Kudos to both the PAW and The Princeton Tory for their timely and informative coverage on this important issue for the Princeton community. Earlier I found the Committee on Naming’s April symposium “John Witherspoon in Historical Context” an example of Princeton at its best. In regrettable contrast, the November Witherspoon statue symposium fell far below the standard achieved by its predecessor. I offer four points.
First, foremost among the November symposium’s shortcomings is that those presenters calling for the removal (or worse) of the Witherspoon statue displayed essentially no awareness of Witherspoon’s relation to slavery, other than his having owned two slaves. Hence, their recommendations stand on faulty foundation. These presenters were ignorant of — or omitted from their remarks — profound achievements by Witherspoon on slavery for which all Princetonians can take pride.
These vital accomplishments by Witherspoon (elaborated in the presentations by the Rev. Kevin DeYoung and Professor Sean Wilentz at the April symposium, and publicly available on video) include: (1) Witherspoon lectured against slavery at Princeton. (2) As a New Jersey legislator, Witherspoon worked against pro-slavery advocates and established the principle that the state had the right to abolish slavery. (3) As a national Presbyterian leader, Witherspoon achieved the adoption of a resolution promoting emancipation and calling for the gradual abolition of slavery. (4) Based on archival tax records, Witherspoon appears to have arranged for the emancipation of his own two slaves.
Second, in fairness to all the symposium presenters, their understandings of Witherspoon on slavery are likely skewed by the University-sponsored website of the Princeton & Slavery Project, in particular its “John Witherspoon” essay. I wrote “On Witherspoon, Eisgruber Flunks His Own Test” to highlight the project’s grossly misleading depiction of Witherspoon — and the University’s ongoing failures to stop these wrongs committed on University websites. These falsehoods about Witherspoon have sown needless anguish and dissension among the Princeton community over the statue honoring him.
These damaging depictions and the ongoing failures to correct them caused me recently to file with the University’s Judicial Committee a 39-page complaint against President Eisgruber and the Princeton & Slavery Project. Among the measures sought by this complaint are that the University administration be prohibited from changing the location or other presentation of the Witherspoon statue. I also ask that the Committee on Naming not make its recommendation concerning the statue until the full completion of the complaint proceedings.
I filed this complaint on Oct. 31. I believe it satisfies the “formal statement of the charges” called for such complaints by Section 126.96.36.199 of the University’s Rights, Rules, Responsibilities and that the complaint provides a clear statement establishing the Judicial Committee’s jurisdiction for the matter. Quite remarkably the committee appears not yet to have proceeded with the steps set forth for the complaint’s resolution. This case now before the committee marks the foremost effort to require the Princeton & Slavery Project and the University administration to answer publicly for their alleged misdeeds on Witherspoon. Please follow developments at https://tigerroars.substack.com.
Third, once videos of the November symposium are posted on the Committee on Naming’s Witherspoon statue webpage, interested persons can view the presentations and judge for themselves. I hope these postings include the presentations’ Q&A discussions, following the salutary practices by the November 17, 2017, Princeton & Slavery Symposium and the October 5, 2019, interview of Princeton & Slavery Project Director Martha Sandweiss. Despite my repeated requests, video of the Q&As for the April symposium remain withheld from the public. This badly serves the University community in its understanding of the historical John Witherspoon and the Witherspoon statue debate.
In particular, I distinctly recall from my attendance of the April symposium a statement by presenter Emmanuel Bourbouhakis, associate professor in Princeton’s Department of Classics. Professor Bourbouhakis forthrightly stated during Q&A that any removal of the Witherspoon statue from its original location would constitute a damnatio memoriae of Witherspoon.
I renew my earlier calls that all the Q&A videos be made public. I see no acceptable reason why the public should have to rely upon my memory as to Professor Bourbouhakis’ remarks that the removal of Witherspoon’s statue would constitute a condemnation of John Witherspoon.
Last, in 1999 Princeton’s then-President and Trustees decided to honor John Witherspoon with the statue that has stood on Firestone Plaza since 2001. May their successors never undermine this decision so to honor Witherspoon — nor alter his statue.