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John Witherspoon
The Last Years


WITHERSPOON'S first public utterance after the attainment of peace was a sermon preached on the Thanksgiving Day appointed by the Congress. In keeping with his personal religious belief his text expressed his own feelings. "Salvation belongeth unto the Lord." "He who confesses that salvation belongeth unto God will finally give the glory to Him. Confidence before, and boasting after the event are alike contrary to this disposition. If any person desires to have his faith in this truth confirmed or improved, let him read the history of mankind in a cool and considerate manner, and with a serious frame of spirit. He will then perceive that every page will add to his conviction. He will find that the most important events have seemed to turn upon circumstances the most trivial and the most out of the reach of human direction. A blast of wind, a shower of rain, a random shot, a private quarrel, the neglect of a servant, a motion without intention, or a word spoken by accident and misunderstood has been the cause of a victory or defeat which has decided the fate of empires." He considers the interposition of Providence under three heads. 1. Signal successes or particular and providential favours to us in the course of the war. 2. Preservation from difficulties and evils which seemed to be in our situation unavoidable, and at the same time next to insurmountable. 3. Confounding the councils of our enemies and making them hasten on the change which they desired to prevent."

He speaks of the general unpreparedness of the country for war. "There was a willing spirit, but unarmed hands." To the militia who contributed so much to the success of the American arms he gives generous praise. Regarding Washington's leadership "as a favour from the God of heaven" he pays his tribute in these simple words. " Consider his coolness and prudence, his fortitude and perseverance, his happy talent of engaging the affection of all ranks, so that he is equally acceptable to the citizen, and to the soldier—to the state in which he was born and to every other on the continent. To be a brave man or skillful commander, is common to him with many others; but this country stood in need of a comprehensive and penetrating mind, which understood the effect of particular measures in bringing the general cause to an issue. When we contrast his char-acter and conduct with those of the various leaders that have been opposed to him, when we consider their attempts to blast each others' reputation, and the short duration of their command, we must say that Providence has fitted him for the charge and called him to the service."

The union and harmony of the several states, and of these with their allies is another proof. For the patience and devotion of the people he has nothing but praise. "It is true that Congress has, in many instances been obliged to have recourse to measures in themselves hard and oppressive and confessed to be so; which yet, have been patiently submitted to, because of the important purpose that was to be served by them. Of this kind was the emission of paper money; the passing of tender laws; compelling all into the militia; draughting the militia to fill the regular army; pressing provisions and carriages; and many others of the like nature. Two things are remarkable in this whole matter : one, that every imposition for the public service fell heaviest on those who were the friends of America; the lukewarm or contrary-minded always finding some way of shifting the load from their own shoulders. The other, that from the freedom of the press of this country there never were wanting, the boldest and most inflammatory publications, both against men and measures. Yet neither the one nor the other, nor both united, had any perceptible influence in weakening the attachment of the people." He speaks of the barbarity of the British both towards non-combatants and prisoners of war; of the splendid courage of the soldiers both under privation and in battle. The sermon is a fine summary of the elements of character which finally brought victory. As to the future he thinks that " a republic once equally poised must either preserve its virtue or lose its liberty." Public office demands high character. "Let a man's zeal, profession, or even principles as to political measures be what they will, if he is without personal integrity and private virtue, as a man he is not to be trusted." "Let us endeavour to bring into and keep in credit and reputation everything that may serve to give vigour to an equal republican constitution. Let us cherish a love of piety, order, industry, frugality. Let us check every disposition to luxury, effeminacy, and the pleasures of a dissipated life. Let us in public measures put honour upon modesty and self-denial, which is the index of real merit."

Early in the struggle he had said that the American Revolution "would be an important era in the history of mankind." "Happy was it for us," says Tyler, "that this dear-headed thinker, this expert in the art of popular ex-position, was in full sympathy with those deep human currents of patriotic thought and feeling which swept towards an independent national life in this land. Happy was it for us, also, that while he was capable beyond most men of seeing the historic and cosmopolitan significance of the movement for American independence, he had the moral greatness to risk even his own great favour with the American people by telling them that the acquisition of independence was not to be the end of their troubles, but rather in some sense the beginning of them; since greater perils than those brought in by Red Coats and Hessians were then to meet them, in the form of shallow and anarchical politics, corruption among voters, unscrupulous partisanship, new and hitherto unimagined forms of demagogism, and the boisterous incompetence of men entrusted with power in the regulation and guidance of the state." "I am much mistaken," said Witherspoon, "if the time is not just at hand when there shall be greater need than ever in America for the most accurate discussion of the principles of society, the rights of nations and the policy of states."

