Witherspoon, John

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


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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