Scholars Debate John Witherspoon’s Contradictions on Slavery

May 15, 2023

‘In short, it’s complicated. Witherspoon is complicated,’ said Rev. Gordon Mikoski.

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Historical documents have not given clear answers to that question or many others raised in a four-and-a-half-hour academic panel on April 21, organized by Princeton’s Committee on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 panel included three History professors: Tera Hunter, Sean Wilentz, and Peter Wirzbicki.