Presbyterian Divine, Franklin Roosevelt

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Presbyterian Divine, Franklin Roosevelt


Byline: John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

John Witherspoon, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who came to America in 1768 to be president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), is the latest candidate for inclusion among the Founding Fathers. In his scholarly John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (Notre Dame, $22.50, 220 pages), Jeffry H. Morrison argues that any one of Witherspoon's three careers -pastor, college president and politician - should have guaranteed him the "prominent and lasting place in American history that he has been denied." Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, and, the author argues, only "a prior commitment to his ministerial duties" (attending a conference to establish a national Presbyterian Church, where he was elected the first Moderator) kept him from playing a key role at the Constitutional Convention.

In fact, as Mr. Morrison demonstrates, Witherspoon was a man of many achievements in religion, education and politics. The author does not discuss his subject's life before coming to America, but his renown as a preacher was considerable: According to an endnote, Benjamin Rush decided to propose to his future wife partly because of her high opinion of Witherspoon's preaching.

At the same time, the author drops a few hints as to why Witherspoon has proved so forgettable. "Even in his day some Americans were made uneasy by the idea of clergymen as legislators," and Witherspoon didn't make it easier for those Americans by insisting on wearing his clerical garb to the Continental Congress and composing religious proclamations in the name of that Congress. He was also accused of favoring "a general establishment of Protestantism," although the author argues that Witherspoon advocated nonestablishment. Mr. Morrison discusses at some length Witherspoon's "promotion of Scottish realism over idealism" and his role in drafting the Presbyterians' national constitution, which, he says, "provides an interesting corollary to his pro-federal Constitution stand."

Then, in the final paragraph of his text, Mr. Morrison worries that some of the terms he has used to describe his hero - an "aqueduct," a "carrier" of a strain of the Scottish Enlightenment - might connote passivity. He goes on make this rather curiously worded claim: "In his political thought and career we can discern, if we have eyes to see it, a miniature of the founding, and in this respect John Witherspoon was a quintessential American founder." Moreover, Witherspoon "was present, in a manner of speaking, at the Federal Convention: five of his Princeton students, including James Madison, attended as delegates." Is this gilt by association?

Mr. Morrison, a visiting assistant professor of politics at Princeton, has carefully researched his subject, but he doth protest a bit much in defense of his thesis, and his focus is narrow. The only mention of Witherspoon's personal life comes in a reference to his being "defensive about his marriage late in life to a twenty-four-year-old widow. (Though what sixty-nine-year-old man would not be?)"

Incidentally, Notre Dame Press did this author a disservice in putting design ahead of readability - the book's font looks elegant but it is far too small and gray to encourage any but the most determined readers to persevere.

* * *

Is the 600-page doorstopper biography becoming an endangered species? We have reviewed in this column several presidential minibiographies being published under the imprimatur of general editor Arthur M. …

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