John Witherspoon

John Knox Witherspoon
Born February 5, 1723
Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland
Died November 15, 1794 (aged 71)
Near Princeton, New Jersey
Burial The Hermitage
Nashville, Tennessee

Spouse Elizabeth Montgomery of Craighouse
Ocup Founding Father, Clergyman, President of Princeton University

Associated Locations:

  • Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland

Associated Dates:

  • February 5, 1723 – Born

Life Sketch

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.

John Witherspoon was born in the parish of Yester, near Edinburgh, Scotland, on the fifth of February, 1722. He was a lineal descendant of the great reformer John Knox. His father was a minister in the Scottish church, at Yester, and was greatly beloved. He took great pains to have the early education of his son based upon the sound moral and religious principles, and early determined to fit him for the gospel ministry. His primary education was received in a school at Haddington, and at the age of fourteen years he was placed in the University of Edinburgh. He was a very diligent student, and, to the delight of his father, his mind was specially directed toward sacred literature. He went through a regular theological course of study, and at the age of twenty-two years he graduated, a licensed preacher. He was requested to remain in Yester, as an assistant of his father, but he accepted a call at Beith, in the west of Scotland, where he labored faithfully for several years.

From Beith he removed to Paisley, where he became widely known for his piety and learning. He was severally invited to take charge of a parish and flock, at Dublin, in Ireland; Dundee, in Scotland; and Rotterdam, in Holland; but he declined them all. In 1766 he was invited, by a unanimous vote of the trustees of New Jersey College, to become its president, but this, too, he declined, partly on account of the unwillingness of his wife to leave the land of her nativity. But being strongly urged by Richard Stockton (afterward his colleague in Congress, and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence), then on a visit to that country, he accepted the appointment, and sailed for America. He arrived at Princeton with his family, in August, 1768, and on the seventeenth of that month he was inaugurated president of the College. His name and his exertions wrought a great change in the affairs of that institution, and from a low condition in its finances and other essential elements of prosperity, it soon rose to a proud eminence among the institutions of learning in America.

When the British army invaded New Jersey, the College at Princeton was broken up, and the extensive knowledge of Dr. Witherspoon was called into play in a vastly different arena. He was called upon early in 1776, to assist in the formation of a new Constitution for New Jersey, and his patriotic sentiments and sound judgment were there so conspicuous, that in June of that year, he was elected a delegate to the General Congress. He had already formed a decided opinion in favor of Independence, and he gave his support to the resolution declaring the States free forever. On the second of August, 1776, he affixed his signature to the Declaration.

Doctor Witherspoon was a member of Congress from the period of his first election until 1782, except a part of the year 1780, and so strict was he in his attendance, that it was a very rare thing to tind him absent He was placed upon the most important committees, and intrusted with delicate commissions. He took a conspicuous part in both military and financial matters, and his colleagues were astonished at the versatility of his knowledge.

After the restoration of peace in 1783, Doctor Witherspoon withdrew from public life, except so far as his duties as a minister of the gospel brought him before his flock. He endeavored to resuscitate the prostrate institution over which he had presided. Although to his son-in-law, Vice President Smith, was intrusted the active du-ties in the effort, yet it cannot be doubted that the name and influence of Doctor Witherspoon were chiefly instrumental in effecting the result which followed. After urgent solicitation, he consented to go to Great Britain and ask for pecuniary aid for the college. In this movement his own judgment could not concur, for he knew enough of human nature to believe that while political resentment was still so warm there against a people who had just cut asunder the bond of union with them, no enterprise could offer charms sufficient to overcome it. In this he was correct, for he collected barely enough to pay the expense of his voyage.

About two years before his death, he lost his eye-sight, yet his ministerial duties were not relinquished. Aided by the guiding hand of another, he would ascend the pulpit, and with all the fervor of his prime and vigor, break the Bread of Life to the eager listeners to his message.

As a theological writer, Doctor Witherspoon had few superiors, and as a statesman he held the first rank. In him were centred the social elements of an upright citizen, a fond parent) a just tutor, and humble Christian; and when, on the tenth of November, I794, at the age of nearly seventy-three years, his useful life closed, it was widely felt that a “great man had fallen in Israel.” 1

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.

John Witherspoon, a man alike distinguished as a minister of the gospel, and a patriot of the revolution, was born in the parish of Yester, a few miles from Edinburgh, on the 5th of February, 1722. He was lineally descended from John Knox, the Scottish reformer, of whom Mary, queen of Scots, said, “she was more afraid of his prayers, than of an army of ten thousand men.”

The father of Mr. Witherspoon was the minister of the parish of Yester. He was a man, eminent for his piety and literature, and for a habit of great accuracy in his writings and discourses. The example of the father contributed, in no small degree, to form in his son that love of taste and simplicity, for which he was deservedly distinguished.

