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John Witherspoon (1723 - 1794)

A Scot who helped to shape America as a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

John Witherspoon

Born in 1723 in Gifford, East Lothian, John Knox Witherspoon was the eldest son of Reverend James Alexander Witherspoon and Anne Walker.

Pursuing his interest in Divinity, he studied for a Master of Arts at the University of Edinburgh, and then gained a doctorate at St. Andrews, before joining the Presbyterian Church.

It was during his first charge as a minister in Beith, Ayrshire, that Witherspoon met and married his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery and they later moved to Paisley, where they stayed until an unexpected proposition arose.

College of New Jersey

Following the death of its fifth president, the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University) elected Witherspoon as their new president in 1767, having learnt of his strong reputation through his writings.

After some consideration, Witherspoon travelled to America with his wife and their five children, along with 300 books for the college library. Arriving in August 1768, Witherspoon went on to reform the college by increasing the student population and widening the curriculum to include subject such as French, Civil Government, and International Law.

Under his leadership, the college became a centre of debate around religious freedom in America. Witherspoon also played an active role in raising funds for the college, even persuading George Washington to donate 50 gold guineas.

American independence

Witherspoon was a strong supporter of America and American independence. He signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, being the only clergyman and college president to do so. He also made a mark in politics, serving as a member of the Continental Congress from 1776 until 1782.

John Witherspoon remained president of the College of New Jersey until his death in November 1794 and was buried in Princeton Cemetery.

Declaration of Independence

Remembering Witherspoon

To mark the new millennium, the University of Edinburgh placed a plaque in Witherspoon's name at the main entrance of the north façade of New College.

But his legacy of advancing education continues to today with the recent establishment of the John Witherspoon Masters Scholarships.

Worth £20,000 each, these are available for students from the USA to study a postgraduate Master’s degree in any field for the 2015 - 2016 academic year.