TODAY is the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the most influential of all Scots, Reverend Dr John Witherspoon, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America and the only clergyman and college president and one of only two native Scots to sign the Declaration of Independence.

If that is all he had done, Witherspoon would be rightly famed, but his influence on the early days of the USA and his legacy for the last three centuries, especially through Princeton University, deserves the fullest attention.

I suspect that, for reasons which I will explain later, any celebrations of Witherspoon’s tercentenary will be muted both here and in the USA, but the fact is that Witherspoon’s contribution to Scottish and American culture should be acknowledged.

I am glad to note that this summer he will feature in a conference at St Andrews University to mark his 300th birth anniversary along with Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson.

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Though the USA claims him, Witherspoon actually spent the majority of his life in Scotland and I will be concentrating on that aspect of him.

John Knox Witherspoon was born in the manse of Yester Parish at Gifford in East Lothian on February 5, 1723.

It was always intended that he would follow in his father James’s footsteps as a Presbyterian minister, and his mother Anne, said to be a descendant of John Knox hence his middle name, ensured Witherspoon could read and write at an early age.

He was educated at Haddington School and from there was sent at the age of 14 to Edinburgh University from which he graduated with an MA before going on to study divinity there and at St Andrews which would later award him an honorary doctorate.

He could have joined his father at Yester in a shared ministry but in 1745, he was elected to the ministry of the Church of Scotland parish in Beith in Ayrshire. The following year saw Witherspoon, who was against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rising, go to Falkirk where he witnessed the unexpected victory of the Jacobites over the government army – he and several other spectators, no doubt anticipating a one-sided victory for their forces, got too close to the action and were captured and imprisoned in Doune Castle.

Despite the failure of his daring escape attempt, he was eventually freed from the castle though he blamed that incarceration for his later ill-health.

Witherspoon went back to Beith and married Elizabeth Montgomery of Craighouse. They would have 10 children in all, though half of them died in childhood.

Translated to the larger parish of Laigh (low) Kirk in Paisley in 1757, Witherspoon had already published the tracts on which his reputation grew, including the openly satirical Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753) which humorously criticised the affectations of the Presbyterian church and clergy of the time.

In 1756 he published the “Connexion between the doctrine of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ and holiness of life”, which marked him out as a serious theological writer. He began to publish his sermons, and in time became a leader of the evangelical wing of the Kirk, sometimes known as the Popular Party, who opposed the Moderates that then controlled the Church of Scotland.

He was a traditionalist in that he believed strongly in the discipline imposed by the Kirk – he had a particular distaste for the theatre – and in 1762, that got him into serious trouble when he preached against and wrote a denigration of six Paisley men who had been guilty in his view of blasphemous conduct.

They sued Witherspoon for defamation and he lost nearly all his money.

That case may or may not have influenced his decision to accept the invitation from the Presbyterian Princeton College in New Jersey, to become its sixth president. He sailed across the Atlantic with his wife, five surviving children and a library of 300 books, in the summer of 1768.

A charismatic speaker who never lost his accent, Witherspoon hit Princeton like a reforming tornado. Quite simply, he revolutionised Princeton and made it a centre of learning unlike any other, not least because he introduced the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy from the Enlightenment.

He reorganised the curriculum, raised money for multiple improvements and lectured in moral philosophy, divinity, rhetoric, history, and French. His introduction of a whole range of subject matters plus his insistence that students aim for excellence paved the way for the mighty Princeton University of today.

His influence can be shown by the fact that Princeton students under him included president James Madison, vice-president Aaron Burr, nine cabinet officers, 21 United States senators, 39 members of the House of Representatives, three justices of the Supreme Court, and 12 governors.

In politics, he quickly proclaimed his support for the Colonists against the British Government and was elected by the people of New Jersey to the Congress that declared independence – he may well have influenced the wording of the Declaration with its echoes of the Declaration of Arbroath.

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On July 2, 1776, after one delegate opposed ratification of the Declaration by saying “we are not ripe for revolution”, Witherspoon interjected to say: “We are not only ripe for the measure but in danger of rotting for the want of it.” A motto for the Yes campaign?

Witherspoon served in Congress for many years but his later life was blighted by the death of one son and his wife, though at the age of 68, he married 24-year-old Anne Marshall Dill with whom he had two children. He became totally blind for two years before he died on November 15, 1794.

Film star Reese Witherspoon has claimed descent from him, but others have moved to dissociate themselves from Witherspoon because although he sat on a committee for slave law reform, he himself owned slaves and that has caused an ongoing re-evaluation of him.