Our nation’s Founders, the real “Greatest Generation,” is a larger group than people realize. Most can cite a handful like Washington, Adams, Franklin and Jefferson, but soon they run out of names. And some ancillary contributors never get their due.
Such is the case with John Witherspoon, one of New Jersey’s best forebears. He was an academic and a pastor who signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of our state. Before and after that epochal event he led the College of New Jersey, as Princeton was originally known. He had other Revolutionary, ministerial and academic achievements, but historians have largely ignored him.
A native of Scotland, Witherspoon and his family moved here in 1768 at the urging of two other second-tier Founding Fathers, Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton. He became the College’s sixth president and most prominent faculty member, with a hand in every aspect of scholastic affairs, from the curriculum, to fund-raising, to building the library and raising admission standards. Before he was through, he put the school on the same level as Harvard and Yale.
Having personally experienced the intrigues of European factionalism in religious, political and royal circles, he arrived in America a staunch Protestant and a believer in republicanism. As a proud Scot, he held a natural skepticism toward the British Crown, and as the American Revolution was fomenting, he began to preach and write in support of the cause.
Elected to the Continental Congress as part of the New Jersey delegation, John Hancock appointed him congressional chaplain upon his arrival in the spring of 1776. When the debate about separating from England roiled the representatives, one was heard to say the colonies were “not yet ripe” for independence. Witherspoon famously replied that America was “in danger of rotting for the want of it.”
The war cost Witherspoon personally. When the redcoats invaded our state in 1777, he had to close the College. It’s main building Nassau Hall, which is still the heart of the Princeton campus today, was badly damaged in battle, and most of his personal papers and effects were destroyed. Later that year, one of his sons who had enlisted in Washington’s army was killed in combat.
Still, despite these setbacks and with a price on his head for signing the Declaration, Witherspoon remained steadfast. He stayed in Congress until 1784, serving on dozens of committees and helping to craft the Articles of Confederation.
After the American victory, the Reverend Doctor continued to hold a prominent place in civic life. He served in the state legislature, strongly supported the ratification of the United States Constitution, and played a major role in the growth of the Presbyterian Church.
Perhaps his greatest legacy is also Princeton’s, which he turned from primarily a ministerial school to one of the nation’s greatest universities. Among his students were many of the United States’ first generation of leaders, including dozens of judges, congressmen, senators and Cabinet members. Not to mention future president James Madison, the architect of the Constitution and our Bill of Rights.
He died peacefully on his country estate called Tusculum, just a few miles from campus. He exceeded the prescribed biblical age of “three score and ten” by a pair of years, passing away at 72.
His descendants include the Oscar-winning actress, Reece Witherspoon. A very pretty cap on his heritage to be sure!