The call for independence and resistance to tyranny resonated throughout the valleys of the frontier and in the halls of academe among Americans of Scottish birth or heritage. Multiple thousands answered the call for leaders and marksmen, for commitment and courage; few men of any stripe would match the influence and impact of John Witherspoon, the President of the College of New Jersey.
Dr. Witherspoon’s reputation for uncompromising and successful theological disputation on behalf of the more conservative wing of the Scottish Kirk, and his strong resistance to the humanist challenges of philosopher David Hume, had already brought him to the attention of influential American Presbyterians, such as Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush.
Both were (pre)destined to be fellow-signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Witherspoon would preside over Stockton’s daughter Julia to Benjamin Rush. They personally prevailed on Dr. Witherspoon to leave his beloved parish and take up the presidency of the College of New Jersey in Princeton. Leaving a ministry of “great respectability, comfort, and usefulness” in Scotland, he sailed to the uncertainty and difficulties of colonial life, but later affirmed that “I became an American the moment I landed.”
Dr. Witherspoon reformed and expanded the curriculum of the College and pitched in to the training of the next generation of American political and civic leadership. Although he was in the colonies for only six years before independence, he concurred with the dissenters and patriots who challenged the constitutionality of Parliament’s taxes and the King’s tyranny. From the pulpit and the classroom Witherspoon abetted the American cause through articles and essays and served in the New Jersey legislature. He led the fight to rid the colony of the Royal Governor (Benjamin Franklin’s son!)
The Scottish parson was elected to represent New Jersey at the Continental Congress and he served there until 1783. He served on a number of committees including the one that oversaw espionage and intelligence gathering. After signing the Declaration of Independence, at the age of 53, he declared, “Although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulcher, I would infinitely rather that they should descend thither by the hand of the public executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country.”
In November 1776 he suspended classes at Princeton and within two weeks the British had captured the town, burnt his library and inhabited Nassau Hall, the main building. He spent the post-war years rebuilding the college though it never fully recovered in his lifetime. A man of brilliance, he figured prominently in the writing of the state constitution and contributed to the ratification of the United States Constitution. His oldest son died fighting in the Revolutionary War and his wife a few years after. He remarried at age 68 and fathered two more children, making it an even dozen.
Witherspoon’s influence extended far beyond his own lifetime. He taught, mentored, and launched into the post college world, many students, of whom 37 became justices, 3 on the Supreme Court, 10 cabinet officers, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. Senators, 49 U.S. Congressmen and President James Madison. Dr. Witherspoon never ceased preaching the Gospel and became a national leader among Presbyterian Churches in the United States. He continued that calling even after going totally blind in the last two years of his life. There is a magnificent statue of the man on the campus of Princeton University, no doubt taken for granted by the thousands who pass it by, but without whom they would not possess the liberty he fought for and bequeathed to following generations.