John Knox Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Author of a Colonial Blockbuster

John Knox Witherspoon was a Scottish-born clergyman, who signed the Declaration of Independence. In fact, he was the only clergyman to do so. He was born 5 February 1722 or 1723 (depending on whether one is looking at the Julian or Gregorian calendar). 

“His father, James, was the minister of Yester Parish. He served on committees in the General Assembly and was the royal chaplain to the Lord High Commissioner. Anna [his mother] came from a long line of clergymen that extended back to John Knox. She had six children. One of her sons was lost in the West Indies. She had a grandchild who was the tutor to Sir Walter Scott.

“Anna was John’s first teacher. She taught him to read and by the age of four, he could read from the Bible and would eventually be able to recite most of the New Testament. When John was 13 years old, based on his studies in English, the classics and mathematics, Latin Greek and French, he was sent off to university at Edinburgh where he enrolled 1 November 1735. In the next three years, he completed the four year’s work for a Master of Arts degree (there is no record of a Bachelor’s degree) and toward the end of 1738 he petitioned to publish his thesis. Just after his sixteenth birthday, February, 1739, he was awarded his Master of Arts with a thesis, in Latin, De Mentis Immortalitate, signed Johannes Wederspan (It was common practice at this time to use your Latinized name on academic documents). By the time he was 20, John had obtained his Doctor of Theology and a license to preach. He received his first parish, Beith, 11 April 1745. He married Elizabeth Montgomery, 2 September 1748. Elizabeth bore 9 children, 5 of whom survived to adulthood and made the journey to North America. An excellent video of this period of John’s life is available for preview or purchase at Young Witherspoon.

“John was recruited by the trustees of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Princeton, NJ to become the President of the College after the death of Dr. Samuel Finley, its fifth president. Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton (later Signers of the Declaration of Independence) among others were sent to Scotland to recruit John for the position. Many of the letters between John and the various Princeton principals are contained in the **Butterfield book referenced at the end of this (paragraph). [**Butterfield, L. H., John Witherspoon Comes to America, (Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey, 1953]

John Witherspoon was the only Declaration signer to be a college ...

John Witherspoon was the only Declaration signer to be a college …

“On 18 May 1768, John and his family sailed for Philadelphia on the brigantine Peggy, which arrived in August. The College of New Jersey bloomed under his direction. He grew the endowment fund, instituted curricular changes, and patched up a major schism in the Presbyterian church. By 1770 the College students were openly advocating in favor of the patriot cause. John, in a commencement address advocated resistance to the Crown. In 1774-1775 he represented his county in the New Jersey provincial assembly, successfully agitated for the removal and imprisonment of the Royal Governor and received an appointment to the Continental Congress. On July 2, 1776, in response to a delegate who opposed ratification of the Declaration by saying ‘we are not ripe for revolution,’ John replied, ‘Not ripe sir, we are not only ripe for the measure but in danger of rotting for the want of it.’ In 1776, when the war entered into New Jersey territory, he closed the College of New Jersey. The British occupied the College, burned its library and in general left things a mess. Many of John’s papers were burned or destroyed at this time. The next year, James, one of John’s sons, lost his life at the Battle of Germantown, PA.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

Colonial Hall provides us with an unusual tidbit regarding Witherspoon’s life. “Immediately on leaving the university, he was invited to become the minister of Yester, as colleague with his father, with the right of succeeding to the charge. He chose, rather, however, to accept an invitation from the parish of Beith, in the west of Scotland, and here he was ordained and settled, by the unanimous consent of his congregation.

“Soon after his settlement at Beith, a circumstance occurred of too interesting a nature to be omitted. On the 17th of January, 1746, was fought the battle of Falkirk. Of this battle, Dr. Witherspoon and several others were spectators. Unfortunately, they were taken prisoners by the rebels, and shut up in close confinement in the castle of Doune. In the same room in which he was confined, were two cells, in one of which were five members of a military company from Edinburgh, who had also been taken prisoners, and two citizens of Aberdeen, who had been threatened to be hanged as spies. In the other cell were several others who had been made prisoners, under circumstances similar to those of Dr. Witherspoon.

“During the night which followed their imprisonment, the thoughts of the prisoners, who were able to communicate with one another, were turned on the best means of making their escape. The room where they were confined was the highest part of the castle, not far from the battlements. which were seventy feet high. It was proposed to form a rope of some blankets which they had purchased, and by means of this to descend from the battlements to the ground.

A rope was accordingly made, in the best manner they were able, and about one o’clock in the morning they commenced descending upon it. Four reached the ground in safety. Just as the fifth touched the ground the rope broke, about twenty feet above. This unfortunate occurrence was communicated to those who remained on the battlements, and warning was given to them not to attempt the hazardous descent. In disregard, however, of the advice, the next one whose turn it was to descend, immediately went down the rope. On reaching the end of it, his companions below perceiving him determined to let go his hold, put themselves in a posture to break his fall. They succeeded, however, only in part. The poor fellow was seriously injured, having one of his ankles dislocated, and several ribs broken. His companions, however, succeeded in conveying him to a village on the borders of the sea, whence he was taken, by means of a boat, to a sloop of war lying in the harbor.

“The other volunteer, and Dr. Witherspoon, were left behind. The volunteer now drew the rope up, and to the end of it attached several blankets. Having made it sufficiently long, be again let it down and began his descent. He reached the place where the rope was originally broken, in safety ; but the blankets, which he had attached to it, being too large for him to span, like his predecessor, he fell, and was so much wounded, that be afterwards died. The fate of these unhappy men induced Dr. Witherspoon to relinquish the hope of escape in this way, and to wait for a safer mode of liberation.”

From and “The Religious Affiliation of John Witherspoon,” we learn, “Witherspoon stayed in Congress until 1782. His main committee assignments dealt with military and foreign affairs. He also participated in the debates on the Articles of Confederation, aided in setting up the executive departments, and argued for financial stability. Meantime, in 1779, he had moved from the President’s House at Princeton to Tusculum, a country home he had earlier built nearby. He left the Rev. Samuel S. Smith, his son-in-law and the college vice president, in charge of the nearly defunct institution.

“Witherspoon devoted most of his effort during the postwar years to rebuilding the college, which never fully recovered its prewar prosperity during his lifetime. In addition, during the years 1783-89 he sat for two terms in the State legislature, attended the New Jersey (1787) convention that ratified the Federal Constitution, participated in the reorganization of the Presbyterian Church, and moderated its first general assembly (1789). In 1791, at the age of 68, Witherspoon took a second wife, a 24-year-old widow, who bore him two daughters. Blind his last 2 years, he died in 1794, aged 71, at Tusculum. His remains rest in the Presidents’ Lot at Princeton Cemetery.” (Adherents)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in America, American History, British history, Declaration of Independence, real life tales and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to John Knox Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Author of a Colonial Blockbuster

  1. Superb read! I didn’t know he went to Edinburgh University. Will keep an eye out for any future bogs.

    Thanks, Ross K

  2. How many of these men were actually born in the British Isles, Regina? There seems to be quite a few. One can understand a Scot joining forces with the rebs 😀 Hang drawing and quartering too good for the likes of them 🙄 😀 😉

    • While the majority of the members of the Second Continental Congress were native-born Americans, eight of the men voting for independence from Britain were born there. Gwinnett Button and Robert Morris were born in England, Francis Lewis was born in Wales, James Wilson and John Witherspoon were born in Scotland, George Taylor and Matthew Thornton were born in Ireland and James Smith hailed from Northern Ireland.

Comments are closed.