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John Witherspoon

Signer of the Declaration of Independence

JOHN WITHERSPOON was born February 5, 1722 in Gifford, Haddingtonshire, Scotland. His father was the minister of the parish of Yester. He was sent, at an early age, to the public school at Haddington, and at the age of fourteen, he went on to the University of Edinburgh. At the age of twenty-one, he finished college and following in his father's footsteps, he commenced preaching. In 1745 he was ordained a minister of the parish of Beith. He married Elizabeth Montgomery, and she eventually bore him ten children. He gained a wide reputation through his many ecclesiastical writings and in January of 1757 he was installed as pastor at Paisley, where he found himself very happy in the affections of his large congregation. 

Witherspoon flourished and in 1766, he declined his election to the presidency of Princeton College in the Colonies. The female members of the Witherspoon family, especially Mrs. Witherspoon, were reluctant to leave Scotland for a land of strangers that was so far from her family. However, due to the influence of Benjamin Rush, who was studying medicine abroad at that time, and Richard Stockton, both fellow signers, Mrs. Witherspoon had a change of heart and in August 1768, the Witherspoons arrived in America. He brought with him 300 valuable books as a gift to the college, while his friends in Scotland and England gave many more. In the same month he was inaugurated president of the college, and he devoted himself to his new endeavor until 1774. He also was instrumental in stimulating and unifying the Presbyterian Church in America during this and later periods. He contributed to the cause of the Patriots by sermons and writings and by participation in various local activities. 

On June 22, 1776, after taking part as a member of the Provincial congress in the overthrow of the authority of the royal governor, William Franklin, Witherspoon was elected to the Continental congress. He was impatient with the delay in the passing of the Declaration of Independence, stating that "he that will not respond to its accents, and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions, is unworthy the name of freeman" and protesting for himself that "although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulcher, I would infinitely rather that they should descend thither by the hand of the public executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country". He took his seat a few days before the fourth of July, and actively participated in the deliberations on the momentous question of a declaration of independence. Witherspoon would, despite his Scottish accent, astonish the whole house by the regular arrangement of his ideas, his command of the language, and his precision on subjects of importance. He was a strong advocate of independence and it was a happy reply that he made to a gentleman who, in opposing the measure, declared that the country was not yet ripe for a declaration of independence. "Sir," said Witherspoon, "in my judgment the country is not only ripe for the measure but in danger of rotting for the want of it."

Witherspoon cast his affirmative vote for independence on July 2, 1776. Five months after signing the Declaration, the British burned his library. As one colleague reported, "He would lay aside the cloth to take revenge on them, I believe he would send them to the devil if he could."

Witherspoon served in Congress for six years and was ambitiously involved in his work on more than one hundred committees. He was seldom absent from his seat, and never allowed personal considerations to prevent his attention to official duties.  At the close of the year 1779, Dr. Witherspoon voluntarily retired from congress, desiring to spend the rest of his life, as he said, in "otio cum dignitate." He wished to devote his attention to a revival in the college, but he was persuaded to return to Congress in 1780, but at the close of 1782, he retired from political life. In 1783, he visited England with Joseph Reed, intending to promote Princeton College and request contributions, but he found the British so embittered toward the American people that the amount that he was able to raise only just exceeded his expenses on the voyage. Upon returning to the States in 1784, he occupied himself with the administrative affairs of the college and with the cultivation of his farm near Princeton.

Although Witherspoon was a sagacious politician, he was more advantagous as a minister of the gospel, and particularly as a minister in the pulpit. The social qualities of Witherspoon rendered him one of the most companionable of men. He possessed a rich supply of anecdote, both amusing and instructive. The following anecdote is an example of his humor. On the surrender of the British army to General Gates, at Saratoga, Gates dispatched one of his aids to convey the news to congress. The news of the surrender would have prompted most men to make the journey as quickly as possible, but the aid proceeded so leisurely, that the news reached Philadelphia three days before his arrival. It was usual for Congress, on such occasions, to bestow some mark of their esteem upon the person who was the bearer of such good news and it was proposed, in this case, to bestow upon the messenger an elegant sword. During the conversation on this subject in the hall, Witherspoon rose, and begged leave to amend the motion, by substituting for an elegant sword, a pair of golden spurs.  Another interesting trait in his character was his attention to young persons. He never missed an opportunity to impart the most useful advice to them, according to their circumstances, when they happened to be in his company. And this was always done with so much kindness and grace, that they could neither be inattentive nor easily forget it.

In his personal life, he was an affectionate husband, a tender parent, a kind master, and a sincere friend. He was twice married. The first time in Scotland, at an early age, to Elizabeth Montgomery. She was a woman distinguished for her piety and benevolence and she bore him ten children, five of whom survived infancy. At the time of his emigration to America, he had three sons and two daughters. James, his eldest son, was killed in the battle of Germantown. John became a physician, and David a lawyer. Of the daughters, one was married to the Rev. Samuel S. Smith, the successor of Witherspoon in the presidency of the college. The other became connected with Dr. Ramsay, the celebrated historian. The second marriage of Witherspoon occurred when he was seventy years old, marring Ann, the widow of Dr. Armstrong Dill. She was only twenty-three years old, and she bore him two daughters.

In 1792, Witherspoon lost his sight and it contributed to the progress of his other health problems. At length however, he sank under the accumulated pressure of his infirmities and on November 15, 1794, in his seventy-third year of life, he died.

Source: Centennial Book of Signers

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