Church, State, and John Witherspoon
Scholar, cleric, philosopher of independence.
Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic
WHO MIGHT NOT, THESE days, feel a kind of sympathy with the secessionist senator Louis T. Wigfall, who declared in 1860 that he was "tired and sick of the Fathers"?
Wigfall uttered his complaint about the presumed knockout blow that any invocation of the nation's Founders was assumed to deliver against opposing views when southerners like himself were putting distance between their states and the Union created in 1776. We can only conjecture how Wigfall would feel today amid the torrent of Founders' hagiographies, most of herniating weight, that have flooded the market. We can only imagine how he would react if asked, as so often we are today, What would Thomas Jefferson have done? How would Alexander Hamilton have handled this issue? But it's a good guess that he would sputter and protest much as he did almost 150 years ago.
Wigfall, of course, couldn't have had our present circumstances in mind, but his exasperation even then hinted at the dangers lurking in too great attention to a few secular saints. When we look to a few great men--however genuinely inspiring their lives were--lesser, but still important, figures of the nation's early years are easily overlooked. And if that's so, the ordinary Americans who built and sustained the nation are often simply ignored or dismissed as irrelevant to the main story. Traditions of thought (like utilitarianism) that haven't triumphed, or local cultures that have been overshadowed or defeated (like that of the native tribes) lose out to triumphalist historiography.
That's more or less what had happened until three or four decades ago, when historians began to excavate the lives and cultures of all sorts of people--children and the aged, women, slaves, African Americans, immigrants, and many others. The historians' case was not that these people had made signal contributions on a level with the Founders; only that the nature, agency, and integrity of their lives and achievements needed to be unearthed and understood before the nation's full history could itself be understood.
In reaction to these historians' largely successful efforts, a compensating reaction of sorts set in. Its most notable element has been the blockbuster biography--about the great white men of revolution and constitution making. This Founders Chic that didn't have a name in Wigfall's day has become a publishing phenomenon and, seeking to benefit from the fashion, publishers and complicitous historians and writers have produced biography after biography of the greatest men of 18th-century America as if they were the only figures worthy of our attention.
It's easy to become cynical about those books. Like David McCullough's skilled biography of John Adams, they're often love letters to their subjects, lacking in the critical distance that makes for enduring history. (McCullough is on record as saying that he didn't, as he first intended, write about Jefferson because he came to dislike him. As if we shouldn't write of Stalin or Hitler because they're repugnant!) Like Richard Brookhiser's shrewd study of Hamilton, they're often covert ideological tracts devoid of the balance that would make them fully credible.
Too many are a species of special pleading for their subjects, as if everyone else were somehow inferior in quality or less important. All of them play to our natural interest in the great storybook figures of the textbooks of our youth--the generals like George Washington, the presidents like Jefferson, Adams, and James Madison, and the distinctive characters like Benjamin Franklin who so marvelously peopled the nation's early years.
Nevertheless, long before this storm of overstuffed biographies of the favored few had crashed in around us, historians had been evaluating the lives and achievements of the figures just below these great men in historic estimation and rank, and doing so largely out of the eye of the reading public. Do you wish to know of, say, John Jay? There's Walter Stahr's recent fine study. Of John Marshall? Turn to Kent Newmyer's superb work. Of Gouverneur Morris? There are actually two recent biographies of him. Of Patrick Henry, George Clinton, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Rush? You can learn of them easily, too. But of John Witherspoon? There's virtually nothing about him. And, anyway, who was John Witherspoon?
Had you been alive in the 1770s and '80s, you wouldn't have had to ask that question. Witherspoon's name was in all the public prints and was associated with almost every great enterprise of those distinctive American years. He was, as John Adams termed all who risked their lives, honor, and fortunes in the 18th-century struggle for American liberties, an Argonaut. Witherspoon was aboard the Good Ship American Argosy as it sailed the uncharted and troubled political seas of independence, and he earned the almost universal admiration of his American contemporaries for the way he did so. Jeffrey Morrison's fine intellectual biography of the man--and the first extended study of Witherspoon's political thought ever written--shows us why.
