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John Witherspoon: Animated Son of Liberty

DECEMBER 01, 1985 by ROBERT A. PETERSON

Mr. Peterson is Headmaster of the Pilgrim Academy, Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. He teaches economics and is a staunch advocate of the principles of voluntarism in education.

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence lay on the table of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Two days earlier, Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence had been adopted, and now the time was at hand when each delegate would put pen to paper, thus committing his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to a future darkened by clouds of war. If their bid for liberty failed, those who signed would be the first to be hung from a British noose.

Sensing the urgency of the moment, John Witherspoon of New Jersey rose to speak:

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. That noble instrument upon your table, which ensures immortality to its author, should be subscribed this very morning by every pen in this house. He that will not respond to its accents and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions is unworthy the name of freeman. For my own part, of property I have some, of reputation more. That reputation is staked, that property is pledged, on the issue of this contest; and although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulchre, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country.[1]

Witherspoon’s words gave voice to the sentiments of the majority of delegates, and on July 4, America declared her independence.

In his philosophy of freedom, Witherspoon was one of the most consistent of the Founding Fathers. Leaving no realm of thought untouched, all knowledge was his province as he discussed money, political economy, philosophy, and education, all in relation to Whig principles of liberty. His articles and teachings on the nature of money foreshadowed the discoveries of the Austrian school of economics in the 19th century, and contributed to making the Constitution a “hard-money document”—a fact that has been forgotten by modern politicians.

His Influence on Others

Witherspoon never led an army into battle, nor did he run for high national office after the war. Yet his influence was such that in his role as President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) he helped to educate a generation of leaders for the new nation. His students included James Madison, the young Aaron Burr, Henry and Charles Lee of Virginia, and the poets Philip Freneau and Hugh Brackenridge. Ten of his former students became cabinet officers, six were members of the Continental Congress, thirty-nine became Congressmen, and twenty-one sat in the Senate. His graduates included twelve governors, and when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 delegates had studied under With erspoon. The limited-government philosophy of most of these men was due in large measure to Witherspoon’s influence.[2]

Born in Scotland in 1723, Witherspoon was reared on stories of the Scottish Covenanters who in years past had stood for both religious and political liberty. In due time he was sent to the grammar school at Haddington, and later entered Edinburgh University at the age of fourteen.

Witherspoon received his education in Scotland at a time when the air was filled with the kind of thinking that led to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Indeed, Witherspoon and Smith were contemporaries, and in 1776 both would strike an important blow for liberty—Witherspoon with the signing of the Declaration on one side of the Atlantic, and Smith with his publication of the Wealth of Nations on the other. Witherspoon spoke out for political liberty, while Smith took a stand against mercantilism and for economic liberty. Freedom is all of a piece, and the work of these two Scotsmen complemented and supported one another. Political freedom and economic freedom go hand in hand—you cannot have one without the other.

Witherspoon received his M.A. in 1743, and spent the next two decades serving as a parish minister in the Church of Scotland. During this period of his life he developed a reputation for being the champion of the “Popular Party,” which stood against patronage and pluralism in the Church of Scotland. His fame continued to grow in both Scotland and America, and so, when an opening occurred for the presidency of Princeton, Witherspoon’s name was brought up and approved by the trustees. After careful negotiations and some pleading by Princeton alumnus Benjamin Rush, who was studying medicine in Edinburgh, Witherspoon accepted the call.[3]

Arriving in America in 1766, Witherspoon plunged into his new task with vigor. One of his first jobs was to get the college on a sound financial footing. Unlike many college administrators today, who go begging at the public trough, Witherspoon could not appeal for Federal aid. Princeton was totally supported by tuitions and voluntary contributions. Within two years, Witherspoon’s fund-raising efforts (even George Washington contributed) brought Princeton back from the brink of bankruptcy.

Educational Reform

After laying a sound foundation for school finances, Witherspoon turned his attention to educational reform. He was the first to use the lecture method at Princeton. Previously, in structors had assigned readings and then quizzed their students in class. He also set up a grammar school, authored several works on child-rearing, introduced modern languages into the college curriculum, and taught a course on moral philosophy.

Witherspoon’s activities at Princeton were brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of the War for Independence. Like most Americans, Witherspoon was at first slow to embrace the cause of independence, hoping instead for a reconciliation of the two countries based on the restoration of full English rights for the colonials—in particular, the right of their own little parliaments to tax them and make their laws, under the overall jurisdiction of the king.

Witherspoon grew increasingly concerned, however, with the attempt of the British to install an Anglican bishop over the American colonies.[4] He viewed this as the first step toward an ecclesiastical tyranny over the colonies, of which the Quebec Act was also a part (the Quebec Act extended French law, which meant no trial by jury, and Roman Catholicism into the Ohio Valley). Witherspoon understood that religious liberty—man’s freedom to own his conscience—was inextricably interwined with political and economic liberty: “There is not a single instance in history,” he wrote, “in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If, therefore, we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”[5]

When hostilities broke out, and continued for about a year with no end in sight, Witherspoon felt that it was his duty to set forth the issue from the pulpit. In what is perhaps his most celebrated sermon, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” Witherspoon said:

. . . the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the tern-poral and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue.[6]

Witherspoon went on to say that Americans would need “pure man-nets,” “bravery, . . . . economy,” and “frugality” if they wanted to win their independence.

