John Witherspoon was born in 1723 to a Scottish family that strongly believed in the virtues fostered by religion. Witherspoon began attending the University of Edinburgh at age fourteen. After completion of his studies in 1743, Witherspoon was ordained and started his ministry at Beith, Scotland. He went to the New World in 1768, prompted by an offer to head the College of New Jersey (Princeton). As the president of Princeton, Witherspoon’s performance was extraordinary. According to Ralph L. Ketcham, “under his leadership, Princeton was a hotbed of revolutionary patriotism, and produced one president, ten u.s. senators, nine governors, and nine members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in addition to the usual steady stream of clergymen and business leaders.” Witherspoon took an active role in the formation of civic institutions for the new nation: He was a member of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and was a delegate to New Jersey’s 1787 ratification convention for the u.s. Constitution.
For Witherspoon, religious faith was essential in fostering true liberty, and liberty was concomitant to religious freedom, and his teaching spurred a generation of Americans to seek and establish freedom before and after the Revolution. He was a staunch proponent of limited government and federalism, thinking that checks and balances and the self-interest of factions could stymie centralization of the federal government. This belief in limited government was made manifest in his support of the Constitution. Further, Witherspoon contended that a righteous people will have little need for a positivistic government when he wrote, “Love to God, and love to man, is the substance of religion; when these prevail, civil laws will have little to do.” Witherspoon said that the role of government “may be all summed up in protection, that is to say, those who have surrendered part of their natural rights expect the strength of the public arm to defend and improve what remains... The only reward that a state can be supposed to bestow upon good subjects in general is protection and defense.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: after Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741–1827 Unidentified American artist (Princeton University Art Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-US