I wish the PAW On the Campus piece on the petition to remove the Witherspoon statue had included comment from an advocate for honoring Witherspoon. One of the University Trustees who approved the 2001 installation of the statue, such as Robert Murley ’72, could have been an aptly informed source.
The statement the PAW quoted by the petition's proponents that Witherspoon “used his scholarly gifts to defend the practice [of slavery]” is contradicted by Witherspoon’s lecturing at Princeton against slavery. To imply Witherspoon advocated the furtherance of slavery places him in a false light. Similarly, our judgment on his decision not to attempt the immediate legislative end to slavery in New Jersey should be tempered by Witherspoon’s belief that the practice of slavery was already proceeding to end. According to Wikipedia, Eli Whitney (Yale Class of 1792) didn’t invent the cotton gin until 1793, the year before Witherspoon’s death. Whitney himself believed his invention would largely eliminate the need for slave labor to remove seeds from cotton. Instead, it came to revolutionize the cotton industry in the Southern United States, and vastly increased the number of slaves used to grow and pick cotton.
Witherspoon’s writing and teaching in opposition to slavery had influence beyond New Jersey. According to Kevin DeYoung, author of The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon, this culminated in the 1818 declaration by the Presbyterian Church for the abolition of slavery. And even well after his death Witherspoon was admired by Great Britain’s foremost anti-slavery advocate, William Wilberforce. The latter’s moral authority moved Britain to outlaw slavery there and — through the sacrifice of its blood and treasure — to eradicate the whole of the Atlantic slave trade.
Witherspoon helped lead Princeton and our nation away from the practice of slavery. Witherspoon did not get us all the way into the promised land of freedom, equality, and justice for all. But without him we might well never have progressed so far. For this Witherspoon deserves our honor as a University and a nation.