To that discussion he contributed one of the clearest, most forceful essays on the subject of finance that will be found in the literature of our country. In the Continental Congress he had lamented, where he could not prevent, the emission of paper currency, speaking against it frequently. To the sound financial measures of Robert Morris he gave his unstinted support. In the leisure of his retirement at Princeton after the war he gathered together his speeches made in Congress and issued them in the form of an " Essay on Money." Many of the states were carried away by the paper-money fever and were issuing it freely. He deprecates this. Carefully discussing the nature of money and the history of finance, he points out the dangers attending a depreciated currency. "It is," he says, "an absurdity reserved for American legislatures." "For two or three years we constantly saw and were informed," he humorously remarks, "of creditors running away from their debtors, and then pursuing them in triumph, and paying them without mercy."

"Tender laws, arming paper, or anything not valuable in itself with authority are directly contrary to the very first principles of commerce." "All paper money increases the price of industry and its fruits." "It annihilates credit."

Other subjects also claimed his attention. During the year 1781, Witherspoon employed his leisure in writing for a periodical, which I have not been able to identify, eight articles which he called "The Druid." In these he treated different subjects. In the first he de-fends the dignity of human nature against the habits of prejudice and slanderous statements. He appeals to the love of truth, to honour and to the nobler effects of justice. "The greatest strength of a people is in their virtues." "He who makes a people virtuous makes them invincible." The second paper pleads for as much gentleness and humanity as is possible in carrying on war. Wanton destruction of property, assaults on non-combatants, brutality towards prisoners should be discountenanced. His fourth article is a capital plea for the exercise of plain common sense in the affairs of life. It has touches of humour. He begs parents to make "a moderate estimation of the talents of their children." His concluding sentence is,

"Let all, therefore, who wish or hope to be eminent, remember, that as the height to which you can raise a tower depends upon the size and solidity of its base, so they ought to lay the foundation of their future fame deep and strong in sobriety, prudence and patient industry, which are the genuine dictates of Main common sense." The remaining numbers treated of polite speech under the heads of Americanisms, vulgarisms, cant phrases, etc., of which, he says, he has made a collection for several years. An interesting statement made by him is that " the vulgar in America speak much better than the vulgar in Great Britain," his reason being that the settlers have not lived long enough in isolated communities to acquire dialects. But he thinks, on the other hand, that while some British "gentlemen and scholars speak as much with the vulgar in common chit-chat, as persons of the same class do in America, there is a remarkable difference in their public and solemn discourses" in favour of Great Britain.

Unfortunately few of Witherspoon's letters have been preserved. He carried on a very active correspondence with his youngest son, David, while the young man was teaching school in Virginia. These letters show his solicitude for his son's welfare, especially his piety and attendance upon religious duties. They give news of the family and of public affairs. In order to encourage the boy in scholarly efforts his father writes sometimes in Latin, or in French, and requests his son to do so. But after David Witherspoon became secretary to the President of Congress, these letters ceased and I have not been able to find any of later date.

His relations with his eldest son, John, were not happy. For some reason not now discoverable, the young man took offense at his father and refused to hold any intercourse with him or to answer any letters. He died in South Carolina, leaving no family.

During the last ten years of his life Dr. Witherspoon continued to serve as the nominal president of Princeton, but the duties of that office were performed by his son-in-law, Rev. Samuel S. Smith, D. D., who became his immediate successor. As has already been related, Witherspoon resided on his farm, Tusculum, about a mile above Princeton. His interest in public affairs continued until the end of his life. When the Georgia legislature proposed to introduce a clause in its constitution excluding clergymen from public office, he wrote to one of the newspapers protesting against such a discrimination. His tone is serious, but he. could not avoid the sarcasm which he knew so well how to use. He wishes to know why a minister is disqualified and whether it is a sin to seek the office. "Does his calling render him stupid or ignorant?" He closes by suggesting the following paragraph as sufficiently covering the subject:

