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John Witherspoon


John Witherspoon was the only clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence.

A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, he gained a reputation in the Church of Scotland as a leader of the left-wing “Popular Party,” and his works made him well-known in the American colonies. The trustees of the College first elected him president in 1766. He declined the call to serve but eventually arrived in Princeton in August 1768 with his wife, five children, and 300 books for the College library. The students welcomed him by “illuminating” Nassau Hall with a lighted tallow dip in each window.

Despite the warmth of his reception, Witherspoon soon found a number of disturbing conditions in the College. Many students were inadequately prepared; the enrollment from the southern colonies had declined; and, most worrisome of all, the College’s finances were in a sorry state.

Witherspoon began a series of highly successful trips throughout the colonies to preach, recruit students, and gather funds. While traveling through Virginia, he encouraged the Madisons of Montpelier to enroll their son James, who later graduated with the Class of 1771; later, he persuaded his friend George Washington to give 50 gold guineas to the College. (Washington was a longtime advocate of the place. “No college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau,” he said in a letter to his adopted son, a member of the Class of 1799.)

Witherspoon called the College’s pastoral setting a campus, thereby introducing that word into the American vocabulary.

In addition to managing the College’s affairs and preaching twice on Sundays, Witherspoon had a heavy teaching load. To the College’s faculty of five (three tutors and two professors), he added a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, leaving him responsible for providing instruction in moral philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, history, and French. He introduced English grammar and composition and added to the teaching equipment of the College, especially books for the library and laboratory apparatus for science instruction.

Witherspoon saw no conflict between faith and reason; he encouraged students to test their faith by experiment and experience. He applied the test of common sense to any proposition, reducing it to its simplest terms. His name is identified with certain attitudes and assumptions known as the “Common Sense Philosophy,” which was important in the development of our national character.

Witherspoon was careful not to protect students from exposure to ideas that were in conflict with his own strong convictions. The many books he added to the library gave them access to a wide range of contemporary literature, including works by authors with whom he had engaged in public dispute.

Witherspoon’s administration was a turning point in the life of the College. He put fresh emphasis on the need for a broadly educated clergy. He did not hesitate to teach both politics and religion, and he gave wholehearted support to the national cause of liberty and became a leading member of the Continental Congress; as a result many of his students entered government service. In addition to a president and vice president of the United States, he taught nine cabinet officers, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and 12 state governors.

Largely because of him, Princeton became known as the “seedbed” of revolution. Six months after he signed the Declaration of Independence, the College became the site of a strategic victory as Washington surprised the British in the Battle of Princeton. Six years later Washington was again in Princeton, at the invitation of Congress assembled in Nassau Hall, to accept the official thanks of the nation for the successful conclusion of the war. During that visit he also attended Commencement exercises for the Class of 1783.

* John Blair served as acting president from 1767 to 1768.

John Witherspoon (1723–1794).
After Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741–1827. Unidentified American artist. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.2 cm. (30 x 24 7/8 in.). Princeton University, gift of friends of the University. Photo: Bruce M. White