5 facts about John Witherspoon, a slaveholder and the only university president to sign the Declaration of Independence

Rev. John Witherspoon


Since 2001, a bronze statue of the Rev. John Witherspoon has loomed over a busy pedestrian plaza at Princeton University, where he served as president from 1768 to 1794. During his tenure at Princeton, Witherspoon made history by signing the Declaration of Independence. He was the only university president to do so.

But even as Witherspoon preached and argued that American Colonists should separate from British monarchy – or else become its slaves – Witherspoon was enslaving people himself.

To his defenders, Witherspoon’s support for slavery represents “human imperfection” and should not overshadow his role as a Founding Father and a leader of what is now one of the nation’s oldest and most esteemed educational institutions.

But to a growing group of Princeton students and faculty, Witherspoon needs to be knocked off his pedestal – literally.

“We believe that paying such honor to someone who participated actively in the enslavement of human beings, and used his scholarly gifts to defend the practice, is today a distraction from the University’s mission,” states a petition to get the statue of Witherspoon removed. The prominent location of the monument, the petitioners argue, is especially insulting to “community members descended from enslaved peoples.”
Scorned in Scotland

The contempt for Witherspoon goes beyond the campus at Princeton. And it is not confined to just the United States.

In June 2020, protesters painted “Slave Owner” in large letters across the base of an identical sculpture of Witherspoon that stands outside the University of the West of Scotland, where Witherspoon served as a Presbyterian minister before immigrating to America.

Scottish officials promised a “historical audit” to determine its fate – although the statue remains in place. In November 2022, administrators at Princeton took a similar step, inviting feedback on the petition to remove the Witherspoon monument. The feedback process is still ongoing as of the writing of this article.

The debate over Witherspoon’s legacy is familiar to me. Together with a team of over 50 scholars and students, I helped construct the Princeton & Slavery Project, which explores the university’s involvement in slavery and its repercussions. Launched in 2017, the project website features hundreds of primary sources and over 100 academic essays. It has been praised as “a model for how universities might reckon with their troubled pasts.”

We conducted extensive research on Witherspoon. We even commissioned a play in which his statue comes to life and debates a Black student protester. We also examined the social context in which Witherspoon lived and the influence he wielded.

Since Princeton serves as a training ground for the nation’s ruling elite, from James Madison and Woodrow Wilson to Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, what happens on its campus can have a significant impact on the rest of the world.

With that in mind, here are five facts about Witherspoon’s life that show how he felt about slavery and enslaved people and shed light on whether he was simply a flawed human or someone who used his education, position and privilege to participate in and profit from slavery.

1. He baptized a young man who was enslaved in Scotland

Before immigrating to America, Witherspoon baptized James Montgomery, who was born in Virginia and sold to a merchant located near Glasgow, Scotland, where Witherspoon was a minister. Jamie – as he was called in his bill of sale – arrived in Scotland in 1750, when he was around 16 years old.

After Witherspoon baptized the young man, he reportedly told him “over and over” that baptism “by no means freed him” from enslavement.

Yet the need to repeat the instruction suggests that Montgomery saw the matter differently. Threatened with return to Virginia, in April 1756, Montgomery, now in his early 20s, escaped to Edinburgh, Scotland. But his freedom was short-lived.

He was discovered less than a month later, jailed, and died awaiting trial. His captors identified him using a certificate Witherspoon had given him that allowed him to travel between Christian congregations.

In 1768, Witherspoon sailed from Scotland to New Jersey to assume leadership of Princeton. There, running away was a common occurrence, and he soon found himself surrounded by resistance to slavery.

2. He personally tutored two African men

Enslaved as children in what is now Ghana, Bristol Yamma and John Quamino endured the horrors of the Middle Passage before settling in Newport, Rhode Island.

Thanks to a lucky lottery ticket and friends in the ministry, both men managed to buy their freedom, and they resolved to become missionaries, which offered perhaps the surest route back home.

In late 1774, they arrived in Princeton for private lessons with Witherspoon, who taught them reading, writing and “the Principles of the Christian faith.” Both men were in their 30s. Quamino left his wife behind in Rhode Island, where she was enslaved by one of Witherspoon’s former students. After several months, interrupted by the chaos of the American Revolution, Yamma and Quamino ended their studies.

Neither returned to Africa. Although others of African descent found ways of working and studying on campus over the years, Princeton refused to admit Black undergraduates until World War II.

3. He condemned the British for offering freedom to enslaved Africans

Witherspoon preached and argued that American Colonists would become slaves to Britain if they did not break free from British rule. The analogy had a special resonance for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, nearly three-quarters of whom were slaveowners. Indeed, fear of slave rebellion was a major factor in the American Revolution.

Witherspoon became outraged at the British for “proclaiming liberty to slaves, and stirring them up to rebel against their masters.” The irony was not lost on contemporary observers. After British troops destroyed the Princeton University library, abolitionist Granville Sharp sent Witherspoon copies of his anti-slavery pamphlets. In addition to Sharp’s plans for emancipation, they warned of “God’s temporal vengeance against tyrants, slave-holders, and oppressors.”

4. Witherspoon’s family profited from slave labor

While the logic of the American Revolution pushed some patriots, such as Princeton graduate Benjamin Rush, to embrace anti-slavery activism, Witherspoon took a different path. Beginning in 1779, he acquired two enslaved laborers for his country estate. About eight years later, both mysteriously disappeared. New research suggests that at least one may have been freed and settled on his own land. Their demise, sale or escape are other, less cheery, possibilities. Another two enslaved individuals were listed among Witherspoon’s possessions in an inventory dated November 1794, alongside six cows, 10 horses, 12 pigs and 24 sheep.

His daughter Anne became a slaveholder when she married Princeton professor Samuel Stanhope Smith. In 1784, Smith casually announced the sale of a “negro servant, about 25 years of age, who is well acquainted with the business of a plantation.” Witherspoon’s son David married into a wealthy family in North Carolina, where he eventually claimed ownership over more than 100 people.

5. He recruited Southern slaveholders to finance Princeton

Witherspoon deliberately recruited the sons of wealthy Southern planters to finance Princeton through donations and tuition. Before his presidency, students from south of the Mason-Dixon line rarely exceeded 20% of their graduating class. Under Witherspoon’s guidance, the number of Virginian students tripled in the decade between 1770 and 1780, and Southerners made up 67% of graduates in the Class of 1790. This far surpassed other Northern universities and established a pattern at Princeton, with Southerners often outnumbering Northerners on campus in the decades preceding the Civil War.

Indeed, more Princetonians fought for the Confederacy than for the Union. Their presence on campus under Witherspoon’s successors created an atmosphere steeped in white supremacy in which abolitionists were ridiculed, undermined and assaulted with impunity. Enduring across generations, this racist institutional culture may be Witherspoon’s most profound and lasting legacy.