JOHN WITHERSPOON Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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Witherspoon, John (1723-1794), was the sixth president of Princeton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and from 1776 to 1782 a leading member of the Continental Congress. He came from Scotland in 1768 to assume the presidency of the college and held office until his death a quarter of a century later.


A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, who received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews in 1764, Witherspoon had become widely known as a leader of the evangelical or "Popular Party" in the established Church of Scotland, of which he was an ordained minister. The trustees of the College first elected him president in 1766, after Samuel Finley’s death; but Mrs. Witherspoon was reluctant to leave Scotland, and he declined. Thanks very largely to the efforts of Benjamin Rush 1760, then a medical student at Edinburgh, she was persuaded to reconsider. Informed that Witherspoon would now accept the call if renewed, the trustees again elected him to the presidency in December of 1767.


With their five surviving children (five others had died in early childhood), and 300 books for the college library, the Witherspoons reached Philadelphia early in August 1768. When a few days later they moved on to Princeton, they were greeted a mile out of town by tutors and students, who escorted them to Morven, home of Richard Stockton. That evening the students celebrated the occasion by "illuminating’ Nassau Hall with a lighted tallow dip in each window.


Witherspoon had arrived in time to provide the highlight for commencement, which in those days was held in September. Early in October, he wrote Rush that on the preceding 28th he had delivered "an inaugural Oration in Latin" before "a vast Concourse of People." He was obviously heartened by the warmth of his reception, but he also reported a number of disturbing conditions in the state of the college. He found far too many of the students inadequately prepared for college work, a complaint frequently heard since, and one that explains the close attention he subsequently gave to the grammar school conducted by the college. Most worrisome of all was the low state of the college’s finances.