John Witherspoon, prominent Evangelical clergyman in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, in 1768 accepted an invitation to cross the Atlantic Ocean and take up the presidency of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. In 1776 he became the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. His college presidency ushered in a period of more than one century during which Princeton constituted a bedrock of “old side” Presbyterian Calvinist theology synthesized with Scottish moral philosophy of the “common sense” school exemplified by Thomas Reid. Gideon Mailer undertakes a reassessment of Witherspoon's career, specifically with regard to the American Revolution, but also regarding his legacies for Princeton, Presbyterianism, and American higher education. Mailer displays an impressive, detailed familiarity with what has become a large secondary literature on the subject. His intention is to recover an appreciation within the historical profession for the full, actual significance of Witherspoon's career. The most dangerous fallacy Mailer detects in current scholarship is a misconception that Witherspoon embraced the emotive theory of ethics taught by the Scottish moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson, and that this ethical theory became identified with the natural-rights doctrine embraced in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Certainly, such an interpretation is indeed incorrect, though Mailer's meticulous footnotes do not persuade me that the interpretation is as widespread as suggested by the text of his presentation. Mailer goes on to downplay the importance of moral philosophy in Witherspoon's mind-set. He seems to fear that acknowledging the role of moral philosophy makes Witherspoon look too secular. But in reality, the synthesis of Reid's ethical rationalist school of Scottish moral philosophy with Christian theology typified the bold confidence of Protestant higher education in the era of Witherspoon and his successors. (It prevailed across the spectrum of American Protestant colleges with differing theological orientations, exemplified at Yale University, Harvard University, and Princeton.) Moral philosophy at this period included not only the branch of philosophy we call ethical theory but also all of what we define as the social sciences: psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics. The broad range of moral philosophy helps us understand its synthetic role in the college curricula of the time. Witherspoon lectured on moral philosophy at Princeton, but Mailer questions how much he knew or cared about the subject (p. 165). Mailer prioritizes Witherspoon's relationship to the Revolution in the book's title and emphasizes how he rallied Presbyterians to support the cause. He stresses that Witherspoon held conventional colonial opinions about the loyalty of colonial legislatures directly to the monarch, not subordinate to Parliament, up until April 1776. What specifically changed Witherspoon's mind in favor of independence we are not told. Mailer consistently stresses the primacy of Presbyterianism, rather than American independence or Scottish moral philosophy, in Witherspoon's mind. If historians must, as Mailer exhorts us, forget about moral philosophy for fear of overemphasizing the influence of the Enlightenment on American intellectual history, it may not encourage the scholarly community to take increased interest in Witherspoon. That would be an ironic outcome for Mailer's careful scholarship on his hero. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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