When Scots-born Witherspoon accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, in 1768, he was already a figure of renown throughout the Anglo-American world. Celebrated as a Presbyterian cleric and moral philosopher (a kind of all-points thinker about history, science, ethics, faith, and life), he was a member of the intellectual circles of the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh and Glasgow. As such, he became a noted proponent of the Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which challenged the idealistic thinking of the British divine Bishop George Berkeley and the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, and instead offered more modern, Lockean and Newtonian, empirical, and pragmatic ways of thinking and believing.
Arriving at the college in New Jersey, Witherspoon soon cleansed it of its philosophical idealism and set in motion a broad civic and moral education of hundreds of young men who passed through Nassau Hall for the next 25 years. No student of Witherspoon's was to become more celebrated than James Madison, who stayed at Princeton after his graduation to study Hebrew with the Presbyterian parson and who always credited Witherspoon with profound influence upon him. But tens of others whose names would become associated with the revolutionary war and nation-building--think only of Aaron Burr--were Princeton's sons under Witherspoon, and he later affected the thinking even of the redoubtable Hamilton.
While turning Princeton into the center of Scottish learning in the colonies, Witherspoon also made it the most national of the late colonial and early national colleges. (In fact, it appears that he coined the term "Americanism.") Princeton matriculated students from Massachusetts to Georgia, and if one didn't fall directly under the president's influence (hard to avoid, since he taught the college's capstone course in moral philosophy), one surely breathed in the nationalizing, civic, faith-filled air of the place. That so many of its late 18th-century graduates joined and steered the nation's new course is testament to Witherspoon's permeating spirit.
Other clerics and college presidents were content to cheer the troops of independence or preach about politics from the sidelines. Not Witherspoon. He was scarcely off the ship before he launched into active involvement in the nascent American cause. It's not clear from Morrison's account whether Witherspoon's involvement, earlier than that of most native-born colonists, was due to a Scot's suspicion of English influence in the United Kingdom, the long tradition of Protestant resistance to overweening power, a Presbyterian's discontent with the Anglican state, a proto-republican's frustration with monarchy, or simply unerring political whiskers that trembled to every political breeze. Probably all of these.
Whatever the case, it's hard to see how Witherspoon managed to run a college so well and teach a course of such influence in the midst of his unceasing and ardent patriotic actions. He served in New Jersey's colonial legislature and, later, the state assembly, in the Continental and Confederation congresses, and in the New Jersey convention that ratified the Constitution. He signed the Declaration of Independence (the sole pastor and college president to do so) and the Articles of Confederation.
Why not the Constitution, too? Because at the very time so many of his friends and associates were gathered in secret conclave elsewhere in Philadelphia, he was in that city to write the constitution of the Presbyterian Church that boldly altered some provisions of the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith. Otherwise, no doubt, he would also have been a Framer alongside his former student Madison. It's difficult to find another figure of the day whose thumbprints are to be found on so
many large and enduring endeavors.
In part because so little can be learned of the personal dimensions of Witherspoon's life, Morrison focuses his attention upon Witherspoon's thinking, especially his political thought, so much of it rooted in his Presbyterian convictions. For Witherspoon, religion, even if deeply held like his own, was instrumental, and clerics were the instrument that applied and interpreted it.
"When the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and internal principles maintain their vigor," he argued, "the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress [a people] are commonly baffled and disappointed." Moreover, he wrote in 1782, "by the influence of [clerics'] religious government, their people may be the more religious citizens, and the more useful members of society."
Witherspoon promoted a kind of generalized, nonsectarian Christianity, his emphasis upon practice more than faith, and he sharply criticized sectarian distinctions as detracting from the unity and comity of spirit necessary to the governance and tranquility of a federal republic.