He was sent, at an early age, to the public school at Haddington, where be soon acquired a high reputation for the native soundness of his judgment, his close application to study, and the quick and clear conceptions of his mind. Many, who at that time were the companions of his literary toils, afterwards filled some of the highest stations in the literary and political world.

At the age of fourteen, be was removed to the university of Edinburgh. Here he was distinguished, as he had been at the school of Haddington, for his great diligence and rapid literary attainments. In the theological hall, particularly, he exhibited an uncommon taste in sacred criticism, and an unusual precision of thought, and perspicuity of expression. At the age of twenty-one, he finished his collegiate studies, and commenced preaching.

Immediately on leaving the university, he was invited to become the minister of Yester, as colleague with his father, with the right of succeeding to the charge. He chose, rather, however, to accept an invitation from the parish of Beith, in the west of Scotland, and here he was ordained and settled, by the unanimous consent of his congregation.

Soon after his settlement at Beith, a circumstance occurred of too interesting a nature to be omitted. On the 17th of January, 1746, was fought the battle of Falkirk. Of this battle, Dr. Witherspoon and several others were spectators. Unfortunately, they were taken prisoners by the rebels, and shut up in close confinement in the castle of Doune. In the same room in which he was confined, were two cells, in one of which were five members of a military company from Edinburgh, who had also been taken prisoners, and two citizens of Aberdeen, who had been threatened to be hanged as spies. In the other cell were several others who had been made prisoners, under circumstances similar to those of Dr. Witherspoon.

During the night which followed their imprisonment, the thoughts of the prisoners, who were able to communicate with one another, were turned on the best means of making their escape. The room where they were confined was the highest part of the castle, not far from the battlements. which were seventy feet high. It was proposed to form a rope of some blankets which they had purchased, and by means of this to descend from the battlements to the ground.

A rope was accordingly made, in the best manner they were able, and about one o’clock in the morning they commenced descending upon it. Four reached the ground in safety. Just as the fifth touched the ground the rope broke, about twenty feet above. This unfortunate occurrence was communicated to those who remained on the battlements, and warning was given to them not to attempt the hazardous descent. In disregard, however, of the advice, the next one whose turn it was to descend, immediately went down the rope. On reaching the end of it, his companions below perceiving him determined to let go his hold, put themselves in a posture to break his fall. They succeeded, however, only in part. The poor fellow was seriously injured, having one of his ankles dislocated, and several ribs broken. His companions, however, succeeded in conveying him to a village on the borders of the sea, whence he was taken, by means of a boat, to a sloop of war lying in the harbor.

The other volunteer, and Dr. Witherspoon, were left behind. The volunteer now drew the rope up, and to the end of it attached several blankets. Having made it sufficiently long, be again let it down and began his descent. He reached the place where the rope was originally broken, in safety ; but the blankets, which he had attached to it, being too large for him to span, like his predecessor, he fell, and was so much wounded, that be afterwards died. The fate of these unhappy men induced Dr. Witherspoon to relinquish the hope of escape in this way, and to wait for a safer mode of liberation.

From Beith, Dr. Witherspoon was translated, in the course of a few years, to the flourishing town of Paisley, where be was happy in the affections of a large congregation, among whom be was eminently useful, until the period of his emigrating to America, to take charge, as president, of the college of New-Jersey.

The election of Dr. Witherspoon to the presidency of the above college, occurred in the year 1766. This appointment, however, he was induced to decline, in the first instance, from the reluctance of the female members of his family, and especially of Mrs. Witherspoon, to leave the scene of their happiness and honor, for a land of strangers, and that lend so distant from her father’s sepulchers.

At a subsequent period, however, Dr. Witherspoon again took the subject into consideration; and at length, through the influence and representations of Mr. Stockton, of whom we have spoken in the preceding memoir, acceded to the wishes of the trustees, in accepting the presidency of the college. It reflects no small honor upon Dr. Witherspoon, that he should consent to cross the ocean, and take charge of a college in a new country, leaving behind him a sphere of great respectability, comfort, and usefulness. Having previously declined, it is understood, an urgent invitation to an honorable station in Dublin, in Rotterdam, and in the town of Dundee, in his own country. It deserves also to be mentioned, that a little previous to his embarking for America, and while still in a state of suspense, respecting his duty, an unmarried gentleman of considerable fortune, and a relation of the family, offered to make him his heir, provided he would remain in Scotland.

