presbyterian church.

John Witherspoon was one of the so-called Forgotten Founders—leading figures of the American founding period now largely unknown to the educated public. Witherspoon was from 1768 to his death the president and leading professor at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), the most influential center of American learning during those years; the leading American representative of Scottish Enlightenment thought; the acknowledged leader of the American Presbyterian Church; a major participant in political debates of the revolutionary period, both in New Jersey and in the Continental Congress, in which he served six terms; signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation; leader in the New Jersey ratification debates on the Constitution of 1787; and occasional political and economic advisor to such notables as James Madison and Hamilton, Alexander.

Witherspoon was born in Yester, Scotland (near Edinburgh), descended from long lines of Presbyterian ministers on both sides of the family. He enrolled in the University of Edinburgh at the age of 13, graduated with a master’s degree at age 16, and then spent four years at the university’s divinity school before devoting himself, like his father, to the ministry. In 1745, 22-year old Reverend Witherspoon, in a flash of patriotic passion, raised a militia and led them out to fight the Jacobite rising in defense of the British crown. He arrived at the battle of Falkirk only to be taken captive and imprisoned in the Castle Doune, where from hard conditions he incurred a life-long nervous disorder that would impose a measure of reserve on an otherwise powerful personality. (One acquaintance commented that Witherspoon had more “presence” than anyone he had ever encountered, George Washington alone excepted.) Two and a half years after the Castle Doune episode he married Elizabeth Montgomery, with whom he would have ten children (five surviving to adulthood), and with whom he lived happily until her death 44 years later. Within fifteen years, aided by his unique blend of passion and sober discipline, Witherspoon became a major figure in Scottish public life as the leading spokesman for the conservative, “Popular” side of the Scottish Popular-Moderate Presbyterian debates. His stir-creating but elegant satirical attack on the Moderates in Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753) marked him as a public intellectual to be reckoned with, and his theological as well as his polemical writings would catch the attention of the piously oriented College of New Jersey, which would successfully campaign to bring him to America in 1768 to become the school’s new president.

At the college, Witherspoon revamped the curriculum to reflect contemporary developments in philosophy and science and taught advanced courses on theology, rhetoric, ethics, and political science, including the college’s capstone course, which covered both ethical and political theory. His notes for this last course, later published as the Lectures on Moral Philosophy, constitute without doubt the most comprehensive and systematic treatment of political theory put to paper by any of the Founders, and the Lectures became a template for similar courses in colleges around the country. In fact, his former students founded or were first presidents at colleges across the early United States, including Union College in New York; Washington College in Pennsylvania; Hampden-Sidney College and Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) in Virginia; Washington College in Maryland; in North Carolina, Queen’s College and the University of North Carolina; Mt. Zion College in South Carolina; the University of Georgia; Transylvania University in Kentucky; and Cumberland College (later University of Nashville) in Tennessee. For his vast educational influence, through curriculum development and especially through his direct and indirect impact on future American leaders, Witherspoon has been called the most influential teacher in American history.

Indeed, so many future government leaders did the college churn out that it came to be called “the nursery of statesmen.” The most famous of these graduates was Madison, James, the “father of the Constitution,” dominant member of the first Congress, early key advisor to Washington, and later U.S. president himself. The basic theory of Madison’s most famous Federalist Papers, Nos. 10 and 51, can be found in summary form in Witherspoon’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy, and Madison stayed in contact with his old mentor beyond graduation, returning for a while to study Hebrew with Witherspoon and later seeking his political counsel. But Madison was only the tip of the iceberg. Government officers held by former Witherspoon students included one U.S. president (Madison), one vice-president (Aaron Burr), 10 cabinet officers, 6 members of the Continental Congress, 39 U.S. Representatives, 21 U.S. Senators, 12 state governors, 56 state legislators, 30 judges, and 3 Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Part of what Witherspoon imparted to these men during their college years was the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, of which Witherspoon was the leading American proponent. Scholars have always recognized the influence on the American Founders of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, and Professor Witherspoon approvingly conveyed Locke’s political ideas, especially as mediated through the great Scottish thinker Hutcheson, Francis. But this mediation illustrates the fact that Scottish thought had sometimes a more direct impact on the Founders than Locke’s, and Scottish thinkers also provided them a more nuanced appreciation for communitarian and cultural aspects of politics than Locke offered. The Scottish impact, moreover, was not restricted to the ideas of Hume, David and Smith, Adam. More important in terms of moral foundations and general political theory were Hutcheson’s moral sense-based theory and the “Scottish Common Sense” school started by Reid, Thomas, the great critic of Hume’s epistemological skepticism who presented conscience as functioning by rational intuition as opposed to mere sentiment. Madison (through Witherspoon) and Jefferson, Thomas (through his Scottish tutor William Small at William & Mary) had imbibed the whole range of Scottish philosophy but especially that of the Common Sense school, with its conception of self-evident moral truths—specifically, objectively discerned moral principles, rights, and duties—as the foundation of political life. Witherspoon had strong republican leanings, and he encouraged his students during the early days of the Revolution in their pro-revolutionary sentiments. His reputation as a supporter of revolution, expressed most dramatically in his widely read 1776 sermon The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men, was such that British troops once burned him in effigy. British observers perceived American Presbyterians to be primary revolutionary agitators, a perception heavily colored by Witherspoon’s leadership in the Church. Witherspoon’s biography, indeed, is a testament to the often under-appreciated role of religion in founding American society and politics. (One scholar for instance, on a word count, found that biblical references far outnumbered those of political thinkers like Locke in the political discourse of the period.)

Witherspoon’s support for the Revolution was not merely rhetorical, and it was not confined to sermons or to his activity at the college. He played a leading role the New Jersey committees of correspondence; gave speeches and led (in some cases along with Madison) major committees in the Continental Congress; published letters supporting the Revolution in the newspapers (some under the pseudonym “the Druid”); signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederations; and wrote several of the Continental Congress’s war-time calls for national prayer, fasting, humility, or thanksgiving, as the occasion seemed to require. Given his total commitment to the American cause, little wonder that Adams, John was moved to call him “as high a son of liberty as any man in America.” After the Revolution Witherspoon was able to devote himself again more fully to his professorial duties, though he continued to take part in public affairs, including a leading role in the New Jersey convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. The war had taken a toll on Witherspoon, who lost a son to the fighting, and on the college. Famous Nassau Hall, where students boarded and all classes were held, had been commandeered by both British and American troops during the war and was heavily damaged, including the loss of most of its library and scientific equipment. It required Witherspoon’s heroic efforts for the college to recover.

The energy with which Witherspoon tackled all his affairs, indeed, was legendary, and he still had sufficient reserves at age 69, after his wife Elizabeth died, to marry 24-year old widow Ann Dill and have two children by her. He often taught or advised students in later years at his home, “Tusculum” (named after Cicero’s Roman villa, the site of the great philosopher’s Tusculan Disputations). There he died in 1794 in a chair while waiting for someone to fetch him a current newspaper, maintaining his keen interest in society to the very end.


Further reading:

Varnum Lansing Collins, President Witherspoon, 1969

Thomas P. Miller, ed., The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, 2015

Jeffry H. Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, 2007

Scott Philip Segrest, “Witherspoon’s ‘Plain Common Sense,’” in America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense, 2010


Scott Segrest

The Citadel

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