John Witherspoon's American Revolution: Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States

John Witherspoon's American Revolution: Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States

John Witherspoon's American Revolution: Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States

John Witherspoon's American Revolution: Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States

Synopsis

In 1768, John Witherspoon, Presbyterian leader of the evangelical Popular party faction in the Scottish Kirk, became the College of New Jersey's sixth president. At Princeton, he mentored constitutional architect James Madison; as a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress, he was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Although Witherspoon is often thought to be the chief conduit of moral sense philosophy in America, Mailer's comprehensive analysis of this founding father's writings demonstrates the resilience of his evangelical beliefs. Witherspoon's Presbyterian evangelicalism competed with, combined with, and even superseded the civic influence of Scottish Enlightenment thought in the British Atlantic world.



John Witherspoon's American Revolution examines the connection between patriot discourse and long-standing debates--already central to the 1707 Act of Union--about the relationship among piety, moral philosophy, and political unionism. In Witherspoon's mind, Americans became different from other British subjects because more of them had been awakened to the sin they shared with all people. Paradoxically, acute consciousness of their moral depravity legitimized their move to independence by making it a concerted moral action urged by the Holy Spirit. Mailer's exploration of Witherspoon's thought and influence suggests that, for the founders in his circle, civic virtue rested on personal religious awakening.

Excerpt

How deeply affecting is it that those who were often the same in complexion, in blood, in language, and in religion should, notwithstanding, have butchered one another with unrelenting rage and gloried in the deed? In the two centuries since British subjects and American Revolutionaries stabbed, clubbed, maimed, shot, and tortured one another, further butchery, often internecine, has taken place through and beyond the Atlantic world. Nonetheless, it remains startling to recall the violent exchange between cousins and even brothers and sisters during the final decades of the eighteenth century, as British America became something called the United States.

A few weeks before he became the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon surveyed the earliest skirmishes of the imperial crisis, asked similar rhetorical questions, and made similarly bleak observations. In his sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, he found evidence of the “Wrath of Man” in the quick transformation of imperial subjects into warring enemies. Six months later, most of his personal library would burn to ashes, set alight by British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries. In the fire there would be books by Augustine and John Calvin, pamphlets written by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and by their Scottish evangelical foes, works in Greek and Latin, and manuscripts on the colonization of North America. Witherspoon’s son would be buried in a grave that had been dug for fallen patriots. A few years later, another son would be captured and imprisoned by British forces.

1. John Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men …, in [Ashbel Green, ed.], The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon, D.D.L.L.D. Late President of the College at Princeton, New-Jersey …, 2d ed., rev., 4 vols. (Philadelphia, 1802), III, 17, 37. There are two American editions of Witherspoon’s Works, which were first printed in 1800–1801 and in 1802. Both were published by William Woodward in Philadelphia and edited by Witherspoon’s former student, the Reverend Ashbel Green (1762–1848). Green graduated from the College of New Jer sey in 1783 and served as president of the College between 1812 and 1822. In his own account of the life of Witherspoon, contained in a manuscript written between 1830 and 1835, Green ex plains that only Witherspoon’s “Lectures on Moral Philosophy” and “Lectures on Eloquence” were complete as printed in his Works. See Ashbel Green, The Life of the Revd John Witherspoon, D.D., LL. D.: With a Brief Review of His Writings and a Summary Estimate of His Character

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