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

By Gideon Mailer | Go to book overview

{ CHAPTER 5 }
“WHEN THEIR FATHERS HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP”
Domestic Culture, Public Virtue, and the Power of Language

A few months before arriving in New Jersey, in a February 1768 letter to Benjamin Rush John Witherspoon had recognized the public importance of “the present state of things between Brittain and America”—particularly with regard to “the Direction of the Education of the youth of so considerable body in the Northern Colonies.” Though he was not yet a patriot, Witherspoon realized that rising tensions between Britain and the American colonies called for special attention to the instruction of young men. In a 1768 newspaper advertisement, written on behalf of the College of New Jersey trustees, he distinguished the institution from other centers of higher education. In particular, he highlighted “Provisions for the Encouragement of young Gentlemen, who have finished the ordinary Course of Philosophy, to return and pursue their Studies at College, and fit themselves… for serving their Country in public Stations.”1

The exact meaning of the word “Country” in such a statement was not clear. Only three years after the Stamp Act crisis, it is unlikely that Witherspoon referred to his students’ fitting themselves for service to Britain. Conversely, only the most radical colonists would have assigned a notion of national independence to the word in 1768. Nonetheless, Witherspoon believed that educated young men were increasingly likely to assume positions of public prominence in “the present state of things” between Britain and America. Many of his graduating students were certainly eager to link their educational development to political concerns. In 1770, the New-York Gazette described a recent College of New Jersey commencement ceremony and felt obliged to comment on the political activities that accompanied its religious read-

1. John Witherspoon to Benjamin Rush, Feb. 9, 1768, in L. H. Butterfield, ed., John Witherspoon Comes to America: A Documentary Account Based Largely on New Materials (Princeton, N.J., 1953), 69; “For the Information of the Public, by Order of the Trustees of the College of New-Jersey,” New-York Gazette or, the Weekly Post-Boy, Oct. 17, 1768, [2]. For more background on Witherspoon’s desire to advertise to “young Gentlemen,” see also the introduction in Thomas Miller, ed., The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon (Carbonale, Ill., 1990), 20–21.

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