"I do not wish you to oppose anybody's religion," he once preached, "but everybody's wickedness." Since "civil liberty cannot be long preserved without virtue," he argued, true religion is a guarantor of the integrity, happiness, and constitutional strength of the union. His was a capacious, tolerant species of worship and belief. In these respects, Morrison rightly concludes, Witherspoon was "swimming in the mainstream of 18th-century American political thought." One might add that his Common Sense philosophy had become part of that mainstream and had unacknowledged influence on others. After all, Jefferson once explained away the distinctiveness of his statements in the Declaration of Independence as "the common sense of the matter."
Perhaps nothing better reveals Witherspoon's unerring adopted Americanness than his reputation among contemporaries. Had his convictions not reflected the Christian republicanism of most others, he would have been neither as widely known and influential nor as universally liked and respected, and his sermons and political tracts would never have been so broadly circulated and read. Given the fact that he was a devout Reformed Calvinist, and a cleric at that, this is all the more noteworthy.
It's easy to forget that, at the very birth of the nation, many Americans, none more so than some of the most celebrated Founders, deeply distrusted clerics, if not religion itself. John Adams thought men of the cloth "as dangerous to liberty as the army." Jefferson believed them to be "a very formidable enemy against the civil and religious rights of man." Such views made little difference to Princeton's president. He insisted on wearing his clerical garb while serving in the Continental Congress, and he deplored provisions of state constitutions that forbade clerical service in government. Yet no one held any of this deeply against him.
He was also a constitutional unionist. No one surpassed this dominie in ardent nationalism and, after the Constitution was adopted in Philadelphia in 1787, support of the new frame of government. So deep were Witherspoon's convictions about federalism, nationalism, and representative government that (as Morrison astutely points out) the constitution of his Presbyterian Church that flowed from his pen that same year bears many commonalities with the federal constitution being created just down the street--about which, because of the secrecy in which it was written, Witherspoon knew nothing. This is just another indication of the immigrant Scot's absorption of fundamental American ways of thinking about government.
Morrison's book, though written with unusual fluency and engagement, won't appeal to everyone. A political scientist, he doesn't write in literary cadences, and his subject's words can't please us as do the grand rhetorical flourishes of Jefferson, the fervor of Adams, or the brilliance of Hamilton. They're similar to Madison's drier, yet profounder, prose: great weight but little song. What's more, Morrison the scholar is at pains to place Witherspoon's life and works within the recent historiography of the political and constitutional developments of the early nation. That's important for anyone wishing to grasp the cleric's true and great significance in the nation's early years. But it doesn't guarantee a large audience for the book, or a new following for the man who is its focus.
And so while Morrison makes a strong, and entirely convincing, case for Witherspoon's neglected importance, the pastor is likely to remain in the shadows of his greater contemporaries. Part of the reason is that he didn't join with the bite and edge of so many of his contemporaries in the great ideological and political fights of his day but was, instead, content always to take the middle, quieter road. Whether he would have done battle with others had he lived beyond 1794, just as the bitterest partisan warfare in the nation's history broke out, can't be guessed with any confidence. But part of the reason for Witherspoon's comparative neglect is that while we associate him with the world-historical developments of his day--forming a nation, creating a republican constitution, establishing a new American church--we can't associate him with a particular partisan ideology or expression of faith.
Instead, he was a kind of grand generalist, joining and promoting, but not initiating, just about every major endeavor of his times. Like Jefferson, he steered his bark "with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern." Like all his great contemporaries, Witherspoon was deeply engaged in the realities of his own day and rarely looked back. If he sought inspiration in his forebears in church and statecraft, he wasn't hawsered to the past, or to an earlier version of anything, but instead wrestled vigorously with his own time's complex problems, and differed from many of the other great figures of the moral tradition, yet endeavored to join his contemporaries in what the Founders thought to be the greatest of all endeavors: the creation and governance of a state.
That should be enough to earn him, as Morrison hopes, an honored and more widely acknowledged place in our history and memory.
James M. Banner Jr. is a cofounder of the National History Center and general editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Washington, D.C.