Patriot, Preacher, President, Problem

Originally written for a group course blog for an undergraduate seminar I taught in Spring 2021 on “Race and Religion in America” for a section focused on religion and race in place.

On November 12, 2001, Princeton University president Shirley Tighlman presided at the unveiling of a statue of Rev. John Witherspoon (1723-1794), created by the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart. Witherspoon, a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister, served as Princeton University’s sixth president from 1768 to 1794, guiding the institution through the Revolutionary War and the early years of the United States of America and contributing to public life and politics in the emerging nation as member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The statue came to Princeton at the initiative of residents of Paisley, Scotland where Witherspoon had served as a church pastor prior to receiving the offer from the trustees of the College of New Jersey to assume the presidency. Princeton University and the city of Paisley then collaborated on the project, engaging Stoddart to produce twin statues, one of which was installed at the entrance to the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley and the other at Princeton. The identical statues of Witherspoon represent him preaching at a lectern with a Bible open and at his feet five books, four of which are identified as works by Cicero, Locke, and Hume, and Newton’s Principia, marking Witherspoon’s commitments to religion, philosophy, and science. The statues sit on different plinths, with the base of Princeton’s bearing plaques on three sides that designate Witherspoon as “Patriot,” “Preacher” and “President.”

The Stoddart statue was, by no means, the first statue commending Witherspoon to be erected in the United States. Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park features a statue, as does the Presbyterian Historical Society, which had been located originally at the denomination’s Witherspoon Building. Washington, D.C. also hosts a statue of John Witherspoon, authorized in 1908 by Congress and supported by a $4000 appropriation. The base of that statue features words Witherspoon spoke at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776 in favor of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence:

“For my own part, of property I have some, of reputation more. That reputation is staked, that property is pledged, on the issue of this contest; and although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulcher, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country.”

John Witherspoon signed the Declaration and was the only active clergyman and college president to do so. The property he pledged to support the “sacred cause” of his country would soon include two people he kept enslaved on his estate, Tusculum, located one mile from Nassau Hall.

As Lesa Redmond ’17 has argued in the Princeton & Slavery Project, Witherspoon’s theological, political, and social views and practices regarding slavery and race changed over time and sometimes conflicted at any given moment. He extended baptism to an enslaved man and, in keeping with theological conclusions of many white supporters of slavery, asserted that baptism did not necessitate manumission. He tutored Bristol Yamma and John Quamine, born in West Africa, enslaved in Rhode Island, and who had bought their way out of slavery, to support the possibility of their returning to Cape Coast, Guinea (present-day Ghana) as Christian missionaries.[1] He wrote of them that they “behave well” and grasped the “Principles of the Christian faith.” Redmond also shows that Witherspoon opposed the abolition of slavery in New Jersey and argues that the stance of such a prominent figure influenced the resistance to abolition and, ultimately, the persistence of slavery in New Jersey until the mid-nineteenth century, despite the adoption of a graduate abolition act in 1804.[2]

We know nothing of the lives or experiences of the two people John Witherspoon held in bondage while he participated in New Jersey and U.S. politics, served as president of Princeton, preached sermons in his capacity as a Presbyterian minister, and instructed students in moral philosophy, theology, and history. As individuals, they are lost to history but we might gain some insight from located them in the larger context of slavery at and in Princeton, in New Jersey, and in early America. Witherspoon was not unique in holding property in humans – he was one of nine enslavers among the first presidents of the university – and so the university and the town provide rich cases for such work and for thinking about how white Christians in eighteenth-century New Jersey contributed to the ideologies and practices of slavery and racial hierarchy, not only in the individual slaveholding of university presidents, but in the academic and religious curriculum that shaped generations of men who studies at Princeton.

But what about the problem of the statue of John Witherspoon, patriot, preacher, president? One might argue that the statue represents a time when it was possible to separate the work for the “sacred cause” of the nation from the fact of holding property in persons and, thus, laud him as patriot, preacher, and president without endorsing him as a Christian enslaver. Had this statue been long present on Princeton’s campus, one could argue that its integral part of the campus’ culture makes a case for it to remain. Of course, there was no time when it was possible to separate American freedom from persistent and brutal racialized unfreedom supported by religious arguments and practices. And, the Witherspoon statue was erected at the start of the twenty-first century, placed without questions about whether such a figure might have had a more complicated legacy than patriot, preacher, and president.

The question of how to evaluate Witherspoon’s legacy and what honor he merits has been revisited, both in the US and in Scotland in the context of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Princeton University has embarked on a long process of assessing what to do with the public spaces of the campus and buildings that bear the names of many white men who gave much to Princeton and took benefit from their oppression of others. While Woodrow Wilson’s name has been removed from the School of Public and International Affairs, the most common approach thus far has been to name unnamed spaces – archways, gardens, auditoriums – in honor of Black Princetonians. The Betsey Stockton garden, which abuts the Firestone Library, pays tribute to the woman who was enslaved by Richard Stockton, the other Princetonian who signed the Declaration of Independence, and worked in the household of Princeton President Ashbel Green.[3] Stockton’s own legacy merits consideration as she later served as a missionary in Hawai’i, acting on her Christian faith that Hawai’ians needed conversion from their spiritual worlds.

I have written about how African American history is marked by an alternative spatial imaginary, often connected to religious narratives, that provided a “shadow map” of meaning and connection and allowed Black people to “chart paths to material and spiritual freedom.” As I think of it, the shadow map overlies the map of dominance, which many others traverse ignorant of or indifferent to that dominance. Those who produce and use the shadow map must also know the map of dominance and experience it at times as intersecting with and acting on their attempts to maintain a liberatory map. The question of commemoration and public space challenges us to consider whether it is possible to bring the past into present-day public space in ways that tell a story that is honest and recognizable to those in the present and to account for the multiple perspectives of those who traverse that public space.

[1] Yamma and Quamine were members of Rev. Samuel Hopkins’ Congregational Church in Newport, RI. According to historian John Saillant, Hopkins believed returning Blacks to Africa to convert Africans to Christianity would speed the coming of the kingdom of God. John Saillant, “Slavery and Divine Providence in New England Calvinism: The New Divinity Protest, 1775-1805,” The New England Quarterly 68:4 (December 1995): 595; See also Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, “Bristol Yamma and John Quamine in Rhode Island,” Rhode Island History 73:1 (Winter/Spring 2015): 5-24. Quamine died in a naval battle in the Revolutionary War and Yamma returned to Rhode Island and died in 1794.

[2] For more on gradual abolition in New Jersey, see Hendrik Hartog, The Trouble with Minna: A Case of Slavery & Emancipation in the Antebellum North (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[3] The Firestone family’s legacy extracting profit from Liberia is another story and one the university might also consider.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s