- John Witherspoon (1723-1794)
Born in Gifford, East Lothian on 5 February, 1723, John Witherspoon was educated at Edinburgh University and was ordained as a minister in 1745. One of his ancestors was John Knox> who had been a major force in the Reformation> of the church in the middle of the 16th century. Witherspoon's first charge was as minister of the Auld Kirk in Beith in Ayrshire where he preached for twelve years. He was regarded as a brilliant orator and was "head hunted" by a number of churches in Scotland (and abroad) before moving to Paisley.
While he was at Paisley, Witherspoon met 21-year-old Benjamin Rush who was born in America of Scottish parents, had attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), and had then enrolled at the University of Edinburgh's medical school. Armed with letters from Benjamin Franklin, Rush convinced the 42 year old Witherspoon to leave Scotland and become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1768. (Rush went on later to found the first medical school in the United States, the Medical College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania College of Medicine) and was also a delegate to the 2nd Continental Congress which passed the Declaration of Independence in 1776).
Witherspoon was soon supporting the independence fight in America because he believed that his native land had "gone soft on religion". Of course, the Presbyterian church's principles of egalitarianism and the natural antipathy of the Scots to the English rulers were factors too.
Witherspoon became what in today's politics would be regarded as a senator. And in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Witherspoon had to demand the deletion of a phrase that complained that the king of Britain had sent to America "not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries." However, when some of the representatives from the thirteen American colonies gathered to decide whether to break completely with Britain, some of the delegates realised the difficulty of taking on the might of the British Empire. It was Witherspoon who urged them to sign the Declaration of Independence, saying "There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery." It is worth noting also that of the 56 men who signed the document, 21 had some Scottish ancestry. Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign this historic document (which has many similarities to the Declaration of Arbroath> which proclaimed Scottish freedom for the first time).
Witherspoon also became a member of the congress which conducted the war and later helped to draft the peace agreement which brought the war to an end.
After leaving Congress in 1782, Witherspoon was involved in the rebuilding of Princeton College (destroyed during the war). He was its President from 1768 until his death in 1794. More than any other university, Princeton in those days had students from all over the United States, not just from its home state and so Witherspoon's influence on the country was that much more significant.
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