"No clergyman, of any denomination, shall be capable of being elected a member of the Senate or House of Representatives, because [here insert the grounds of offensive disqualification, which I have not been able to discover] provided always, and it is the true intent and meaning of this part of the constitution, that if at any time he shall be completely deprived of the clerical character by those by whom he was invested with it, as by deposition for cursing and swearing, drunkenness or uncleanness, he shall then be fully restored to all the privileges of a free citizen; his offense shall no more be remembered against him; but he may be chosen either to the Senate or House of Representatives, and shall be treated with all the respect due to his brethren, the other members of the Assembly."

Other literary work produced a series of Letters on Marriage and on Education, both collections full of pungent, practical suggestions on these topics.

So little did he anticipate the growth and future necessities of the government of the United States that he was opposed to the movement to select a Federal city for the permanent seat of government. In an article giving his views he resents criticism of the salaries paid congress-men. "I hope few persons will ever be in Congress, who, devoting their time to the public service, may not well deserve the compensation fixed for them for their character and talents." But he adds, "I should also be sorry to hear of any member of Congress who became rich by the savings above his expense. I know very well, that there have been congressmen and assemblymen too, who have carried home considerable sums from less wages; but they were such generally as did more good to their families by their penury than to their country by their political wisdom."

These remarks having been offered he states his objections to selecting any particular city or erecting buildings for the Federal government, because it is not necessary. In the light of subsequent history the good doctor's acrid criticisms are doubly amusing. "Does it," he asks, "appear necessary from the nature of things? No.

The weight and influence of any deliberative or legislative body, depend much more on the wisdom of their measures than on the splendid apartments in which they are assembled."

One remark is especially interesting in view of what has occurred since it was written. "If the American empire come to be one consolidated government, I grant it would be of some consequence that the seat of that government and source of authority should not be too distant from the extremities, for reasons which I need not here mention. But if the particular states are to be preserved and supported in their constitutional government, it seems of very little consequence where the Congress, consisting of representatives from these states, shall hold their sessions." So little did he, or anybody in his day, anticipate the centralization of power and expansion of territory which has placed America in the forefront of the nations. There were not wanting, however, men who foresaw the future greatness of the new nation. The Spanish ambassador wrote to his king, "This federal republic is born a pigmy. A day will come when it will be a giant. Liberty of conscience, the facility of establishing a new population on immense lands, as well as the advantages of the new government, will draw thither farmers and artisans from all the nations. In a few years we shall watch with grief the tyrannical existence of this same Colossus." Little did the Spaniard perceive that liberty of conscience and tyranny are impossibilities in the same nation.