Nassau Hall of The College of New Jersey, now called Princeton.
Photo taken by John Vinci

Dr. Witherspoon arrived in America in August, 1768, and in the same month was inaugurated president of the college. The fame of his literary character caused an immediate accession to the number of students, and an increase of the funds of the college. At that time it had not been patronized by the state. It had been founded and supported by private liberality. At the period of Dr. Witherspoon’s arrival, the finances of the college were in a low and declining condition. His reputation, however, in connection with his personal exertions, excited the generosity of all parts of the country, from Massachusetts to Virginia; in consequence of which, the finances of the institution were soon raised to a flourishing state. During the war of the revolution, the college was broken up, and its resources nearly annihilated. Yet it can scarcely be estimated how much the institution owed, at that time, to the enterprise and talents of Dr. Witherspoon.

“But the principal advantages it derived,” says Dr. Rogers, in a discourse occasioned by his death, “were from his literature, his superintendency, his example as a happy model of good writing, and from the tone and taste which he gave to the literary pursuits of the college.”

He made great alterations in every department of instruction. “He endeavored,” says the same writer, ” to establish the system of education in this institution, upon the most extensive and respectable basis, that its situation and its finances would admit. Formerly, the course of instruction had been too superficial: and its metaphysics and philosophy were too much tinctured with the dry and uninstructive forms of the schools. This, however, was by no means to be imputed as a defect to those great and excellent men who had presided over the institution before him, but rather to the recent origin of the country, the imperfection of its state of society, and to the state of literature in it. Since his presidency, mathematical science has received an extension that was not known before in the American seminaries. He introduced into philosophy all the most liberal and modern improvements of Europe. He extended the philosophical course to embrace the general principles of policy and public law; he incorporate with it sound and rational metaphysics, equally remote from the doctrines of fatality and contingency, from the barrenness and dogmatism of the schools, and from the excessive refinements of those contradictory, but equally impious sects of skepticism, who wholly deny the existence of matter, or maintain that nothing but matter exists in the universe.

“He laid the foundation of a course of history in the college, and the principles of taste, and the rules of good writing, were both happily explained by him, and exemplified in his manner.” He possessed an admirable faculty for governing, and was very successful in exciting a good degree of emulation among the pupils committed to his care. Under his auspices, many were graduated, who became distinguished for their learning, and for the eminent services which they rendered their countrymen as divines, as legislators, and patriots.

Dr. Witherspoon, it must be admitted, was a sagacious politician. He indeed adopted views which, in some respects, differed from those of his brethren in congress; yet his principles have been justified by the result. A few examples may be mentioned. He constantly opposed the expensive mode of supplying the army by commission. For several years this was the mode adopted. A certain commission percent on the money that the commissioners expended, was allowed them, as a compensation. A strong temptation was thus presented to purchase at extravagant prices, since the commissioners correspondingly increased their compensation.

In consequence of this mode of supplying the army, the expenses of the country became alarmingly great. Much dissatisfaction, from time to time, existed in reference to the management of the commissary general’s department, and a reform was loudly demanded by many judicious men in the country. Among those who loudly complained on this subject, and who deemed a change essential to the salvation of the country Dr. Witherspoon was one. This change, so useful and economical, was at length agreed to, July l0th, 1781. The superintendent of finance was authorized to procure all necessary supplies for the army and navy of the United States by contract, i.e. by allowing a certain sum to the purchaser for every ration furnished.

Another point on which Dr. Witherspoon differed from many of his brethren in congress, was the emission of a paper currency. After the first or second emission, he strongly opposed the system, predicting the wound which would be ultimately given to public credit, and the private distress which must necessarily follow. Instead of emissions of an unfunded paper beyond a certain quantum, Dr. Witherspoon urged the propriety of making loans and establishing funds for the payment of the interest. Happy had it been for the country, had this better policy been adopted. At a subsequent date, at the instance of some of the very gentlemen who opposed him in congress, he published his ideas on the nature, value, and uses of money, in one of the most clear and judicious essays that perhaps was ever written on the subject.

At the close of the year 1779, Dr. Witherspoon voluntarily retired from congress, desirous of spending the remainder of his life, as he said, in “otio cum dignitate.” Accordingly, he resigned his house in the vicinity of the college to his son-in-law, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Smith, to whom was committed the care and instruction of the students, who now began to return from their dispersion. Dr. Witherspoon retired to a country seat, at the distance of about one mile from Princeton. His name, however, continued to add celebrity to the institution, which not long after recovered its former reputation.

But he was not long allowed the repose which he so much desired. In 1781, be was again elected a representative to congress. But at the close of the following year, be retired from political life. In the year 1783, he was induced, through his attachment to the institution over which he had so long presided, to cross the ocean to promote its benefit. He was now in his sixtieth year, and strong must have been his regard for the interests of learning, to induce him, at this advanced age, to brave the dangers of the ocean. Much success could scarcely be expected in an undertaking of this kind, considering the hostility which still subsisted between England and America. The pecuniary assistance which he obtained exceeded only, by a little, his necessary expenses, although he was not wanting in enterprise and zeal in relation to the object of his voyage.

