John Witherspoon Chapter, DAR - - biography

John Witherspoon, Clergyman, Patriot


Photo by HODAR Frank Sanisidro


Born in Yester Parish, Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland February 5, 1722/1723 John Witherspoon was the son of a minister of the Church of Scotland and a lineal descendant of John Knox. He was graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1743 at the age of 20 and ordained into the ministry. He was called to the parish of Beith in 1745 and later to Paisley in 1757. He was a leader of the evangelical or "Popular Party" of the Church of Scotland. He received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews in 1764.

When Samuel Finley, president of the "College of New Jersey" died in 1766, Witherspoon was elected president of the institution which was to become Princeton University. He declined the honor when Mrs. Witherspoon was reluctant to leave Scotland. Benjamin Rush, who at the time was a medical student in Edinburgh, persuaded the Witherspoons to reconsider. He was again elected in 1767. The Reverend and Mrs. Witherspoon with their five surviving children (five had died in early childhood) arrived in the colonies in August 1768 to find a warm reception.

He immediately set about improving the financial state of the college. He spent great amounts of time preaching all over the colonies, taking a collection for the college at each place. His preaching also resulted in an increase in students from 11 graduates in 1768 to 27 in 1776. One of his great complaints was that the students were unprepared for the college curriculum. This complaint has been echoed by untold numbers of college professors even to our own time.

In the 1760's the majority of instruction at the college was given by 3 tutors, graduate students who were pursuing advanced studies in Divinity before being called to the ministry at a church. President Witherspoon was responsible to teach the rest of the courses. Since he did not feel qualified in mathematics and astronomy, he hired a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1771. He himself taught moral philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, history and chronology, and also French for those who wanted to study the language.

John Witherspoon was a noted philosopher belonging to the Scottish Realist school of thought. He would have argued that common sense was the motive for accepting the world's external (outside of one's own mind) existence.

John Witherspoon wholeheartedly supported the American cause. He presided over the Somerset County (NJ) Committee of Correspondence from 1775-1776, was a member of two provincial congresses and a delegate to the Continental Congresses of 1776-1779 and 1780-1782. George Washington and John Adams were his friends. James Madison was his student. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Based on his Continental Congress experiences, he anonymously published "e;Essay on Money"e; advocating sound money and taxes to service the public debt.

After the American Revolution, he became a member of the ratifying convention which brought New Jersey into the Union as the third state. He also contributed to the organization of the newly independent Presbyterian Church in 1789.

After his first wife died in 1789 he married a 24-year old widow in 1791. He became totally blind in 1792, and died November 15, 1794 in Tusculum, (now a suburb of Princeton) New Jersey.

Frances Conant, a charter member of the John Witherspoon Chapter was a descendant of Witherspoon's son David.

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