John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon, New Jersey (1722-1794)

John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, was born in Yester, Scotland on 5 Feb 1722 or 1723. This is the same day, just the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. His parents were James Witherspoon and Anna Walker. Anna was John’s first teacher. She taught him to read and by the age of four, he could read from the Bible and would eventually be able to recite most of the New Testament.

His father, James, was the minister of Yester Parish. He served on committees in the General Assembly and was the royal chaplain to the Lord High Commissioner. Anna came from a long line of clergymen that extended back to John Knox. She had six children. One of her sons was lost in the West Indies. She had a grandchild who was the tutor to Sir Walter Scott.

Anna was John’s first teacher. She taught him to read and by the age of four, he could read from the Bible and would eventually be able to recite most of the New Testament. When John was 13 years old, based on his studies in English, the classics and mathematics, Latin Greek and French, he was sent off to university at Edinburgh where he enrolled 1 November 1735. In the next three years, he completed the four year’s work for a Master of Arts degree (there is no record of a Bachelor’s degree) and toward the end of 1738 he petitioned to publish his thesis. Just after his sixteenth birthday, February, 1739, he was awarded his Master of Arts with a thesis, in Latin, De Mentis Immortalitate, signed Johannes Wederspan (It was common practice at this time to use your Latinized name on academic documents). By the time he was 20, John had obtained his Doctor of Theology and a license to preach. He received his first parish, Beith, 11 April 1745.  He married Elizabeth Montgomery, 2 September 1748. Elizabeth bore 9 children, 5 of whom survived to adulthood and made the journey to North America.  An excellent video of this period of John’s life is available for preview or purchase at Young Witherspoon

John was recruited by the trustees of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Princeton, NJ to become the President of the College after the death of Dr. Samuel Finley, its fifth president. Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton (later Signers of the Declaration of Independence) among others were sent to Scotland to recruit John for the position. Many of the letters between John and the various Princeton principals are contained in the Butterfield book referenced at the end of this biography.

On 18 May 1768, John and his family sailed for Philadelphia on the brigantine Peggy, which arrived in August. The College of New Jersey bloomed under his direction. He grew the endowment fund, instituted curricular changes, and patched up a major schism in the Presbyterian church. By 1770 the College students were openly advocating in favor of the patriot cause. John, in a commencement address advocated resistance to the Crown. In 1774-1775 he represented his county in the New Jersey provincial assembly, successfully agitated for the removal and imprisonment of the Royal Governor and received an appointment to the Continental Congress. On July 2, 1776, in response to a delegate who opposed ratification of the Declaration by saying “we are not ripe for revolution”, John replied, “Not ripe sir, we are not only ripe for the measure but in danger of rotting for the want of it”. In 1776, when the war entered into New Jersey territory, he closed the College of New Jersey. The British occupied the College, burned its library and in general left things a mess. Many of John’s papers were burned or destroyed at this time. The next year, James, one of John’s sons, lost his life at the Battle of Germantown, PA.

John stayed with the Continental Congress until 1782. While a member of the Congress he aided in the reorganization of the Board of Treasury, drafted a letter of thanks to Lafayette, the credentials and instructions for Franklin as minister plenipotentiary, and designed seals for Treasury and the Navy Department. He was also working to get the College back on its feet with classes beginning again November 1778.

After the War, Witherspoon remained remarkably active and influential. He was a member of the ratifying convention that brought to New Jersey the honor of being the third state to ratify the Constitution of the United States. He contributed greatly to the organization of a newly independent and national Presbyterian Church and in 1789 opened its first General Assembly with a sermon and presided until the election of the first moderator. Above all, the name he had won as a pastor, an educator, and a patriot brought strength to the College. He is rightly remembered as one of the great presidents of Princeton.

On October 1789, his wife, Elizabeth, died suddenly. A month after her death, John returned to the New Jersey Assembly, where he was given the task of setting priorities of business; he elected to have the body deal with the treatment of prisoners, pensions of invalids, public debts, promotion of religion and morality, divorce, paper money, establishment of records of vital statistics, and encouragement of manufacturing. He later chaired a committee concerned with the abolition of slavery in New Jersey.

