John Witherspoon

1723 – 1794

I was a minister and Patriot who helped establish a famous university.

I was born in Scotland, the son of a minister, and went to school at Haddington, the University of St. Andrews, and the University of Edinburgh. I became a Presbyterian minister where I met and married Elizabeth Montgomery, and then at Paisley.

Everything changed in 1768 when I was invited to become President of the College of New Jersey, and we traveled to Philadelphia, and then on to Princeton. I had complete freedom to develop the college in my own way and I introduced many of the elements from my Scottish university experience.

In December 1773, after the Boston Tea Party, some of my students burned the winter supply of tea. I supported their cause, and in June 1776 I was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress. I arrived in Philadelphia just in time to sign the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July.

When the British chased George Washington’s army out of New Jersey that December, they found my college abandoned and they damaged many of the buildings. But then we defeated them at the Battle of Princeton and they retreated north. The following summer, on July 10, 1777, we reopened the college even though the buildings and ground were being used to house American soldiers and as a supply depot.

I continued my work with the Continental Congress. Sadly, in October 1777, I learned of the death of my young son James who died fighting at the Battle of Germantown. I was elected to the state Legislature and served on and off in the Continental Congress until 1782. I continued my duties at the college even after I went blind, and I died in 1794.

Today my college is called Princeton University.


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