- NAME: John Witherspoon
- OCCUPATION: Educator, Political Leader
- BIRTH DATE: February 05, 1722
- DEATH DATE: November 15, 1794
- EDUCATION: Haddington Preparatory School, University of Edinburgh
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Haddingtonshire, Scotland, United Kingdom
- PLACE OF DEATH: Princeton, New Jersey
- Full Name: John Knox Witherspoon
Best Known For
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.
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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,
"Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue."
with many of his students going on to serve prominently in the new U.S. government.
John Witherspoon was born in 1723 in Scotland and attended the preparatory school in Haddington. 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.
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. He also published a book on the subject, Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, in 1774. 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).
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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They are American icons—they're on our dollars and coins, they are the subject of our monuments, and we live our daily lives in the world their ideas helped create. America's Founding Fathers include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and, of course, Benjamin Franklin. These men, together with several other key players of their time, structured the American democracy and left a legacy that has shaped the world. But beyond their legends, these men were human beings who led complex and fascinating lives. Learning their stories helps us better understand what made them tick, as well as their influence on our world today.
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