John Witherspoon Biography

Educator(1723–1794)
John Witherspoon came to the burgeoning United States to become president of what would become Princeton University, and he ended up helping to shape the country.

Synopsis

John Witherspoon was born in Scotland and emigrated to the American colonies to become the president of the College of New Jersey (later called Princeton University). He became a vocal advocate for colonial independence and served New Jersey in the Continental Congress. Becoming the only member of the clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon always fought to ensure religious freedoms in the new country. He was also an influential educator, with many of his students going on to serve prominently in the new U.S. government.

Early Years

John Witherspoon was born in 1723 in Scotland and attended the preparatory school in Haddington (note, some cite 1722 as the year of Witherspoon's birth and this discrepancy is due to the use of the Julian versus Gregorian calendars). From Haddington he went to the University of Edinburgh for his Master of Arts degree and then it was on to divinity school, which he finished at age 19. He soon went to the parish of Beith and became the local minister, moving to Paisley in 1757 to assume the role of pastor. He began serious writing around this time, publishing Ecclesiastical Characteristics in 1753.

After several years in Paisley, during which time his ecclesiastic and intellectual reputation grew beyond the borders of his parish, Witherspoon was contacted by a few notable Americans to come across the Atlantic. As at the time clergymen were often the most educated people, Witherspoon was recruited to become the first president of the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University) by, among others, Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush. Unfortunately, his wife's fear of crossing the great ocean divide kept him from accepting the position until 1768, at which time the couple made the move together.

The Move to America

It was a visit by Benjamin Rush that convinced the Witherspoons to take the chance of emigrating to America, and it was a move that would pay off well for Witherspoon and the college, as both succeeded with him at the helm. He was instrumental in expanding the school's curriculum, securing scientific equipment, and increasing both the endowment and the enrollment. The success of the college turned Witherspoon into a popular and influential man, and his writing on subjects related to the colonies gained him added attention.

At first Witherspoon shied away from political commentary, but as the Revolution approached, he became a vocal supporter of the cause of independence (often using the Scottish Enlightenment as his base) and was appointed to various revolutionary committees. In 1776, Witherspoon was elected to the Continental Congress (1776–79, 1780–82) in time to vote for the Resolution for Independence (along with Rush) and soon after for the Declaration of Independence (becoming the only member of the clergy to sign the document).

The Revolution

In November 1776, Witherspoon closed and evacuated the college's campus as British forces closed in. They eventually occupied the area and damaged the college extensively. Once the war was over, Witherspoon spearheaded the rebuilding of the campus, dedicating himself to the cause while also serving in the New Jersey legislature (twice). In his later years, Witherspoon became totally blind because of injuries to his eyes, but his legacy was already secure: At the College of New Jersey, Witherspoon taught an American president (James Madison) and a vice president (Aaron Burr), as well as 39 congressmen, 21 senators, 12 governors, nine Cabinet members and three Supreme Court justices.

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