John Witherspoon was a preacher, a teacher, a rebel … and a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence.
A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Witherspoon was satisfied to be the pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Scotland when he was asked to take a job in the colonies, a call that would not let him rest. The fledgling school, now called Princeton University, needed a president—and Witherspoon was the man for the job.
Despite much objection from his wife, who balked at the idea of leaving her family behind and boarding a ship to cross the perilous Atlantic Ocean, and despite bribes from his wife’s uncle, who would have paid him handsomely to remain in the homeland, Witherspoon set his face towards the new land—and he never looked back.
After his arrival in New Jersey, Witherspoon delivered his inaugural speech at the college in Latin—convincing the school’s supporters they had indeed found an intellect capable of leading the way to academic excellence. Witherspoon was not so certain. He wrote to a friend about the shocking lack of scholastic preparedness he saw in many of the students (a complaint that can still be heard on the lips of educators today). Nevertheless, under his guidance the college grew in both enrollment and reputation. It was among the first of the great collegiate institutions to take hold in America—a founding member of the Ivy League.
He was soon recognized for the strength of his many award-winning essays, and he never stopped preaching and pastoring. He preached weekly at Princeton, and when he was traveling he delivered sermons wherever he was invited. Witherspoon was a supporter of John Locke’s political theories—and his interest in democracy, coupled with his persuasive ability to communicate, led to appointments on both the Committee of Correspondence and the Committee of Safety by the Sons of Liberty. From there, he was elected to the Continental Congress.
Witherspoon, upon voting in favor of the Declaration of Independence, did not agree with those who claimed the country was still too young and green to be seeking political freedom. In his estimation, the colonies were not only ripe for freedom, but were “in danger of rotting” for lack of it.
After the war was won and the new nation secure in her liberty, Witherspoon returned to New Jersey to rebuild the college. It had been nearly demolished by the British military.
To the end of his days, he worked to establish both Princeton and the Church in America. He was the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence and one of the brightest minds in America.
John Witherspoon’s legacy is one of hope, of hard work and of sacrifice to a great cause. He earned his right to be called a Founding Father.