John Witherspoon: Pastor, Politician, Patriot


In an area of Northwest Washington, D.C., between Connecticut Avenue and N Street, known as Dupont Circle, stands a statue, first erected in 1909 and dedicated by Princeton grad, President Woodrow Wilson. The statue is of Doctor John Witherspoon, past President of Princeton, the only clergyman to sign our Declaration of Independence, and probably our least known, “founding father.”
The John Witherspoon story begins on February 5, 1723 in Scotland when he was born to Reverend James Alexander Witherspoon and Anne Walker Witherspoon. He was of high intellect and became, like his father, a Presbyterian minister, receiving his D.D. from The University Of Saint Andrews. Witherspoon was an activist clergyman and a strong supporter of Republicanism, which landed him in prison when he opposed Roman Catholic Jacobite rising of 1745-46. His imprisonment, while not long, affected his health for the rest of his life.
Witherspoon married Elizabeth Montgomery who bore him ten children though only five survived until adulthood. The life of a Presbyterian minister is demanding yet John still found time to tackle issues that took him out of the pulpit and his reputation began to grow not only in Scotland, but also America. Witherspoon was an Evangelical and an opponent of the Moderate party, along with being an accomplished writer. His critics say however that he was not an original thinker; that he borrowed too much from others. Who doesn’t? Besides, though he admired John Locke and Frances Hutcheson, he found plenty to disagree with when it came to these two esteemed gentlemen. He also parted company with some of his Evangelical contemporaries by saying other faiths contained “virtuous” people.” John Witherspoon was his own man.
Original thinker or not, Doctor Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton in America were more interested in a man with leadership abilities—they needed a man to become president of the small Presbyterian college of New Jersey in Princeton. Their first attempt to persuade Witherspoon met with failure when Elizabeth, fearful of an Atlantic crossing, said no. However, after Benjamin Rush, a reportedly very charming man made a special trip to Scotland, Elizabeth relented. In 1768, at age 45, John Witherspoon became the sixth president of what would become, Princeton, University. Rush and Stockton had chosen well. Witherspoon would leave an indelible mark on Princeton and the country that would become the United States of America.
When Witherspoon arrived at Princeton he found a college in dire straits, both academically and financially. He dealt with the academic problems by teaching several courses himself, including Moral Philosophy, and raising admission standards. He campaigned relentlessly in America and Scotland for funds in order to put the school on a firm financial footing. In the past, Princeton had been in the business of training clergy but Witherspoon wanted more than that—he envisioned a college turning out a new Protestant national generation. This would require a first class library which the school did not have, so Witherspoon donated 300 books from his personal library. In time Princeton would be attracting students such as James Madison, Aaron Burr and William Bradford, while competing with Harvard and Yale in attracting such students.
Witherspoon was an Evangelical Christian but he was also influenced by enlightenment philosophers such as Frances Hutcheson and Thomas Reid, placing him at odds with Jonathan Edwards. Witherspoon be-lieved moral judgment should be pursued as a science and that human beings, Christian or not, could be “virtuous”; but he also believed that the new country, America, now taking shape, due to the Christianity of most of the founders offered the best hope in becoming the light of the world. It was for this reason he became a passionate proponent of the same vision held by Washington, Adams and their like. As put by John Adams, “Doctor Witherspoon enters with great spirit into the American cause. He seems as hearty a friend as any of the natives—an animated son of liberty.” And so, even though he’d been at Princeton only eight years; by the spring of 1776, Doctor John Witherspoon was a committed Patriot. During the arguments for and against independence, one of his contemporaries questioned whether the country was ready for independence—the rather new son of liberty replied that—”it’s not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it.” He signed Jefferson’s document with relish and during the difficult years ahead no one remained more committed to the Patriot cause than the Scottish pastor from New Jersey.
The view that he was not an original thinker seems unfair. The same can be said for many of the other founding fathers. Perhaps, we can’t label them original thinkers, but can we say they were not intelligent men of common sense, concrete thinkers, men who dealt with the here and now as opposed to men who think only in the abstract?
