The John Witherspoon statue near East Pyne
Brett Tomlinson/PAW
What came before chapter one?

“It is noteworthy how often God-fearing men have been forward in those revolutions which have vindicated rights, and how seldom in those which have wrought a work of destruction. There was a spirit of practical piety in the revolutionary doctrines which Dr. Witherspoon taught. ... Revolution was not to be distinguished from duty in Princeton.”

— Woodrow Wilson 1879, Princeton in the Nation’s Service, 1896

Following up on the June column about the notable number of major anniversaries Princeton is seeing this year, I spent some quality summer time honoring a different milestone — one that, in the media world, is about as major as they come: It is, almost unbelievably, the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. As important a single piece of art as any created in the 20th century — I would place it next to Joyce’s Ulysses or Picasso’s Guernica in relevance — it not only advanced its art form by many years, but used it to introduce ideas and ambiguities that its mass audience was almost certain not fully to grasp. Standing on a pedestal with Citizen Kane that towers over the visual influence of any other commercial film made in the sound era, 2001 contains less than 40  minutes of dialogue in 164 minutes of running time. Director William Friedkin, no creative slacker himself, called it the essential movie, ever.

Some of that, and the focus of our discussion here, is not just 2001’s breathtaking visual experience but the rich layers beneath it, including a contemplation of evolution and humanity’s place in the firmament. One of the great wonders of all the ideas concocted by Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke is that they actually bracket all of mankind: They travel from the first of the spooky black monoliths during prehistory all the way to the advent of HAL 9000 and a clear image of our impending obsolescence in the computer age. Recall, as HAL readily does, that all failings can only be attributable to human error.

Is there a monolith in Princeton’s prehistory? Something from outside that nudged us into a path of civilization, onto a unique course of endeavor? Or are we the collective examples of that great American shibboleth, the Self-Made Man? At least it’s possible to narrow the focus of the question to a particular point in time, as did renowned history professor Wilson in his Sesquicentennial address (above), and focus on the coincident beginnings of the United States and the ascendance of Princeton College.

And so we turn to August 1768, now a full quarter millennium ago, and the arrival to general huzzahs of the Scottish divine, John Knox Witherspoon, as president of the College of New Jersey.

There were a whole batch of things on Witherspoon’s résumé that spoke to possible salvation for the College, which had just seen the death of the fifth president in its 20-year history. The trustees’ strategy (apart from finding somebody who wouldn’t immediately expire) involved solidifying, and hopefully extinguishing, the nagging (but decreasing) animus between Presbyterian New Lights, who had begun the college in Great Awakening response, and the traditionalist Old Sides, to whom they had been vigorously responding. Witherspoon was a dream come true, having been above the fray an ocean away at the time of the discord, and being from the esteemed Scottish university tradition that was beyond challenge over here. He was, despite being a recognized intellectual, a champion of the Church against any and all comers. An observer when the Jacobites won the Battle of Falkirk in 1746, he was swept up and imprisoned briefly for his staunch support of the Protestant cause. And his reading of the Scottish Enlightenment, and its stars Locke, Hutcheson, Smith, and Hume, was critical of any secularization they implied, as he memorably displayed in his Ecclesiastical Characteristics in 1753. In biting satire it asserted the importance of a strong, active personal faith to the problems of the present day, over and above the belief in the inherent logic and reason, indeed the benign nature of the universe; it also cemented his global reputation as a religious philosopher, with a resulting honorary doctorate of divinity from St. Andrews.

On the death of president Samuel Finley in 1766, the New Light college trustees, facing a putsch by well-heeled Old Sides from Philadelphia who were literally waiting in the Nassau Hall lobby, elected Witherspoon sight unseen to essentially take over the leadership of American Presbyterianism. But prestigious life in Paisley was good, and he had already refused attractive offers from Dublin and Rotterdam; then there was the small issue of his wife, Elizabeth. Having already lost five of her 10 children, and having glimpsed the mortality data for Princeton presidents, she opined that she wished not to become an adrift widow with five children in the outback of the Empire. The suave Princeton townie Richard Stockton 1748 was unable to convince her, and Witherspoon politely turned the offer down.

Scrambling as fast as they could, the trustees came up with mediocre options including compromise faculty members and board seats for the Old Sides, but also dispatched Benjamin Rush 1760, studying medicine at Edinburgh himself and an eager 21-year-old, to, let’s say, express the fresh ardor of youth to the Witherspoons. It worked; Elizabeth agreed to go to New Jersey, John agreed to the presidency if it were reoffered, and the trustees ebulliently were delivered from a stark future with a revolutionary student body, a split faculty, and a 26-year old president. It was to be supplanted as if by Providence with order, intellect, prestige (i.e. donations), and religious harmony. What could possibly go wrong?

Well for starters, nine years later Nassau Hall had replaced canon fire with cannon fire, and British troops were trying to arrest Witherspoon and his fellow Members of Congress. The religious leader the College recruited had come packaged as a powerful secular revolutionary. Back in Scotland, the Enlightenment’s Robby Burns would put it best in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

And this brings us back to Clarke and Kubrick and the concept of the monolith. Despite all expectations, the transforming driver of the College turned out to be the Scottish Enlightenment that Witherspoon had lampooned so brilliantly 15 years before, upon which his intellectual credentials rested. He in fact had far more in common than difference with its view of humanity, especially regarding the importance of the individual human mind and the need for personal responsibility. This led by extension to strong emphasis on education and the power of reason, and its flip side, the rejection of authority that did not stem from the force of reason, but was enforced arbitrarily from without. And bingo, you’ve just described both the prior Great Awakening and the coming American Revolution in structural terms. The fact that Witherspoon regarded religious piety as a necessary component to individual responsibility isn’t a deal-breaker at all; the truth about Hutcheson and Hume, for example, is that as long as religion doesn’t get in the way of individual accountability, rationality, and common sense, they didn’t much care. You could see it in Witherspoon’s curriculum, which long before it was common emphasized serious modern language, math, and science teaching, to include the showy purchase of the Rittenhouse Orrery. You could see it in his broadsides, including Thoughts on American Liberty from early 1774 (at which point he had been here for only five years), and in the end you could see it in detail from his groundbreaking sermon of May 17, 1776, also then published as a broadside, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men. This was his first foray into politics from the pulpit.

After a painstaking review of historical secular strife and the importance of Godliness to those who prevailed, he declares the American revolutionary stance as the cause of justice, and “that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity depend on the issue.” Since religious freedom — crucially, the freedom of each reasoning individual — was dependent entirely on civil liberty, and because of the impingement of the British on the Colonies (including most especially in his mind the hated Anglican church), the struggle was necessary. But it was not in itself a religious struggle: In my favorite passage, he declares that “I do not wish you to oppose anybody’s religion, but everybody’s wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer marks of the reality of religion, than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own.”

How much of this translated directly or indirectly to the Declaration of Independence (Witherspoon memorably noted the country “was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it”) and the Constitution through him and his students is impossible to say, but their consistency with these ideas of his is remarkable to be sure. They may indeed still serve as the second generation of monoliths, silently ready to serve as our guideposts whenever triggered.

What Witherspoon and his Enlightenment forebears teach us is that facing the challenge to find the third monolith (out by Jupiter in Kubrick’s universe, you may recall) is our own continuing responsibility, with or without God’s support, but most crucially through the search for individual truth and responsibility at places such as Princeton.