John Witherspoon (February 15, 1723 – November 15, 1794) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate from the colony of New Jersey during the Second Continental Congress. He was the President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) and had trained many of the leaders of colonial america. He was the only active clergyman and college President to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was selected to serve as a delegate for New Jersey and served alongside: John Hart, Richard Stockton, Francis Hopkinson, and Abraham Clark.
Early Years and the College of New Jersey
John Witherspoon was born in Scotland and educated at the Haddington Grammar School. He acquired a Master of Arts from the prestigious University of Edinburgh in 1739 and then took a notion to study divinity. He then went on to become a Protestant minister at the Church of Scotland and was an avid supporter of republicanism. His views were radical in England and was opposed to the Roman Catholic Legitimist Jacobite rising. He was imprisoned after the Battle of Falkirk for a short time.
Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton me John Witherspoon in Scotland and asked if he would become President and head professor of the College of New Jersey. He at first turned down the opportunity and wished to stay at his home and congregation in Scotland, but would eventually emigrate to New Jersey in 1768 to become the sixth President of the College of New Jersey. From here is where Witherspoon made his greatest contribution to America.
He would begin his tenure at the College of New Jersey by putting in place a series of reforms. These reforms modeled the College of New Jersey off of the University of Edinburgh. He would also personally teach History, Eloquence, Divinity and Moral Philosophy. His ideas in Moral Philosophy were the most influential to his students. Witherspoon was an advocate of Natural Law within a Christian and Republican Cosmology. These ideas were revolutionary and were considered vital for lawyers, ministers and those holding public offices. Through this teacher he influenced many in those vocations. Some of the greater names were: James Madison and Aaron Burr. However, his influence was significant and it was more than just two of the main players in the early years of the republic.
His reforms for the College of New Jersey were broader than the classroom. In order to be able to have a dynamic classroom the college needed to first get out of debt and improve its library. Witherspoon did this by raising funds locally and in Scotland. This allowed him to buy the necessary equipment to better teach the students. The next reform that was put in place was to raise the bar for acceptance. The College of New Jersey would eventually go from a small private college that was in debt to rivaling the prestige of Harvard and Yale.
American Revolutionary War
John Witherspoon had arrived in the colonies on the eve of independence. The colonies had already erupted over the Stamp Act and there seemed to be a revolutionary current under the surface. Within 6 years there was a call for a Continental Congress and then a second call in 1775. Witherspoon would not attend the first congress, but was selected to attend the second. He would become one of the most influential member of the Second Continental Congress. He had always been a champion of republican values even while he was in Scotland and being Scottish he had experienced British abuse of power firsthand.
In 1776 Witherspoon was selected to serve in the Continental Congress and was appointed Congressional Chaplain by the President of Congress John Hancock. He was one of the leading voices to support the Virginia Resolves that were delivered by Richard Henry Lee and became one of the loudest and most influential voices for independence. He believed that the time for independence was now and that the idea of independence was in danger of “rotting” if the Congress were not to take hold of it. He was an absolute workhorse for the cause of independence and served in over 100 committees and helped draft the Articles of Confederation.
After the American Revolutionary War he served in the New Jersey Legislature and pushed for the ratification of the United States Constitution. He personally oversaw the rebuilding of the College of New Jersey which was badly damaged by the British during the war.
John Witherspoon’s Death and Remembrance
In 1792, John Witherspoon’s health began to decline and he would die in 1794 just outside of Princeton which is where he was laid to rest. On his epitaph was written:
Beneath this marble lie interred
the mortal remains of
JOHN WITHERSPOON, D.D. LL.D.
a venerable and beloved President of the College of
He was born in the parish of Yester, in Scotland,
on the 5th of February, 1722, O. S.
And was liberally educated in the University of Edinburgh;
invested with holy orders in the year 1743,
he faithfully performed the duties of
his pastoral charge,
during five and twenty years,
first at Beith, and then at Paisley.
Elected president of Nassau Hall,
he asumed the duties of that office on the 13th of August, 1768,
with the elevated expectations of the public.
Excelling in every mental gift,
he was a man of pre-eminent piety and virture
and deeply versed in the various branches
of literature and the liberal arts.
A grave and solemn preacher,
his sermons abounded in the most excellent doctrines and precepts,
and in lucid expositins of the Holy Scriptures.
Affable, pleasant, and courteous in familiar conversation,
he was eminently distinguished
in concerns and deliberations of the church,
and endowed with the greatest prudence
in the management and instruction of youth.
the reputation of the college amongst foreigners,
and greatly promoted the advancement
of its literary character and taste.
He was, for a long time, conspicuous
Among the most brilliant luminaries of learning and of the Church.
universally venerated, beloved, and lamented,
he departed this life on the fifteenth of November, MDCCXCIV.
aged LXXIII years.