Rev. John Knox Witherspoon, Signer of the "Declaration of Independence"

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John Knox Witherspoon

Birthplace: Manse Of Yester, Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland, United Kingdom
Death: November 15, 1794 (71)
Tusculum Farm, Princeton, Mercer, New Jersey, United States
Place of Burial: Princeton, Mercer, New Jersey, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James Alexander Witherspoon, III and Anne Witherspoon
Husband of Elizabeth Witherspoon and Anne Witherspoon
Father of John William Witherspoon; Christian Witherspoon; James Witherspoon; Robert Witherspoon; Barbara Witherspoon and 8 others
Brother of Captain David Witherspoon; Susan Ann Witherspoon; Jeanette McKee; Josias Witherspoon; James Alexander Witherspoon, IV and 1 other

Occupation: President of College of New Jersey [present Princeton], Presbyterian minister, Signer of Declaration Of Independance
Managed by: Private User
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About Rev. John Knox Witherspoon, Signer of the "Declaration of Independence"

A Patriot of the American Revolution for NEW JERSEY. DAR Ancestor # A127172

John Knox Witherspoon (February 15, 1723 – November 15, 1794) was a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of New Jersey. As president of the College of New Jersey (1768-94; now Princeton University), he trained many leaders of the early nation and was the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration. Witherspoon has been described by some historians as being "not a profound scholar" but "an able college president".

Marriage and Children

John Knox Witherspoon married:

  1. Elizabeth Montgomery (29 May 1722 - 1 October 1789)
    1. Anne Witherspoon (23 July 1749 - 1 April 1817)
    2. Christian Witherspoon, d.s.p. (14 August 1750 - 1756)
    3. James Witherspoon, Major (17 November 1751 - 4 October 1777)
    4. Robert Witherspoon (b. 1753)
    5. Barbara Witherspoon, d.s.p. (19 February 1756 - 1763)
    6. John Knox Witherspoon, Jr. (29 July 1757 - 30 January 1796)
    7. Frances Witherspoon (16 August 1759 - 11 November 1784)
    8. David Witherspoon (1760-1801)
    9. George Witherspoon (b.1762)
    10. Infant Witherspoon (b. 16 August 1763)
    11. Anna Witherspoon
    12. Joseph Witherspoon (b.1768)
  2. Anne Marshall (1768-1811)
    1. Frances Witherspoon (b. 1792)
    2. Mary Ann Witherspoon (1794 - 1846)

Biographical Sketch

John Witherspoon was born at Gifford, a parish of Yester, at East Lothian, Scotland, as the eldest child of the Reverend James Alexander Witherspoon and Anne Walker, a descendant of John Welsh of Ayr and John Knox. He attended the Haddington Grammar School, and obtained a Master of Arts from the University of Edinburgh in 1739. He remained at the University to study divinity.

Witherspoon was opposed to the Jacobite rising of 1745-46. Following the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Falkirk (1746), he was briefly imprisoned at Doune Castle, which had a long-term impact on his health.

He became a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister at Beith, Ayrshire, serving there from 1745 to 1758, where he married Elizabeth Montgomery. They had ten children, only five surviving to adulthood.

From 1758-1768, he was minister of the Laigh Kirk, Paisley (Low Kirk). Witherspoon became prominent within the church as an Evangelical opponent of the Moderate Party. During his two pastorates he wrote three well-known works on theology, notably the satire "Ecclesiastical Characteristics" (1753) opposing the philosophical influence of Francis Hutcheson. He was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Fife.

At the urging of Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton, whom he met in Paisley, Witherspoon finally accepted a second invitation to become president and head professor of the small Presbyterian College of New Jersey in Princeton. To fulfill this, he and his family emigrated to New Jersey in 1768. He became the sixth president of the college, now known as Princeton University. As the College's primary occupation at the time was training ministers, Witherspoon became a leader of the early Presbyterian church in America. Witherspoon also helped organize Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.

Upon his arrival at then College of New Jersey, Witherspoon found the school in debt, with weak instruction and an outdated library. At once he began fund-raising, added three hundred of his own books to the library, and began the purchase of scientific equipment, including the Rittenhouse orrery, many maps and a "terrestial" globe. He also firmed up entrance requirements. These changes helped the school be more on par with Harvard and Yale, soon transforming the college into a school that would equip the leaders of a revolutionary generation. Many of his students, including James Madison, Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, and John Breckenridge, would play prominent roles in the development of the new nation.

Considered firm but good-humored in his leadership, Witherspoon was very popular among both faculty and students. Some of the courses he taught personally were Eloquence or Belles Lettres, Chronology (history), and Divinity. Of his courses, none was more important than Moral Philosophy (a required course), which Witherspoon considered vital for ministers, lawyers, and those holding positions in government (magistrates). Witherspoon instituted a number of reforms, including modeling the syllabus and university structure after that used at the University of St. Andrews and other Scottish universities.

As a native Scotsman, long wary of the power of the British Crown, Witherspoon soon came to support the Revolution, joining the Committee of Correspondence and Safety in early 1774. His 1776 sermon "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" was published in many editions and he was elected to the Continental Congress as part of the New Jersey delegation and, in July 1776, voted for the Resolution for Independence. In answer to an objection that the country was not yet ready for independence, according to tradition he replied that it "was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it."

