John Witherspoon’s Presbyterian Rebellion

Joanne Butler Contributor
Font Size:

Ben Franklin is the prototype for the celebrity-as-politician. His autobiography is still in print; if he were alive, he’d be on Drudge’s columnists’ list, and command speaking fees that would turn Hillary Clinton green with envy. A popular T-shirt has a quote erroneously attributed to Franklin: ‘Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’

But John Witherspoon? He wasn’t a fan of self-promotion, which was no less prevalent then. Today, in D.C., his statue stands at a tiny triangle where Connecticut Avenue intersects with N Street and 18th Street N.W. It is routinely ignored.

At the University of Edinburgh (where he received a doctorate in divinity), its tourist pamphlet proudly touts him among its famous graduates with a plaque in his honor on the New College’s front wall. But I discovered during a recent trip the plaque is obscured by a large metal sign placed directly in front of it!

Taking a photo of it involved climbing on the New College’s fence plus a contortionist pose, with my husband supporting me so I wouldn’t fall backwards.

Obsessive? Ah, but with a Princeton grad spouse, and Witherspoon being a transformational president of Princeton (called in his day ‘The College of New Jersey’), plus a signer of the Declaration of Independence, I felt we owed him respect and gratitude.

Strolling Edinburgh’s streets, I asked why such a learned man would leave the city at its zenith as the center of the Scottish Enlightenment for a post at a colonial college.

Imagine a faculty meeting, where a professor says, “Here’s a letter from a college in the colonies. Looking for a president. Whom should we send?” Discussion ensues.

Did Witherspoon draw the short straw? Was he a victim of Sayre’s Law that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low? Or was he invited to immigrate to Princeton?

The answer lies in a combination of the latter two questions.

When Witherspoon sailed for America 1768, he was controversial among Edinburgh’s elites; I expect some were glad to see the back of him on his way out.

If you think it was because he was a cheerless scolder of whiskey imbibers and golfers, you would be wrong.

His issue was the Anglicization of the Scottish churches. Serious stuff – congregations were the basic bits of 18th century Scottish civil society. A Presbyterian, he believed a congregation’s minister must be chosen by that congregation, not imposed upon them by the local nobility (per the English practice down south).

Soon after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1747 defeat ended the English-Scots wars, various Scots elites (‘moderates’) were leaning to the English way of selecting ministers.

This wasn’t an obscure intra-church feud. The central issue was whether power flowed up from the people or down from the nobility. Witherspoon was on the side of the people.

According to author James Buchan in Crowded with Genius, in 1753 Witherspoon wrote a satirical pamphlet to “open up the mysteries of moderation.”  One maxim: “He [the preacher] must be very unacceptable to the common people.”

My guess: his pamphleteering was unpopular in the university’s faculty lounge. Its members were likely enjoying the perks due to adhering to the nobility’s wishes.

Later (1766 – 1768), a young colonial and Princeton graduate named Benjamin Rush was studying medicine at the University. According to Buchan, the University not only had the first medical school in the U.K., it was the best in the world, as it applied the Scottish Enlightenment’s passion for logic, observation, and rationality to the study of the human body and disease.

At Edinburgh, Rush apparently met Witherspoon, and urged Princeton’s trustees to select him as its sixth president. This was transformational not only for Princeton, but for all higher education.

According to Buchan, the University of Edinburgh had adopted the practices of Dutch universities with specialized professors. Endowed chairs soon followed. (Under the old system, university students were taught as elementary schoolchildren are today: with one teacher teaching all subjects.)

As Princeton’s president, Witherspoon introduced the Edinburgh system to America. And he may have been the first American university president with a large-scale fundraising campaign. Almost immediately upon his arrival on campus he saw the poor state of the college’s finances, and went to New York and Boston to “consult” with friends of the college. The next year took him to Virginia, where he raised 56 pounds.

Even if Witherspoon had opted not to engage in American politics, his legacy to the American political system would remain profound.

His most famous and influential student was James Madison, drafter of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and fourth U.S. President.  According to Witherspoon biographer Jeffry Morrison, during his presidency Princeton produced twelve members of the Continental Congress, five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 28 U.S. Senators, and many of the Continental Army officers (including two of Witherspoon’s sons).

But a darker side of the story involves Aaron Burr. A former student, a vice president, and the duelist who killed Alexander Hamilton. In an odd twist of fate, Hamilton had wanted to attend Princeton, but was rejected. In 1772 Witherspoon sought students from the West Indies, and Hamilton was interested. But, with his famously demanding nature, he included a request for special exemptions on taking classes – which Princeton’s trustees denied.

Odder still, if Hamilton, the other author of the Federalist Papers, went to Princeton instead of Columbia, he would have been there at the same time as Madison.

Besides fundraising and student-hunting, Witherspoon was deeply involved in politics. Morrison says Witherspoon was in the ideal physical and social place for it.

New Jersey was a very middle colony: no New England Puritan zeal, and no Southern Anglicanism and plantation society. It never had an established religion; Princeton likewise was nonsectarian (unlike Harvard, which began as a Puritan college). Lastly, Princeton’s close location to Philadelphia made it easy for Witherspoon to be intensely involved in the Continental Congress.

Witherspoon, the Continental Congress’s only cleric brought a unique perspective to the independency debates: the views of the Scots-Irish Protestants. They, like Witherspoon, believed power flowed up from the people, not down from the nobility. Further, this idea was grounded in the Scottish Enlightenment’s common-sense realism, instead of abstruse theories about the rights of man. There is a reason King George III perceived the revolution as a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”

Witherspoon’s commitment to the cause of American liberty was deep. As early as 1774, John Adams called Witherspoon “an animated Son of Liberty.” Morrison notes in April 1776, that he “became the first man in New Jersey to call publicly for independence.” In a sermon preached a few weeks later, he said: “I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”

He walked the walk too. On June 21, 1776, he was among the insurgents who ousted New Jersey’s colonial governor, William Franklin (Ben’s illegitimate son), from office. The next day he became a member of the delegation to the Continental Congress.

And we all know what happened on July 4, 1776.