In 1791, John, at age 68, married the 24 year old Anne Marshall Dill. The couple had two children, one of whom died 9 days after birth. John lost his eyesight before he died in his home, “Tusculum”, in Princeton on 15 November 1794. The following is a translation of the Latin engraved on his tombstone in The Princeton Cemetery:

Beneath this marble lie interred
the mortal remains of
JOHN WITHERSPOON, D.D. LL.D.
a venerable and beloved President of the College of
New-Jersey.
He was born in the parish of Yester, in Scotland,
on the 5th of February, 1722, O. S.
And was liberally educated in the University of Edinburgh;
invested with holy orders in the year 1743,
he faithfully performed the duties of
his pastoral charge,
during five and twenty years,
first at Beith, and then at Paisley.
Elected president of Nassau Hall,
he assumed the duties of that office on the 13th of August, 1768,
with the elevated expectations of the public.
Excelling in every mental gift,
he was a man of pre-eminent piety and virtue
and deeply versed in the various branches
of literature and the liberal arts.
A grave and solemn preacher,
his sermons abounded in the most excellent doctrines and precepts,
and in lucid expositions of the Holy Scriptures.
Affable, pleasant, and courteous in familiar conversation,
he was eminently distinguished
in concerns and deliberations of the church,
and endowed with the greatest prudence
in the management and instruction of youth.
He exalted
the reputation of the college amongst foreigners,
and greatly promoted the advancement
of its literary character and taste.
He was, for a long time, conspicuous
Among the most brilliant luminaries of learning and of the Church.
At length,
universally venerated, beloved, and lamented,
he departed this life on the fifteenth of November, 1794
aged 73 years.

James Alexander – 2006

Sources

  • Butterfield, L. H., John Witherspoon Comes to America, (Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey, 1953)
  • Ferris, Robert G., et. al, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, (Interpretive Publications, Inc, Flagstaff, AZ, 2001)
  • Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, web edition, New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 211 – 221.
  • Colonial Hall, accessed 4 November 2006
  • Leitch, Alexander, A Princeton Companion, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1978)
  • Morrison, Jeffery, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2005)
  • Stohlan, Martha Lou Lemmon, John Witherspoon, Parson, Politician, Patriot, (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1976)
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10 Responses to John Witherspoon

  1. Curous says:

    I understand that Reese Witherspoon is a descendant of John Witherspoon. Can you verify this?

    • registrar says:

      While Reese has in fact made this claim, the Society has not be able to verify it with our records. The genealogical position is “if you cannot document it, you cannot claim it”. She has not been able to document it. I suspect one of the issues here is that many folks get descendant and related to mixed up, so it is possible that Reese is somehow related to the Signer, but she is not a descendant of the Signer. When you consider that over 250,000 Scotsmen immigrated to this country between 1720 and 1750, and that many of them ended up in the Appalachian region of the Southeast and that Witherspoon is a widespread Scotch surname, I suspect that when Reese does her homework, she will find her family in is this group.

  2. Carter Lee says:

    When Reese’s homework is done on her lineage, she will likely find that it is as follows:
    Reese Witherspoon

    John Draper Witherspoon (Mary Elizabeth Reese)

    William James Witherspoon [12 March 1917 Cedar Hill, Dallas Co., Texas - 18 February 2000 Nashville, Davidson Co., Tenn.] (Dorothea Draper)

    Mack Alfred Witherspoon [12 February 1890 Midlothian, Ellis Co., Texas - 31 August 1974 Midlothian, Ellis Co., Texas] (Lula Mabel Curtis)

    Thomas Arrington Witherspoon [15 May 1857 Jackson Co., Alabama - 13 April 1939 Ellis Co., Texas] (Margaret Ann Sullivan)

    James Youree Witherspoon [29 December 1835 Murfreesboro, Rutherford Co., Tenn. - 6 June 1877 Midlothian, Ellis Co., Texas] (Ellen Douglas Hughes)

    Thomas Addison Witherspoon [30 August 1812 Murfreesboro, Rutherford Co., Tenn. - 22 July 1868 Ellis Co., Texas] (Rachel Eliza Youree)

    Joseph Witherspoon [born ca. 1775 in N.C. or S.C.] (Jane Bond)

    This lineage can be readily followed on-line via censuses with very little effort. A notable early 20th century topographer, David Columbus Witherspoon, is of the same lineage and, as such, it has been previously published in part.

