After complaints from students about Witherspoon, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a mentor to James Madison, the university announced that it would be looking at proposals to remove the 10-foot-tall bronze cast statue from its current location.
“We believe, first, that the statue pays great honor to Witherspoon, and encourages members of the University community to honor Witherspoon. Second, we believe that paying such honor to someone who participated actively in the enslavement of human beings, and used his scholarly gifts to defend the practice, is today a distraction from the University’s mission,” students wrote in a petition to the university’s naming commission and Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber.
In place of the statue, which was put up in 2001, the students would like a plaque placed instead that includes details about Witherspoon’s “negative” legacy, specifically that he owned two slaves. They argued that his presence on campus was a “distraction” and that the monument to him could be a “jarring” experience because of his racial views.
“Over the next few weeks, the naming committee will be holding listening sessions for faculty, students, staff, and alumni to share their views on the issue,” said Nakia White Barr, the assistant vice president for the president’s office, on November 14.
The petition to take down Witherspoon was launched by students over the summer, but university officials are now taking it under consideration, promising to conduct “rigorous research.”
While Witherspoon is not as widely known as other founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, or Alexander Hamilton, the Presbyterian minister played a large role in leading his home state, New Jersey, to support American independence. Adams even once called him “as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America.”
Witherspoon was born in Scotland in 1723 before he moved to New Jersey in 1767 to take the job as president of Princeton, where he taught classes and also served a Presbyterian minister. Before dying in 1794, Witherspoon had established himself as an intellectual, statesman, and had the distinction of being the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.
During his tenure teaching moral philosophy among other subjects at Princeton, Witherspoon would lecture to many future leaders in the early American republic, including 39 congressmen, 21 senators, 12 governors, nine Cabinet members, and three Supreme Court justices.
Like many of the founders, Witherspoon’s record on slavery was mixed. While he did own two slaves, he also supported and participated in the education of freed slaves. One slave he baptized while in Scotland gained freedom because of the baptism. He also considered slavery “unlawful,” but believed that it would soon die out in New Jersey.
Witherspoon, who had 11 children, married Elizabeth Montgomery in 1748. After Elizabeth died in 1789, Witherspoon married Anne Marshall Dill, who was decades younger than him.
Throughout the 1770s, Witherspoon advocated for American independence and resistance to British rule as both a minister and a two-time delegate to the Continental Congress. In an essay entitled “Thoughts on American Liberty,” Witherspoon wrote that war would be preferable to having “slavery riveted upon us and our posterity.”
In perhaps his most famous sermon given in May 1776, entitled the “Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” Witherspoon linked “civil liberty” and “true religion.”
“There is not a single instance in history 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,” he said.
The sermon was widely recognized as inspiring Americans to continue their resistance to the British, providing a religious rationale for the rebellion as well.
“God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both,” he concluded in the sermon, which is considered one of the most influential sermons of the Revolutionary era.
The war also had a personal cost for the Calvinist who had one of his sons killed in 1777 during the battle of Germantown in Pennsylvania, a defeat for George Washington’s Continental Army.
While representing New Jersey at the Continental Congress, Witherspoon supported American independence and continued his work for Princeton. Following the American victory in 1783, Witherspoon would sign the Articles of Confederation before supporting the ratification of the Constitution in 1789.
He also continued his works as a leader in America’s Presbyterian Church, being a key figure in the denomination’s first General Assembly. Largely due to the influence of colonials like Witherspoon, the American Revolution has sometimes been referred to as the “Presbyterian Rebellion.”