Limited Government

In his concept of political economy, Witherspoon believed that good government was limited government, wherein “faction” checked “faction” so that no person or group of persons could gain unlimited power. Thus, he believed in a system of checks and balances—a system that found its way into the United States Constitution through the influence of one of his favorite students, James Madison.[7] Ashbel Green, who would follow in Witherspoon’s steps as a President of Princeton, said that the aging statesman approved of the Constitution “as embracing principles and carrying into effect measures, which he had long advocated, as essential to the preservation of the liberties, and the promotion of the peace and prosperity of the country.”[8]

Witherspoon put his views on civil government into practice when he served in Congress from 1776 to 1782. Always active, he served on over one hundred committees and preached to members of the Continental Congress on Sundays while in Philadelphia. The British showed that they realized the significance of Witherspoon’s contribution when they burned him in effigy along with George Washington during the occupation of New York City.

The war left Nassau Hall in ruins, as the British particularly singled out Presbyterian institutions for destruction. Undaunted, Witherspoon left the Continental Congress in 1782 to rebuild his beloved Princeton. He still found time to comment on the problems which confronted the new nation—particularly economic problems. An economist, or moral philosopher, of the first rank and an advocate of hard money, Witherspoon had seen first hand the effects of the inflationary “Continentals.” In his “Essay on Money,” which in many ways presaged the writings of the Austrian school of economics, Witherspoon wrote:

I observe that to arm such bills with the authority of the state, and make them legal tender in all payments is an absurdity so great, that it is not easy to speak with propriety upon it . . . It has been found, by the experience of ages, that money must have a standard of value, and if any prince or state debase the metal below the standard, it is utterly impossible to make it succeed. Why will you make a law to oblige men to take money when it is offered them? Are there any who refuse it when it is good? If it is necessary to force them, does not this system produce a most ludicrous inversion of the nature of things?[9]

Witherspoon was also mindful of the tremendous productive capacity of the free society, not only in the physical realm but in the other fields of human action as well. In a textbook he wrote for his students, he concluded: “What then is the advantage of civil liberty? I suppose it chiefly consists in its tendency to put in motion all the human powers. Therefore it promotes industry, and in this respect happiness—produces every latent quality, and improves the human mind.—Liberty is the nurse of riches, literature, and heroism.”[10]

Contracts Are Important

The contract, so essential to capitalism, also loomed large in Witherspoon’s thought: “Contracts are absolutely necessary in social life. Every transaction almost may be considered as a contract, either more or less explicit.”[11] And in what constituted an intellectual “end run” around the classical economists, Witherspoon touched upon the discovery that value is essentially subjective, determined not by the amount of labor that goes into a product or by government decree, but by individuals freely acting in the marketplace. “Nothing has any real value unless it be of some use in human life, or perhaps we may say, unless it is supposed to be of use, and so becomes the object of human desire . . . ”[12]

Besides writing, Witherspoon spent his last years building up Princeton and his church. Two accidents left him blind the last two years of his life. His light spent, he continued to preach and teach, relying upon the vast store of knowledge that he had husbanded away through years of diligent study.

At the age of seventy-one, having crammed several careers into one lifetime, Witherspoon passed away and was buried in the President’s Lot at Princeton. Two hundred years later, Witherspoon’s great contributions in helping to lay the foundations of American freedom are still only darkly understood. There have been those in the past, however, who have recognized the magnitude of Witherspoon’s life and thought. John Adams, for instance, noted in his diary that Witherspoon was “as hearty a friend as any of the Natives—an animated Son of Liberty.”[13] One of his students, Philip Freneau, wrote:

His words still vibrate on my ear,
His precepts, solemn and severe,
Alarmed the vicious and the base,
To virtue gave the loveliest face
That humankind can wear.[14]

It was through the influence of men like John Witherspoon that a new nation gained a constitution that repudiated interventionism, fiat currency, and embraced the idea of hard money. He was a pastor, educator, statesman, economist, and political theorist. He was, and still remains, “an animated Son of Liberty.”


1.   John Witherspoon, quoted in Charles Augustus Briggs, American Presbyterianism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885), p. 351.

2.   Charles G. Osgood, Lights in Nassau Hall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), pp. 12-13.

3.   Lyman H. Butterfield, John Witherspoon Comes to America (Princeton: Princeton University Library, 1953).

4.   Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics 1689-1775 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

5.   John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon, 9 vols. (Edinburgh: 1804-1805) Vol. II, pp. 202-203.

6.   Ibid.

7.   James H. Smylie, “Madison and Witherspoon: Theological Roots of American Political Thought,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. XXII, No. 3 (Spring, 1961), MS, Presbyterian Historical Society.

8.   Ashbel Green, quoted in Smylie, p. 130.

9.   Works, Vol. IV, p. 223.

10.   John Witherspoon, An Annotated Edition of Lectures on Moral Philosophy, ed., Jack Scott (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982), p. 147.

11.   Lectures on Moral Philosophy, p. 168.

12.   Lectures on Moral Philosophy, p. 178.

13.   Martha Lou Stohlman, John Witherspoon: Parson, Politician, Patriot (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 15.

14.   Philip Freneau, quoted in Mary Weather-spoon Bowden, Philip Freneau (Boston: Twayne Pub., 1976), p. 17.

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December 1985

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