Published online Jan. 4, 2018
President Eisgruber ’83 refers in passing (President’s Page, Nov. 8) to his predecessor John Witherspoon, James Madison 1771 (Witherspoon’s prize pupil), and Nassau Hall.
I’m not sure that all Princetonians recognize that Witherspoon was a Scottish Presbyterian minister persuaded to leave his parish in Paisley, Scotland, to take up the presidency of the College of New Jersey in 1768. After the early deaths of the previous five presidents, it was Witherspoon alone who over the following 26 years transformed the struggling college into a major institution of American higher education. However, even fewer of us, I suspect, realize that Nassau Hall itself was largely built with Scottish money.
In 1753-54, the Presbyterian Synod of New York, desperate for funds to establish its new college, dispatched Gilbert Tennant and Samuel Davies (the College’s fourth president) to the U.K. in search of financial help. In Scotland they found success.
On May 31, 1754, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland resolved that “a general collection” should be made “at all the church-doors in Scotland” on behalf of the College of New Jersey. As a result, the very substantial sum of £3200 was raised, and that money largely paid for the building of Nassau Hall.
Some years ago at a reunion dinner in London, I raised the issue of the possible commemoration of Princeton’s Scottish heritage with President Tilghman — an idea with which she seemed to be sympathetic. Since then the statue of Witherspoon has appeared on campus, but nothing else has happened. I’d like to suggest that it would be entirely appropriate to celebrate Princeton’s Scottish origins by establishing an annual Witherspoon lecture or seminar — with an element of Scottish focus, however general, in its form.