Why did founding father John Witherspoon voluntarily help Black people by tutoring them and offering religious services while owning slaves and declining to advocate for immediate abolition?
Historical documents have not given clear answers to that question or many others raised in a four-and-a-half-hour academic panel on April 21, organized by Princeton’s Committee on Naming. The committee is examining Witherspoon’s life and his stance on slavery as it considers a proposal to replace or remove a campus statue of Princeton’s sixth president.
Seven scholars, ranging from Princeton faculty to members of theological seminaries, presented different aspects of Witherspoon’s life and the period in which he lived. The panelists answered questions from an audience that grew to about 40 people. Angela Creager, interim chair of the Committee on Naming and chair and a professor of history at Princeton, moderated the discussion and said there will also be a panel on statues, memory, and commemoration this fall.
Witherspoon, who served as Princeton’s president from 1768 until his death in 1794, is the only clergyman and college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. He also signed the Articles of Confederation and was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
In 2001, a statue of him created by Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart was installed in front of East Pyne Hall. The naming committee held a series of listening sessions about the statue last fall after five members of Princeton’s philosophy department started a petition — which was eventually signed by 285 University community members — to replace the statue, as they felt it “pays great honor … to someone who participated actively in the enslavement of human beings, and used his scholarly gifts to defend the practice.”
The Rev. Kevin DeYoung, who wrote his dissertation on Witherspoon and is now an associate professor at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, presented new evidence that Witherspoon may have received one or two slaves as part of his second marriage in 1791, and that until his death three years later, they were likely “treated as free Blacks in their own household, and at most, were to be kept in some type of servitude until age 28.”
Though DeYoung cautioned his conclusion is just a theory, he pointed to the discrepancy between Witherspoon’s will and the tax ratables for the year of his death, which both indicate that he had no slaves, and an appraisal of his property, which listed two slaves worth 200 pounds each “until they are 28 years of age.” That’s the same age that children of slaves in Pennsylvania were to be freed per the Gradual Abolition Act, which passed in 1780; Ann Dill, Witherspoon’s second wife, was from Pennsylvania.
Tax records also show Witherspoon owned slaves during part of the 1780s, though the documents are incomplete and it’s not clear how he came to own those slaves — if he bought them or if they came with his then-new 500-acre estate, for example.
“There’s no record that he dealt in the buying and selling of slaves,” DeYoung said, or that Witherspoon “treated his slaves poorly.”
After DeYoung’s remarks, Emmanuel Bourbouhakis, an associate professor of classics at Princeton, spoke about how Witherspoon made the study of rhetoric a focus of the University’s curriculum, which helped cement Princeton as a leading school and incubator of talent. He referred to the statue as “a historical and moral mirror — a reminder of the sometimes troubling source of the esteem and privileges we are nevertheless all too happy to exploit for our own careers and social position.”
Next, Lesa Redmond ’17, who completed her senior thesis on the Witherspoon family’s ties to slavery in the United States and wrote his entry for the Princeton & Slavery Project, cited incomplete records as part of the reason we have so many questions about Witherspoon, such as the nature of the education he voluntarily gave to several Black people.
“John Witherspoon had a host of choices available to him … and we don’t really have a lot to lead us to a statement on why he made these choices,” said Redmond, who is now a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. She urged that historians give Witherspoon the benefit of the doubt on the subject based on the meager documentation available.
Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, pointed to a May 1790 report Witherspoon co-authored as a member of the New Jersey Legislature that for the first time declared that a law abolishing slavery would be valid, though the committee declined to act at the time as they felt the practice of slavery was naturally dying out. “Witherspoon was on the anti-slavery side. He declared slavery unjustifiable,” said Wilentz.
Tera Hunter, a professor of history and of African American studies at Princeton, provided background about slavery during the period of Witherspoon’s life and reminded the audience to “consider the victims” who were subject to violence, cultural authority, and psychological tactics. “A key question that I would pose is that we ask ourselves, to what extent do we value the perspectives, the voices, of African Americans?”
“He was both a great man of conviction and courage, and a hypocrite and self-interested,” said Mikoski. “In short, it’s complicated. Witherspoon is complicated.”
Mikoski finished his remarks with a comment that as a Presbyterian, Witherspoon, as well as any other “self-respecting clergyperson” would not support the statue, as it breaks the second commandment, earning a chuckle from the audience.
“The University has a trust within its community and the public at large on something like this to get it right,” said Bill Hewitt ’74, who handed out printed copies of his own Witherspoon article recently published by The Tory and a Princetonians for Free Speech editorial challenging the Princeton & Slavery Project’s Witherspoon essay at the event. “This is good advocacy back and forth, and we sharpened one another, and others will be the judge.”
The Committee on Naming, a standing committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC), provides advice on naming and iconography to the Board of Trustees. Creager told PAW that a recommendation could be made by next spring but was reluctant to set a timetable because she will be leaving her committee role in July. The ultimate decision will be made by the trustees.
“This is an opportunity for us to show what we do at Princeton, to engage knowledge in addressing difficult questions, and that’s going to be a slow process,” Creager said at the May meeting of the CPUC.
Examining Witherspoon’s Legacy
PAW spoke with Angela Creager, interim chair of the University’s Committee on Naming, about the Witherspoon statue petition. Below are condensed excerpts from that conversation.
About the process
“After we decided to take up the petition, we held listening sessions, and we found genuine divergence of opinion about the statue and the legacy of John Witherspoon. We then decided to set up two panels of scholarly experts: the first to take up historical specifics about Witherspoon, and the second to address the genre of statues and commemoration.
Principles for iconography
“The guidelines [approved by the trustees in 2021] focus on historical situation — whether someone was typical of their time or not — but there are also considerations about how the person’s legacy relates to the mission of the University. There is also a sensitivity that iconography can convey expectations and values about the institution that do not reflect what Princeton is and aspires to be, so that’s why the committee needs to think about what the statue does and doesn’t do to articulate and inspire the ideals of inclusivity that are very much a part of our community.”
On history’s ambiguity
“The history is complex — it’s really complex. People are going to have different interpretations, and that’s the way good history operates. That’s not a failing, that’s scholarship. People end up in really different places with respect to evaluating Witherspoon’s legacy, because the history itself is really complicated, making it hard to support an easy judgment. I think a lot of history is like that. We shouldn’t expect history to provide figures we can either celebrate or condemn without qualification. This is an interesting test case for thinking about how ambiguous history actually is and how complicated people are.”