In John Trumbull's famous painting Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon is among those shown in the background facing the large table, the second seated figure from the viewer's right. Witherspoon served in Congress from June 1776 until November 1782 and became one of its most influential members and a workhorse of prodigious energy. He served on over 100 committees, most notably the powerful standing committees, the board of war and the committee on secret correspondence or foreign affairs. He spoke often in debate; helped draft the Articles of Confederation; helped organize the executive departments; played a major role in shaping foreign policy; and drew up the instructions for the peace commissioners. He fought against the flood of paper money, and opposed the issuance of bonds without provision for their amortization. "No business can be done, some say, because money is scarce," he wrote. He also served twice in the New Jersey Legislature, and strongly supported the adoption of the United States Constitution during the New Jersey ratification debates.

In November 1778, as British forces neared, Witherspoon closed and evacuated the College of New Jersey. The main building, Nassau Hall, was badly damaged and his papers and personal notes were lost. Witherspoon was responsible for its rebuilding after the war, which caused him great personal and financial difficulty.

In 1780 he was elected to a one-year term in the New Jersey Legislative Council representing Somerset County.

Witherspoon had suffered eye injuries and was blind by 1792. He died in 1794 on his farm Tusculum, just outside of Princeton, and is buried in the Princeton Cemetery. He was 71 when he died.


  • From among his students came 37 judges, three of whom made it to the U.S. Supreme Court; 10 Cabinet officers; 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. Senators, and 49 United States congressmen. His most prominent students were Aaron Burr and James Madison. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 delegates had studied under Witherspoon.
  • The President's House in Princeton, New Jersey, was his home from 1768 to 1779 and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
  • A bronze statue at Princeton University by Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart is the twin of one outside The University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, Scotland.
  • In Princeton today, a University dormitory built in 1877, the street running north from the University's main gate, and the local public middle school all bear his name.
  • Another statue stands near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue, N Street and 18th Street.
  • Paisley, Scotland, honored Witherspoon's memory by naming a new street in the town center after him, in honor of his having lived in Paisley for a portion of his adult life.
  • A son-in-law was Congressman David Ramsay, who married Frances Witherspoon on 18 March 1783. Another daughter, Ann, married Samuel Stanhope Smith, who succeeded Witherspoon as president of Princeton.
  • The Witherspoon Society is a body of laypeople within the Presbyterian Church (USA), in existence since 1979, that is activist in liberal and progressive causes.
  • A merchant ship, the SS John Witherspoon, saw service during World War II as part of convoy PQ-17, and was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic on 6 July 1942.
  • The Witherspoon Institute is an independent research center that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies. Located in Princeton, it promotes the application of fundamental principles of republican government and ordered liberty to contemporary problems through a variety of centers, research programs, seminars, consultations, and publications.


Occupation • President of the College of New Jersey

Singer of Declaration of Independence

Burial record:

Declaration of Independence Signer. Born in Scotland to a family of clergymen, he was trained to become a Presbyterian minister. At the age of four, he could read the Bible. At the age of 13, he entered college and at age 20, he was licensed to preach. In 1746, he helped to raise troops to fight Scottish rebels who were rebelling against English domination in Scotland. The rebels captured him, imprisoned him in a castle, and threatened to kill him. Although he was released unharmed a few days later, he later had trouble sleeping, and would often faint in broad-daylight. Nonetheless, he became one of Scotland's leading Presbyterian ministers.

In 1768, he left Scotland to travel to New Jersey, to accept a position as President of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University). His wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had ten children, wanted to stay in Scotland, but he finally was able to convince her to come with him. For the next 26 years, he would serve as Princeton's President, helping to make it a great institution for higher learning. John Witherspoon would profess that he loved his new home in New Jersey, and that he had "become an American the moment he landed." He quickly sided with the patriots who favored independence, and in June 1776, he was elected to Congress.

On July 2, 1776, the day of the vote on independence, another delegate claimed that America wasn't yet ripe enough for independence. Witherspoon immediately declared "It is not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it." Witherspoon became the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Between 1776 and 1782, Witherspoon would serve on more than 100 committees, wearing his minister's robes in Congress to remind the delegates that God was on their side. Despite personal setbacks Witherspoon never lost his belief that America would prevail in the struggle for independence.

In 1777, his son was killed at the Battle of Germantown, and later that year, the British burned their home. In addition, part of the Battle of Princeton in 1777 was fought on the college campus – the college was so badly damaged that it was closed for several years. After the Revolutionary War, he continued to serve as President of the College of New Jersey, but spend several years working to rebuild the college. He was a member of the New Jersey convention that ratified the US Constitution, making New Jersey the third state to approve the Constitution.

Elizabeth Witherspoon died in 1789. Two years later, the 68-year old minister married 24 year old Ann Dill, with whom he would have two daughters. John Witherspoon would die on his farm near Princeton in 1794 at the age of 71.

Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson

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Rev. John Knox Witherspoon, Signer of the "Declaration of Independence"'s Timeline

February 5, 1723
Manse Of Yester, Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland, United Kingdom
July 23, 1749
August 14, 1750
November 17, 1751
February 19, 1756
Paisley, Scotland
December 11, 1756
York, Pennsylvania, United States
July 29, 1757
Paisley, Scotland
August 16, 1759
Paisley, Scotland