The Magazine

Church, State, and John Witherspoon

Scholar, cleric, philosopher of independence.

Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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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.