John Witherspoon Full Biography
I was born in 1723 at Yester, Scotland, not far from Edinburgh, and was educated at Haddington, where my father was minister. After studies at the University of St. Andrews and the University of Edinburgh I served as Presbyterian minister at Beith, where I married Elizabeth Montgomery, and then at Paisley. I became deeply involved in the church debates and conflicts of my time. In 1766 I was invited by the school trustees to become president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). At first I declined, but when called a second time, and after being personally asked by Richard Stockton who was visiting England in 1768, I accepted. In August 1768, after eleven weeks at sea on the brigantine Peggy, Elizabeth and I along with our five children arrived at Philadelphia and then went on to Princeton, where I was received with acclaim.
I found the college short of funds and with an inadequate number of teachers. Consequently, I had to teach most of the courses myself with the assistance of just two or three tutors until I could establish a complete faculty. The trustees gave me complete freedom to develop the college and I introduced many elements found in Scottish universities, giving prominence to study of the classics and instruction by lecture. I also emphasized oratory, requiring every student to speak before the college and the public.
I became actively involved in the controversies with Britain. On December 6, 1773, in response to the Boston Tea Party, some of my students burned the winter supply of tea along with an effigy of Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts. The next year, December 1774, I became a member of the Somerset County Committee of Correspondence. In May 1775 I was head of a committee formed by the Presbyterian Synod to write a letter removing restrictions on clergymen to talk about political issues. Along with other members of the committee, I wanted to be a loyal British citizen, but we could not accept the actions of Parliament. In June 1776 I was chosen a delegate from New Jersey to the Continental Congress and arrived in Philadelphia just in time for the final debate on, and crucial vote for, independence. I was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
I returned to Princeton in November at the time the American army was retreating across the state with the British in pursuit. One of my students wrote in his diary, “Our worthy President deeply affected at this solemn scene entered the Hall where the students were collected, and in a very affecting manner informed us of the improbability of continuing there longer in peace; and after giving us several suitable instructions and much good advice very affectionately bade us farewell.” The British found the college abandoned when they arrived on December 7 and the college buildings suffered greatly during the weeks of British occupation that ended with the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. After the British left, the college continued to house American troops until November 1778 and the Americans also damaged the buildings. I saw much of the work I had put into building up the college destroyed, along with many of my personal papers. Not wanting to see the college cease functioning, I notified students to return for the usual opening day of May 10, 1777 and we did reopen on July 10 even though the buildings and grounds were still being used by the American army to house troops and serve as a supply depot.
Although our college was again at least partially functioning, I continued my work in the Continental Congress, especially working closely with Robert Morris on financing the war. I was home from Congress on October 4, 1777 when I learned of the death at the Battle of Germantown of my twenty-five year old son James, who was Brigade Major for New Jersey’s General William Maxwell. I left Congress in 1779 and returned to Princeton to run the college. However, I could not avoid public service and was elected to the New Jersey legislature for a short time before returning to Congress in 1781 and serving until 1782.
After the war I returned to Princeton to begin the reconstruction of our war damaged college. I continued at my work the rest of my life, although I was blind for the last three years, and died November 15, 1794. During my presidency of the college I worked hard to turn out students who “wish [not] to live for themselves alone, but … [to] apply their talents to the service of the public good of mankind.” Among my students were three Supreme Court judges; 53 members of congress; a vice-president, Aaron Burr; a president, James Madison; as well as 114 ministers.
Witherspoon, John, The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon, Thomas Miller, ed. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
There have been a number of biographies of Witherspoon and also a number of books on the signers of the Declaration of Independence that include a biographical sketch on him. These include:
Stohlman, Martha Lou Lemmon. John Witherspoon: Parson, Politician, Patriot (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).
McGinty, J. Walker, An Animated Son of Liberty: A Life of John Witherspoon (Bury St. Edmonds: Arena Books, 2012)