After his return to this country, in 1784, finding nothing to obstruct his entering on that retirement which was now becoming dear to him, he withdrew, in a great measure’, except on some important occasions, from the exercise of those public functions that were not immediately connected with the duties of his office, as president of the college, or his character as a minister of the gospel.

Although Dr. Witherspoon was peculiarly fitted for political life, he appeared with still more advantage as a minister of the gospel, and particularly as a minister in the pulpit. “He was, in many respects,” says Dr. Rogers, “one of the best models on which a young preacher could form himself. It was a singular felicity to the whole college, but especially to those who had the profession of the ministry in contemplation, to have such an example constantly in view. Religion, by the manner in which it was treated by him, always commanded the respect of those who heard him, even when it was not able to engage their hearts. An admirable textuary; a profound theologian, perspicuous and simple in his manner; an universal scholar, acquainted with human nature; a grave, dignified, solemn speaker; -he brought all the advantages derived from these sources, to the illustration and enforcement of divine truth.”

The social qualities of Dr. Witherspoon rendered him one of the most companionable of men. He possessed a rich fund of anecdote, both amusing and instructive. His moments of relaxation were as entertaining as his serious ones were fraught with improvement. The following anecdote presents a specimen of his pleasantry. On the surrender of the British army to General Gates, at Saratoga, that officer dispatched one of his aids to convey the news to congress. The interesting character of the intelligence would have prompted most men to have made as expeditions a journey as possible; but the aid proceeded so leisurely, that the intelligence reached Philadelphia three days before his arrival. It was usual for Congress, on such occasions, to bestow some mark of their esteem upon the person who was the bearer of intelligence so grateful; and it was proposed, in this case, to best upon the messenger an elegant sword. During the conversation on this subject in the hall, Dr. Witherspoon rose, and begged leave to amend the motion, by substituting for an elegant sword, a pair of golden spurs.

Another interesting trait in his character, was his attention to young persons. He never suffered an opportunity to escape him of imparting the most useful advice to them, according to their circumstances, when they happened to be in his company. And this was always done with so much kindness and suavity, that they could neither be inattentive to it or easily forget it.

In domestic life, he was an affectionate husband, a tender parent, a kind master, and a sincere friend. He was twice married. The first time in Scotland, at an early age, to a lady by the name of Montgomery. She was a woman distinguished for her piety and benevolence. At the time of his emigration to America, he had three sons and two daughters. James, his eldest son, was killed in the battle of Germantown. John was bred a physician, and David applied himself to the study of the law. Both were respectable men. Of the daughters, one was married to the Rev. Samuel S. Smith, the successor of Dr. Witherspoon in the presidency of’ the college. The other became connected with Dr. Ramsay, the celebrated historian. The second marriage of Dr. Witherspoon occurred when he was seventy years old; the lady whom he married was only twenty-three.

In his person, Dr. Witherspoon was remarkably dignified. He was six feet in height, and of fine proportion. He was distinguished for a fervent piety, and for great punctuality and exactness in his devotional exercises. “Besides his daily devotions of the closet, and the family, it was his stated practice to observe the last day of every year, with his family, as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer: and it was also his practice to set apart days for secret fasting and prayer, as occasion suggested.”

“Bodily infirmities began at length to come upon him. For more than two years before his death, he was afflicted with the loss of sight, which contributed to hasten the progress of his other disorders. These he bore with a patience, and even with a cheerfulness, rarely to be met with in the most eminent for wisdom and piety. Nor would his active mind, and his desire of usefulness to the end, permit him, even in this situation, to desist from the exercise of his ministry, and his duties in the college, as far as his strength and health would admit. He was frequently led into the pulpit, both at home and abroad, during, his blindness; and always acquitted himself with his usual accuracy, and frequently with more than his usual solemnity and animation.”

At length, however, he sank under the accumulated pressure of his infirmities; and on the 15th day of November, 1794, in the seventy-third year of his age he retired to his final rest. The following epitaph is inscribed on the marble which covers his remains:

Beneath this marble lie interred the mortal remains of JOHN WITHERSPOON, D.D. LL.D. a venerable and beloved President of the College of New-Jersey.
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.

He exalted 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. At length, universally venerated, beloved, and lamented, he departed this life on the fifteenth of November, MDCCXCIV. aged LXXIII years. 2



Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, John Witherspoon

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, 1848 original
  2. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1829 original
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