John Witherspoon's Role in the Revolutionary War

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the role John Witherspoon played in the Revolutionary War. We will learn about his life, highlight his accomplishments, and understand why he was an important figure in the American Revolution.

Who Was John Witherspoon?

George Washington. John Adams. Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin. John Witherspoon. Which of these doesn't belong? Actually, they all belong. You may not have heard of John Witherspoon, but he was one of America's 'Founding Fathers,' along with the likes of Washington and Jefferson. John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was a Presbyterian minister and a college president. He was also one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. As clergy, Witherspoon exerted a strong influence on the hearts and minds of the Revolutionary generation. A leading Patriot, he helped shape America's moral and national character.

John Witherspoon.
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Early Life and College President

John Witherspoon was born in Scotland in 1723. His father had been a minister. He studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh, before becoming a minister himself with the Church of Scotland, a Protestant and Presbyterian denomination. In 1768, he was asked to serve as the head of a small Presbyterian college in New Jersey. At the time, the college was known as the College of New Jersey, but today we know it better with its changed name: Princeton University.

A section of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) as it would have looked in Witherspoon
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Witherspoon found the college in poor financial shape, and he was instrumental in transforming the school into a robust center of higher learning, not only for clergy but for students of many disciplines. In addition to serving as president, Witherspoon taught classes, and he proved to be a popular and influential instructor. A man of tremendous intellect, Witherspoon was a leading proponent of what has come to be known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. This school of thought stresses man's innate capacity to understand common sense themes, and holds that this ability is the foundation for philosophy.

Witherspoon During the Revolutionary War

We have to understand that in the context of the late Colonial Era, one's religious view was often tied to a specific political view. For example, today many Evangelical Christians tend to be politically conservative. During the time of the American Revolution, many who belonged to the Church of England tended to be conservative and were against the revolution, while those who were Presbyterian tended to hold to Whig ideology, or in other words, were basically anti-tyranny and pro-revolution. Now there were certainly exceptions, but in general, this was true. Like many other Presbyterians, Witherspoon held to Patriot ideals.

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