Witherspoon was not a political man, at least not until 1774 anyway, and certainly his Presbyterian faith played a part in his becoming so. The English Crown hit a nerve when it assumed authority over areas previously under the auspices of the American Colonists. His thoughts went back to Scotland when England had tried essentially the same thing. For the first time, in 1776, Witherspoon preach-ed a sermon with a distinctly political flavor—THE DOMINION OF PROVIDENCE OVER THE PASSIONS OF MEN—a sermon which caused quite a stir. He noted to his congregation that the sermon was his first on political matters. Ministers of the Gospel have more important business to attend to than secular crises, adding—”but of course Liberty is more than a merely secular matter.” A month later he was elected to the Continental Congress and would serve until 1782. Witherspoon may have been the hardest-working Founding Father, serving on a hundred committees. England called “Johnny” Witherspoon a rebel and a traitor.
John Witherspoon was always aware that many in England (even King George) saw the Revolution as more than a war for the independence of the American Colonies. Many referred to it as the “Presbyterian Rebellion” and a Hessian soldier wrote, “America-call this war dearest friend by whatever name you may, only call it not an American Rebellion. It is nothing more or less than the Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.” This of course was hyperbole from a homesick German soldier which would’ve made Tom Paine blanch, but it could not be denied that the patriot army was well-populated with Presbyterians. Johnny Witherspoon always wore his clerical garb to Congress and he was a member in good standing in “The Black Regiment”, pastors who wore black robes when delivering their sermons. Some carried muskets into battle. John didn’t carry a musket but two of his sons did.
The vitriol from across the Atlantic hit the proverbial fan when they read the good Doctor’s sermon. He was blamed for “considerably promoting and primarily agitating the problems in the Colonies.” One editor referred to him as “the preacher of sedition.” The criticisms no doubt came from people he had at one time called friends and he probably wished he did have as much influence as they thought. One thing for sure, he had now definitely entered the world of politics and if he had any qualms he didn’t reveal them. He’d already scoffed at those who thought men of the cloth should not even participate in political discourse and he saw the wall of separation between church and state as low and permeable, opposed to Jefferson’s high and strong. What Witherspoon was doing was proving what a strong personality he was. In 1969, a Broadway play, 1776, portrayed him as naive, almost passive. It’s a completely unfair characterization. “Johnny” was one tough cookie, who seldom raised his voice (we said seldom), and he usually waited until others had made their points before making his. His strength was never more in evidence than during New Jersey’s Provincial Congress on June 11, 1776, held to debate whether the state should vote for independence. His chief antagonist was Royal Governor William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, who charged that the congressmen present knew little about government and were of humble birth. Wither-spoon was outraged that an illegitimate son would accuse others of humble birth. “On the whole sir, I think Governor Franklin has made a speech every way worthy of his exalted birth and refined education!” roared Witherspoon. It was later said that Witherspoon as a pastor regretted his response—but as a politician, perhaps, he did not.
The result of the Provincial Congress was William Franklin in prison and John Witherspoon along with two other representatives from New Jersey making a mad fifty mile dash on horseback; during a fierce thunderstorm, to Philadelphia. They had been ordered by the Congress to vote for independence and they didn’t want to be late. John Adams was speaking when the three drenched horsemen walked in. He didn’t mind their being late because he knew they were three votes for independence.
In Jeffrey Morrison’s book, John Witherspoon, The Founding of the American Republic, Witherspoon is quoted as saying that until the Spring of 1776, Americans were contending for the restoration of certain privileges under the government of Great Britain and we were praying for re-union with her.” After King George’s intransigence told them this was not going to happen, arguments began as to just what thirteen free and independent states would be. The disagreements began as soon as Jefferson presented his Declaration of Independence to the Congress. Witherspoon was the first to ask that the sentence—”Scotch and foreign mercenaries” be stricken, although General Howe’s force in Boston included a Highland regiment. John Adams wanted strong words on slavery included until Ben Franklin convinced him it would destroy the chance for independence. But finally, the Declaration was voted on and passed. Even though the war had started before the Declaration, there would be many hard battles to fight, many young men would die, many homes would be destroyed, many families would never be the same, including the Wither-spoon family when son, James was killed at the battle of Germantown. Neither parent was able to attend the funeral.
