John Witherspoon (5 February 1723 – 15 November 1794) was a Scots Presbyterian minister and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of New Jersey. As president of the College of New Jersey (1768–94; now
Princeton University) he trained many leaders of the early nation and was the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration.
John Witherspoon was born in Gifford, near Haddington in what is now the county of East Lothian. His father James, was the minister of Yester Parish Church
and his mother Anna is said to come from a long line of clergymen that extended back to John Knox, although this has been disputed.
Witherspoon obtained a Master of Arts from the University of Edinburgh in 1739. He went on to divinity school, afterwards becoming a Church of Scotland minister at Beith in Ayrshire where he married, and wrote three well-known works on theology. He later became a minister in Paisley and was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of St Andrews. During the 1745 Jacobite uprising, Witherspoon was briefly imprisoned in Doune Castle. This had a long-term impact on his health.
In 1768, at the age of 45, Witherspoon accepted, at the second time of asking, an invitation from Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton to become President of the Presbyterian College of New Jersey in Princeton. He had originally been asked to take up the post in 1766, but his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery, had been reluctant to leave Scotland. Witherspoon became the 6th President of the college that was later to become Princeton University. Witherspoon rapidly remodelled the syllabus and structure at Princeton, which at the time was primarily engaged in training church ministers, to more closely resemble that at the University of St Andrews He also rapidly established himself as an early leader of the Presbyterian church in America.
When the American Revolution erupted, Witherspoon, unlike many Scots who had settled in the New World, supported the Revolution, becoming a member of the influential Committee of Correspondence and Safety in early 1776. In June 1776, Witherspoon was elected as a New Jersey representative to the Continental Congress, and the following month he voted in favour of the Resolution for Independence.
Witherspoon was to be a Member of Congress until November 1782, becoming one of the most influential congressmen, serving on over 100 committees, most notably the powerful standing committees, the board of war and the committee on foreign affairs. He spoke often in debates; helped draft the Articles of Confederation; helped organise the executive departments; played a major role in shaping foreign policy; and drew up the instructions for the peace commissioners at the end of the war.
Witherspoon oversaw the evacuation of Princeton in November 1778 as British forces approached, and was responsible for its rebuilding after the war. Meanwhile, he was instrumental in persuading the State of New Jersey to adoption of the United States Constitution. After an eye injury, Witherspoon became blind in 1792. He died in 1794 on his farm, just outside Princeton, and he is buried in the Princeton Cemetery. Witherspoon is remembered by statues in Washington and Princeton, and at the University of West Scotland in Paisley. There are also streets named after him in both Princeton and Paisley and a school named after him in Princeton.