One of the annual commonplaces of college life is the baccalaureate sermon. Of those which Witherspoon preached only one has been preserved. So far as we know this one was delivered twice; once in 1775 and again ' in 1787. He urges upon his young auditors three important considerations, their duty to God, the prosecution of their studies or improvement of their talents, as members of society, and prudence in their intercourse with the world. Religion should be as much a part of the business man's life, he thinks, as of the clergyman's. One does not go to heaven or hell as minister, lawyer, physician, soldier, or merchant, but as a man. " He must have a very mean taste indeed, who is capable of finding pleasure in disorder and riot." " If I had no higher pleasure on earth than in eating and drinking, I would not choose to eat and drink with the drunken," he tells them, in urging them to be decent and orderly. "Order, neatness, elegance, and even moderation itself, are necessary to exalt and refine the pleasures of a sensual life." Warning them against pride and superciliousness, a disposition to judge others, he says, "It is not only lawful, but our duty, to have a free communication with our fellow citizens, for the purposes of social life; it is not only lawful but our duty to be courteous, and to give every proper evidence of respect and attention to others according to their rank and place in society." " We see sometimes the pride of unsanctified knowledge do great injury to religion; and on the other hand, we find some persons of real piety, despising human learning, and disgracing the most glorious truths by a meanness and indecency hardly sufferable in their manner of handling them." "Multitudes of moderate capacity have been useful in their generation, respected by the public, and successful in life, while those of superior talents by nature, by mere slothfulness and idle habits, or self-indulgence, have lived useless, and died contemptible." "Persons of the greatest ability have generally been lovers of order. Neither is there any instance to be found, of a man's arriving at great reputation or usefulness, be his capacity what it might, without industry and application." "Whatever a man's talents from nature may be, if he apply himself to what is not altogether unsuitable to them, and holds on with steadiness and uniformity, he will be useful and happy; but if he be loose and volatile, impatient of the slowness of things in their usual course, and shifting from project to project, he will probably be neither the one nor the other." Such was the advice given to young men by one whose own life was its best illustration. "True religion should furnish you with a higher and nobler principle to govern your conduct, than the desire of applause from men. Yet, in sub-ordination to what ought to be the great purpose of life," said this man among men, "there is a just and laudable ambition to do what is praiseworthy among men. This ought not to be extinguished in the minds of youth; being a powerful spur and incitement to virtuous or illustrious actions." "A man's real character in point of ability, is never mistaken, and but seldom in point of morals. That there are many malicious and censorious persons, I agree; but lies are not half so durable as truth. Therefore reverence the judgment of mankind without idolizing it." He was no recluse. "As to piety," he said, "nothing is more essential to it than social communication." As to their intercourse with the world in general he gives them many nuggets of practical sense. "The moral virtue of meekness and condescension is the best ground work even of worldly politeness, and prepares a man to receive that polish, which makes his behaviour generally agreeable, and fits him for intercourse with persons in the higher ranks of life. The same virtue enables a man to manage his affairs to advantage. A good shopkeeper is commonly remarkable for this quality. People love to go where they meet with good words and gentle treatment; whereas the peevish and petulant have a repelling quality." Warning them against talkativeness he says, "There are some persons who, one might say, give away so much wisdom in their speech, that they leave none behind to govern their actions." Speaking of the sort of friendship to be formed he remarks, "There never was a true friend who was not an honest man." "Think of others as reason and religion require you and treat them as it is your duty to do, and you will not be far from a well polished behaviour." He is sure that the best manners can be learned only in the best company, and recommends a study of Rochefoucauld's Maxims and Chesterfield's Letters. He himself was always the most courteous and dignified of men, but with an undefinable charm which drew all classes to him. As to their judgments of others he bids them remember that "Probably men are neither so good as they pretend nor so bad as they are often thought to be." In his opinion the one great virtue is truthful-ness. " Let me, therefore, commend to you a strict, universal, and scrupulous regard to truth. It will give dignity to your character— it will put order into your affairs; it will excite the most unbounded confidence, so that whether your view be your own interest, or the service of others, it promises you the most assured success. I am also persuaded that there is no virtue that has a more powerful influence upon every other, and certainly there is none by which you can draw nearer to God Himself whose distinguishing character is, that He will not, and He cannot lie."

Witherspoon thought that family religion was of quite as much importance as public religion. In his own household family prayers were said morning and evening. Saturday evening was set aside for the meditation deemed necessary as a proper approach to the Sabbath. Holy days there were none in that Puritan home, but on the last night of the year he called his family together and impressed upon them the precepts of religion and right living.

In 1789 his wife died leaving him altogether alone, as all his children had by that time left home. In a year and a half he married a young widow of only twenty years of age, Mrs. Ann Dill, of Philadelphia. By her he had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy.

To the last of his life he took a keen interest in all sorts of matters, writing letters, preparing articles for the papers, looking after his private business and lecturing in the college. On the journey to Europe in 1784 during a storm he had been thrown against the side of the vessel and received a blow which so injured one eye that the sight of it was impaired. The other was bruised by a fall from his horse while riding over land which he had bought in Vermont. The second accident occurred in the summer of 1791. From that time he was unable to read or write and was obliged to employ a secretary, usually one of the students. One of these has left an account of Dr. Witherspoon's habits during the last three years of his life. He continued to preach, being led into the pulpit where he delivered verbatim a sermon of his own composition which had been read to him by his secretary. Nor did he absent himself from the meetings of his church, attending them regularly up to the last. His correspondence was large and two days of each week were generally devoted to it. For some time before his death he was obliged to give up preaching because of fits of dizziness which his physician regarded as threats of apoplexy. "On the 15th day of November 1794, in the seventy third year of his age, he retired to his eternal rest, full of honour and full of days."


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