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The Forgotten Founder

Roger Kimball

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John Witherspoon was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.

"He is as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America."--John Adams on John Witherspoon, 1774 Who is the most unfairly neglected American Founding Father? You might think that none can be unfairly neglected, so many books about that distinguished coterie have been published lately. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington--whom have I left out? It has been a literary festival of Founders these last few years, and a good thing, too. But there is one figure, I believe, who has yet to get his due, and that is John Witherspoon (1723--1794). This Scotch Presbyterian divine came to America to preside over a distressed college in Princeton, New Jersey, and wound up transmitting to the colonies critical principles of the Scottish Enlightenment and helped to preside over the birth and consolidation of American independence.

Jeffry Morrison's brief, excellent new book, "John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic," both testifies to and partly redresses the neglect Witherspoon has suffered. Modern scholars, Morrison points out, "have not made much out of Witherspoon one way or another." For example, a standard text called "The Forgotten Leaders of the American Revolution" (1955) omits Witherspoon entirely. But during his lifetime Witherspoon enjoyed a very high reputation not only as a clergyman but also as a public intellectual and man of affairs. He commanded immense prestige both in his native Scotland and, even more, in America. Benjamin Rush spoke for many when, a few years after Witherspoon died, he eulogized him as "a man of great and luminous mind" and predicted that "his work will probably preserve his name to the end of time." He radiated what his contemporaries called "presence": a personal dignity and charisma that transcended ideological differences and commanded respect. The contemporary record is full of encomia and tokens of deference. John Adams was notoriously stingy with praise (Hamilton he called "the bastard son of a Scotch pedlar," Washington "old mutton-head"), but Witherspoon emerged in his estimation "an animated son of Liberty." Jefferson was always going on about the "irritable tribe of priests" and castigated Presbyterians as "the loudest most intolerant of sects," but he was cordiality itself when it came to the great Dr. Witherspoon. The fact that today his work goes unread and the name "Witherspoon" is more broadly associated with his direct descendant, the actress Reese Witherspoon, tells us something about the fragility of fame. No wonder Morrison calls his first chapter "Forgotten Founder."

In part, Morrison observes, the eclipse of Witherspoon's reputation was due to such accidents as a fire that destroyed his library and correspondence: having less to work with, posterity tends to work less. But John Witherspoon was a formidable intellectual and political leader whose role in the affairs of colonial and early republican America deserves wider recognition. He was, as one modern scholar puts it, "Quite possibly the most influential religious and educational leader in Revolutionary America." In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, his imprint was everywhere, from small things to large. It was Witherspoon, for example, who is thought to have introduced the Latin term "campus" to describe the grounds of a college. In one of his essays on language, he coined the term "Americanism." According to Thomas Miller, who edited an edition of Witherspoon's selected works in 1990, his "Lectures on Eloquence" count as the first treatise on rhetoric in America. More to the point, Witherspoon's "Lectures on Moral Philosophy" introduced a generation of Princetonians to some leading Enlightenment themes, refracted through the prism of Calvinist anthropology.

Read the entire article on the Wall Street Opinion Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 10-Jul-06

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