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Page 2

John Witherspoon


   From Beith, Dr. Witherspoon was translated, in the course of a few years, to the flourishing town of Paisley, where be was happy in the affections of a large congregation, among whom be was eminently useful, until the period of his emigrating to America, to take charge, as president, of the college of New-Jersey.
   The election of Dr. Witherspoon to the presidency of the above college, occurred in the year 1766. This appointment, however, he was induced to decline, in the first instance, from the reluctance of the female members of his family, and especially of Mrs. Witherspoon, to leave the scene of their happiness and honor, for a land of strangers, and that lend so distant from her father's sepulchers.
   At a subsequent period, however, Dr. Witherspoon again took the subject into consideration; and at length, through the influence and representations of Mr. Stockton, of whom we have spoken in the preceding memoir, acceded to the wishes of the trustees, in accepting the presidency of the college. It reflects no small honor upon Dr. Witherspoon, that he should consent to cross the ocean, and take charge of a college in a new country, leaving behind him a sphere of great respectability, comfort, and usefulness. Having previously declined, it is understood, an urgent invitation to an honorable station in Dublin, in Rotterdam, and in the town of Dundee, in his own country. It deserves also to be mentioned, that a little previous to his embarking for America, and while still in a state of suspense, respecting his duty, an unmarried gentleman of considerable fortune, and a relation of the family, offered to make him his heir, provided he would remain in Scotland.

Nassau Hall of The College of New Jersey, now called Princeton.  Photo taken by John Vinci
Nassau Hall of The College of New Jersey, now called Princeton.
Photo taken by John Vinci

   Dr. Witherspoon arrived in America in August, 1768, and in the same month was inaugurated president of the college. The fame of his literary character caused an immediate accession to the number of students, and an increase of the funds of the college. At that time it had not been patronized by the state. It had been founded and supported by private liberality. At the period of Dr. Witherspoon's arrival, the finances of the college were in a low and declining condition. His reputation, however, in connection with his personal exertions, excited the generosity of all parts of the country, from Massachusetts to Virginia; in consequence of which, the finances of the institution were soon raised to a flourishing state. During the war of the revolution, the college was broken up, and its resources nearly annihilated. Yet it can scarcely be estimated how much the institution owed, at that time, to the enterprise and talents of Dr. Witherspoon.
   "But the principal advantages it derived," says Dr. Rogers, in a discourse occasioned by his death, "were from his literature, his superintendency, his example as a happy model of good writing, and from the tone and taste which he gave to the literary pursuits of the college."
President's House, John Witherspoon's home from 1768, when he began as president of the College of New Jersey, to 1779 when he moved to his new farm and home, Tusculum. Photo taken by John Vinci.
President's House, John Witherspoon's home from 1768, when he began as president of the College of New Jersey to 1779 when he moved to his new farm and home, Tusculum. Photo taken by John Vinci.
   He made great alterations in every department of instruction. "He endeavored," says the same writer, " to establish the system of education in this institution, upon the most extensive and respectable basis, that its situation and its finances would admit. Formerly, the course of instruction had been too superficial: and its metaphysics and philosophy were too much tinctured with the dry and uninstructive forms of the schools. This, however, was by no means to be imputed as a defect to those great and excellent men who had presided over the institution before him, but rather to the recent origin of the country, the imperfection of its state of society, and to the state of literature in it. Since his presidency, mathematical science has received an extension that was not known before in the American seminaries. He introduced into philosophy all the most liberal and modern improvements of Europe. He extended the philosophical course to embrace the general principles of policy and public law; he incorporate with it sound and rational metaphysics, equally remote from the doctrines of fatality and contingency, from the barrenness and dogmatism of the schools, and from the excessive refinements of those contradictory, but equally impious sects of skepticism, who wholly deny the existence of matter, or maintain that nothing but matter exists in the universe.
   "He laid the foundation of a course of history in the college, and the principles of taste, and the rules of good writing, were both happily explained by him, and exemplified in his manner." He possessed an admirable faculty for governing, and was very successful in exciting a good degree of emulation among the pupils committed to his care. Under his auspices, many were graduated, who became distinguished for their learning, and for the eminent services which they rendered their countrymen as divines, as legislators, and patriots.

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Last modified December 31, 2003