Witherspoon’s beloved Princeton was not spared. For nearly two years, Nassau Hall housed soldiers, some wounded and some billeted redcoats who treated the school with great disrespect. The Patriot army was not much better as they tore up flooring for firewood. Finally, the college and church were heaps of ruin and the library with Doctor Witherspoon’s books was burned. His farm at Tusculum was essentially unharmed, though his animals had been stolen or killed. A case could be made that the one reason for Witherspoon’s anonymity was the destruction of his private papers during the Revolution, though hardly any Founding Father escaped injury of some kind, and not all survived the Revolution alive. Only victory finalized in 1783 at Yorktown prevented the hanging of whomever was left.
Witherspoon could write and speak French fluently and he and others knew there could be no American victory without foreign help. France was the obvious choice. While Benjamin Franklin gets credit for the “Treaty of Alliance” and deservedly so, it was a letter from John Witherspoon that opened the door. One historian said it best. “Witherspoon’s part in securing the treaties of 1778 with France, without which the cause of the Revolutionists might have been lost, is one of his greatest contributions to the nation.” Witherspoon was now ready to return to another place he loved.
To the citizens of a small town in New Jersey in 1782, the old man who came riding through probably never got a second glance. Had they known he was dealing with a broken heart, brought on by the war that was still not over, he might have warranted more attention. His son had been killed, his family separated, his college and church had been ruined, his students dispersed, yet once again, John Witherspoon plodded back to Prince-ton. It was time to start over and starting over would be a lot more difficult than starting the first time.
The good Doctor did his best to get his school back on firm financial footing, but while enrollment increased, funds to operate did not. Even his Christian charity did not help. He paid the tuition of some indigent students just to keep them in school, but he had insufficient funds to help everyone. He even accepted a term in the New Jersey State Assembly in order to obtain some funds. They were not enough.
One of the questions raised by historians and others concerning Witherspoon, involves the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was certainly entitled to a seat at the convention that officially made us a country. Wither-spoon was in Philadelphia that summer but had previously committed a year before to be a delegate to the Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia which was meeting at the same time as the Constitutional Convention. He spent the summer drafting a constitution for the Presbyterian Church. The Constitutional Convention was civil, and the Synod ecclesiastical, but in some respects both were aimed toward the inculcation in the new nation of a spirit of liberty. While it is difficult for some to understand, the Synod was a stabilizing force for the political victory of 1787.
One of the unanswered questions that will probably remain so is why a man who has contributed so much to the American experience is so little known. One of the reasons given by many is lack of a paper trail. As stated many of his writings were destroyed by fire during the war. Jeffrey Morrison believes there was a level of prejudice against ministers. Some believe being a slave holder counted against him, yet Jefferson held two hundred slaves, and Witherspoon held two. Some suggest conservative attitudes on marriage during the Eighteenth Century took a dim view of a man in his upper sixties taking a twenty-four year old wife, especially a clergyman. Witherspoon was a widower who waited the appropriate time before remarrying but there was a lot of gossip about the age difference. Why, he even had two children with his young bride!
One thing is certain. John Witherspoon was a man of God who saw the potential in America and also saw the potential for advancing the cause of Christ. If we who’ve come after him haven’t realized that potential, it’s not the fault of “Johnny” Witherspoon—Pastor, Politician, Patriot.
Doctor John Witherspoon died of “dropsy” (Edema due to Congestive Heart Failure”) in 1794.

1 Morrison, Jeffey H. John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2005.
2 Stolhman, Martha Lou Lemmon. John Witherspoon, Parson, Politician, Patriot. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976.
3 Marshall, Peter and Manuel, David. The Light and the Glory.
4 Sweet, William Warren. The Story of Religion in America.
5 Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People.