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.
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.
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. Even though his will names two slaves as his property, he later chaired a committee concerned with the abolition of slavery in New Jersey. Several of his descendants were officers in the Confederate States and were active in the traitor’s cause of the southern rebellion.
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
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.
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.
universally venerated, beloved, and lamented,
he departed this life on the fifteenth of November, 1794
aged 73 years.
James Alexander – 2006
- 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)