Witherspoon and Slavery

John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794)—clergyman, educator, and founding father—served as Princeton’s sixth president from 1768 until his death in 1794. Born in Scotland and educated at the University of Edinburgh, Witherspoon was a prominent 18th-century intellectual associated with the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. After migrating to New Jersey in 1768, he also became a major figure in both Princeton and United States history.

Witherspoon led Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey) through the Revolutionary War, becoming the only clergyman and college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. As one Princeton historian has written: “his influence upon the college and upon American education was profound and lasting.”[1] In order to understand Witherspoon’s “profound and lasting” legacy, however, it is first necessary to understand his complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with slavery and enslaved people.

Peale Charles Willson John Witherspoon 1723 1794 President 1768 94

Portrait of John Witherspoon, Princeton's sixth president.

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Jamie Montgomery

The story of John Witherspoon and his relationship to slavery begins in Scotland in 1756. While a minister for the Beith parish of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), Witherspoon broke with tradition by baptizing an enslaved man named Jamie Montgomery. Born a slave in Virginia, Montgomery was sent by his master to Beith as a carpenter’s apprentice sometime around 1750.[2] Slavery would not be prohibited in England until 1772 and throughout the British Empire until 1833, but even when Montgomery lived in Beith fewer than one hundred individuals were held as slaves in all of Scotland.[3] Jamie Montgomery may, in fact, have been the only enslaved person in Beith. Apparently Montgomery’s legal status did not trouble Witherspoon, and the minister offered him the same religious instruction available to his white congregants.[4] Witherspoon granted him a certificate verifying his “good Christian conduct” and then baptized him under the name James Montgomery in April 1756.[5]

Witherspoon was careful to emphasize to Montgomery that neither his Christianity nor his baptism would legally emancipate him.[6] He baptized Montgomery with the understanding that he was freeing him from sin, not slavery, and likely did not anticipate that his actions would embolden Montgomery to seek his freedom.[7] Shortly after his baptism, however, Montgomery fled his bondage on a ship bound for Virginia. He later testified to his belief that “by being baptized he would become free,” sparking debate within Scottish legal and religious communities regarding the morality of slavery.[8]

African and African American Students

Witherspoon’s relationship to slavery shifted when he accepted a position as president of the College of New Jersey in 1768. Slavery in the British North American colonies was unlike anything Witherspoon knew from his native country of Scotland, where demand for tobacco, sugar, and cotton created a market for the products of enslaved labor, but did not require the presence of enslaved people themselves.[9] In Witherspoon’s new home, however, enslaved people lived and worked on large plantations, country estates, small farms, and even urban businesses to produce the lucrative goods the international market demanded.[10] Witherspoon adapted to this new context by owning slaves himself, but he maintained a commitment to the religious instruction and education of people of African descent—much as he had with Jamie Montgomery in Scotland.

Bristol Yamma and John Quamine

In 1774, while serving as president, John Witherspoon privately tutored two free African men—Bristol Yamma and John Quamine—at the request of fellow ministers and educators Ezra Stiles and Samuel Hopkins. Witherspoon did not appear to see a conflict between the relationship he had with Yamma and Quamine and the practice of slaveholding. While his colleagues Stiles and Hopkins would both eventually advocate for the abolition of slavery, Witherspoon’s motivations did not stem from antislavery sentiment. Rather, he hoped that these students would ultimately serve as missionaries and spread Christianity throughout Africa. And in 1779, when Witherspoon moved from the President’s House on campus into the newly completed country home he called “Tusculum,” he purchased two enslaved people to help him farm the 500-acre estate.[11]

Witherspoon To Hopkins Preview

Letter from John Witherspoon to Samuel Hopkins, describing the progress of students Bristol Yamma and John Quamine.

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John Chavis

Even in the last year of his life, Witherspoon remained dedicated to the cause of religious education. In September 1792, the trustees of the college discussed the possibility of John Chavis, a “free black man of Virginia,” receiving funds for an education at Princeton.[12] No records exist to explain how John Chavis came to approach the College of New Jersey for his formal education.[13] Perhaps the college’s reputation throughout the country and Witherspoon’s reputation within the Presbyterian Church inspired Chavis to apply to the trustees. Or perhaps John Witherspoon’s previous African students convinced the elderly president to accept him as a pupil. Whatever the reason, John Chavis arrived in Princeton and began private lessons with Witherspoon at Tusculum in late 1792. Witherspoon justified this as a means of preparing Chavis “for better enjoyment of freedom,” even as two enslaved people lived and worked beside Chavis at Tusculum.[14]

Political and Philosophical Views

By the end of the Revolutionary War in 1784, the nation Witherspoon entered in 1768 had been drastically changed. Inspired by revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality, some white Americans in northern states willingly sought to extend freedom to enslaved people.[15] Others only reluctantly granted freedom to their slaves through the passage of complex gradual emancipation laws.[16] In New Jersey, slavery died a slow death after the Revolution; New Jersey was, in fact, the last northern state to pass a gradual emancipation law in 1804, and slavery continued to exist on a small scale until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.[17]

John Witherspoon’s ideology of slavery—as seen in his actions as a Revolutionary-era statesman and professor of moral philosophy—both reflected and shaped New Jersey’s gradualism.

Declaration Of Independence 1819 By John Trumbull

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence" (1819). John Witherspoon is pictured in the background facing the large table, the second seated figure from the (viewer's) right.

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The Articles of Confederation

John Witherspoon is perhaps best known for signing the Declaration of Independence (the only clergyman and only college president to do so).[18] However, he also contributed to the founding of the United States by helping to draft the Articles of Confederation in 1777.