    • jim says:

      Carter, thanks you so much for this information. I have been working with Reese’s father over the years to convince him that he is not a descendant of the Signer. He was beginning to think that he may have been a descendant of the Signer’s brother, James, but even that is speculation. I am not sure the family is really serious about getting to the roots of their family history.

  3. Kenneth D. Burden says:

    My late mother is Wanda L. Witherspoon, daughter of Carl Harley Witherspoon, who was born in Sabina Ohio in 1888. Carl’s father was John Leland Witherspoon, who was born inPleasant Twp, Brown Co. Ohio in 1847. John L.’s father was Claude Leland Witherspoon, born in 1802 in Mason Co. Kentucky. Claude L’s father was John Witherspoon, born in 1765. Can you tell me if this John Witherspoon is a desendant of the Rev. John Witherspoon, who was a sighner of the Declaration of Independance?

    • jim says:

      Ken, I can tell you that this line is not of the Signer. The youngest child of John, the Signer was born Apr 1794. The Signer died in 1794 in New Jersey. I know there were Witherspoons who came to South Carolina during the Scotch-Irish immigration of 1720-1755. I suspect you will find your family in that migration. If you have not done so, I would encourage you to go to http://www.rootsweb.com and search on some of the names you ahve included in the posts. Also check out the Witherspoon board there as you may uncover some good material on your family

  4. Mary Alice Hipple Witherspoon says:

    I would like to know if My grandparents were related to John the signer of Declaration of Independance. My grandfather was Romulus Pettigrew Witherspoon and my grandmother was Belinda Ellen Burkett Witherspoon. They lived at what is now called Crumpler NC. It was called Jefferson NC . I understand I descended from John and Martha Pettigrew Witherspoon of Wilkes County NC.

    • jim says:

      Mary Alice, I can confirm that your Witherspoon line is not that of the Signer. I am sending a copy of your request to Charlie Weaver as I suspect he may be able to help you. He had done extensive research with the Carolina branches of the family.

      Regards,

      Jim Alexander
      Registrar-General
      DSDI

  5. Katherine Donaldson says:

    My aunt told me that I am a descendant of John Witherspoon. I don’t have all of the information, but she has a book that has been handed down and updated throughout the generations that mark him as my many-greats grandfather. My mother’s name is Dawn Donaldson, born with the last name of Hardicker (this is probably the wrong spelling, sorry…) and her mom is Donna Downey, born Jones. Her mother was Judith Jones, I’m not sure what her maiden name was. Then, it goes to her father. Everybody mentioned who is not deceased currently lives in Delaware. Is it possible that I actually am a descendant of John Witherspoon?

    • jim says:

      Katherine, none of the names you mention are in the Signer’s descendant’s.

      You should also consider the possibility that you are not even related to the Signer.

      Witherspoon was a widespread surname and lots of them immigrated to North American in the Scotch-Irish immigration from 1720-1750. While most of this immigration came in via Philadelphia, some entered through Charleston, SC.

      You might want to go to http://www.rootsweb.com and get to the Witherspoon board at that site and just peruse that board to see what turns up. As with all things on internet genealogy, you should be skeptical with the information you find, but it may lead you to some fruitful leads.

      I would also encourage you to take your quest to a local Family History Center of the LDS church. This gives you entrée to the extensive file of the church. Again, not everything there is well documented, but it is a great resource.

      Do keep searching for your family’s real story.

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