Witherspoon was a Founding Father: a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a delegate to the New Jersey state convention that voted unanimously in 1787 to ratify the national Constitution. A Scottish transplant to the new nation, Witherspoon became one of its most ardent defenders.Share
“He is as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America,” John Adams proclaimed him. As a later historian noted, “no American born and bred could have had greater faith than he in the future of the country.”
Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister and the sixth president of the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton University), a position he assumed in 1768. These quieter roles were his more influential ones. Witherspoon was the first college head in America to lecture systematically on ethics, and his Lectures on Moral Philosophy remain an intellectual staple of America’s most formative period. Scores of Princeton graduates, inspired by Witherspoon’s ideas, went on to distinguished public service in the fledgling nation as state governors, congressmen, cabinet officials, and Supreme Court justices. Many of these names are probably unknown to readers today: William Bradford, Morgan Lewis, Henry Lee, and Henry Brockholst Livingston, to name a few.
One name, however, certainly is not: James Madison, perhaps Witherspoon’s most famous pupil. In 1769, at the age of eighteen, Madison left his home in Virginia’s Tidewater region and made the ten-day journey to Princeton. It was an unusual decision at the time: most young men in Virginia (Thomas Jefferson among them) attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. It was also a decision that would change the nation’s fate. After the young Madison completed his undergraduate studies at Princeton, he remained an additional six months to study Hebrew and political philosophy with Witherspoon. It was there, under the careful tutelage of “the old Doctor,” that Madison acquired his basic political and philosophical instincts. These presuppositions about the nature of man, virtue, self-interest, and power would profoundly shape his later work as chief architect and defender of the national Constitution. Indeed, if Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” then Witherspoon might well be its grandfather. (Read more.)