Amidst the current social justice tsunami threatening to submerge American history, Princeton has apparently now committed its own aggravated assault against Clio. A petition circulated among activists sought to strip Princeton’s middle school of its namesake, John Witherspoon. It has succeeded. Why? Upon his death, Witherspoon owned two slaves.
Princeton has succumbed to a nihilistic impulse to sandblast Witherspoon’s name, rather than interpret it more and better. This is an egregious cancellation of arguably the most historically significant American ever associated with Princeton. (Wilson and Einstein later were two others.) Said another way, Princeton has committed an atrocious, asinine act of historical suicide.
Let us recall Witherspoon’s hallmarks:
• Sixth president (1768–94) of Princeton University, which considers him “great”.
• Introduced to and through Princeton advanced ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment.
• Helped found First Presbyterian Church (1766), now Nassau Presbyterian.
• Signed the Declaration of Independence (1776), the only clergyman to do so.
• Framer of the Articles of Confederation (1777), America’s first constitution.
• Framer of the Presbyterian Church Constitution (1787) which affirmed religious freedom.
• Member of the New Jersey convention which ratified the U.S. Constitution (1787) and Bill of Rights (1789).
• First moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly (1789).
• Father of James Witherspoon, Continental Army major, killed at Germantown (1777).
• Teacher and mentor to 469 Princeton graduates, including: 1 U.S. president (Madison), 1 U.S. vice president (Burr), 6 Continental Congressmen, 20 U.S. Senators, 23 U.S. Representatives, 13 state governors, 3 Supreme Court justices, 20 Continental Army officers.
History is at its worst when it reads into the past the prejudices of the present. By today’s lights, always better is more interpretation of history, not less. As was legal then, if lamentable now, this peripatetic Presbyterian divine had two servant slaves helping him in his final failing years, the last two of which he was blind. Do the name cancelers really wish us to believe that the exemplary Witherspoon was some wicked cotton plantation overseer who day and night with greedy pleasure lashed enslaved men and raped enslaved women?
A thoughtful community should wish to weigh the totality of a favorite son’s life in the time and place he lived it. Pastor, professor, patriot, the great Witherspoon is peerless in Princeton history. He put Princeton on the map. Whatever Princeton is today would not be possible without him. Rather than sandblast his name, all Princetonians who love our town’s unique history, and America’s history, should stand up for John Witherspoon now as he stood up for our ancestors before.
Thomas H. Pyle