In the Articles of Confederation, leaders of the new country codified slavery as a national institution and delineated the nature of human property. In debates over Article XI, Witherspoon sided with Southern states and adamantly opposed the taxation of slaves, foreshadowing the conflict that would lead to the “Three-Fifths Compromise” at the Constitutional Convention ten years later. In his oral argument (a rare move for the otherwise quiet minister), Witherspoon reasoned that the value of land and houses, not slaves, was the best measure of the wealth of the country for taxation purposes. As he stated:

It has been objected that negroes eat the food of freemen & therefore should be taxed. Horses also eat the food of freemen; therefore they also should be taxed.[19]

By comparing slaves to horses, Witherspoon denied enslaved people their humanity and defined them simply as another form of property. Yet this argument highlights a disconnect between Witherspoon’s stated ideology and his lived reality. It is unlikely that Witherspoon considered Jamie Montgomery, John Quamine, Bristol Yamma, or John Chavis on the same level as his horses. His investment in their religious education certainly seems to suggest otherwise. His actions stood in direct contrast to his dehumanizing words in the Continental Congress.

Lectures on Moral Philosophy

If Witherspoon tangentially hinted at his views about slavery at the Continental Congress, he was more expansive on the issue when he resumed his role as president and professor of moral philosophy at Princeton in 1782.[20] In his lectures, Witherspoon discussed the nature of politics and the creation of the new nation—including the role of slavery within the country. In particular, his lecture “On Politics” considered the institution of slavery on a moral, not practical, level for the first time.

Witherspoon made clear his disapproval of the slave trade, calling it “unlawful to make inroads upon others, unprovoked, and take away their liberty by no better right than superior power.”[21] Yet at the time he made this statement, Witherspoon himself owned property in slaves. Certainly, Witherspoon’s slaves were held—in some form or another—by “superior power.” Nonetheless, Witherspoon retained ownership over them. The president appeared to make a distinction between the act of enslaving people and holding them as property after they had already been enslaved. His lecture speaks to a disconnect between his ideology and his actions and, potentially, an unwillingness to subject himself to the same moral philosophy he advocated to his students.

For all of his discussion about the injustice of holding men in bondage against their will, Witherspoon ultimately concluded that emancipating them was not necessary, stating:

I do not think there lies any necessity on those who found men in a state of slavery, to make them free to their own ruin.[22]

Witherspoon’s conclusion that emancipation of slaves was not a “necessity” conveniently absolved him and other slaveholders of their moral dilemma.

Abolition in New Jersey

Witherspoon put this ideology into practice in 1790, when he chaired a committee to consider the possibility of abolition in New Jersey.[23] The committee report recommended that the state take no action on the issue of abolition—claiming that slavery as an institution was already dying out in New Jersey and would not last beyond twenty-eight years. Ultimately, the committee’s vote against immediate abolition allowed slavery to continue in New Jersey largely undisturbed until 1804, when the state finally passed a gradual emancipation law. Even after that, however, slavery continued in New Jersey until the end of the Civil War.[24]

Witherspoon's Legacy

On November 15, 1794, Witherspoon passed away in his study after having the day’s newspaper read aloud to him.[25] Witherspoon left behind an estate which included two enslaved individuals at his country home of Tusculum.[26] At the time of his death, three of Witherspoon’s children lived and prospered in Southern states—at the heart of slavery in the young nation. In the South, Witherspoon’s family and descendants built their lives and wealth on a foundation of slavery.

John Witherspoon’s relationship to slavery forces us to reconsider of the history and legacy of slavery at Princeton University. Just as his ideology of slavery permeated generations of his own family, it also influenced the students he taught as the leader of the college for nearly three decades. Princeton historian Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker titled his chapter on Witherspoon “Cradle of Liberty.”[27] But in his life and career, Witherspoon also contributed to the United States becoming a cradle of slavery from its very founding.

John Witherspoon Statue

John Witherspoon's statue on Princeton's main campus.

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ReferencesPanel Toggle


Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton, 1746-1896 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 7; “The Montgomery Slavery Case, 1756,” The National Archives of Scotland, accessed 16 August 2007, http://www.nas.gov.uk/about/070823.asp.


“The Montgomery Slavery Case, 1756.”


William Harrison Taylor, ed., Faith and Slavery in the Presbyterian Diaspora (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2016), 18.


Simon P. Newman, “Rethinking Runaways in the British Atlantic World: Britain, the Caribbean, West Africa and North America,” Slavery & Abolition (2016), 9.






In fact, the Presbyterian Church settled this matter in 1741, decreeing that “baptism simply freed slaves from the bondage of sin and Satan,” but did not free them from their physical bondage. Taylor, Faith and Slavery in the Presbyterian Diaspora, 18.


Ibid., 11.


Ibid., 15.


Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 53-81.


Both Stiles and Hopkins were Presbyterian clergymen who operated out of Rhode Island. The pair corresponded often on issues concerning the Presbytery. Both of their congregations welcomed African-American members, enslaved and free. See: Antony Dugdale, “Ezra Stiles College,” Yale, Slavery and Abolition, accessed 10 August 2017, http://www.yaleslavery.org/WhoYaleHonors/stiles1.html.

Special thanks to T. Jeffrey Clarke for bringing the date of Witherspoon’s move to Tusculum to the author’s attention. See John Witherspoon to Henry Remsen, letter dated 14 December 1779, reprinted in “Sugar, Tea, Silk Paid College Bills in 1779, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Vol. XXXI, No. 17 (February 6, 1931), p. 2.

For Witherspoon’s two slaves, see John Witherspoon; Biographical Information; 1834-1973; Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, Box 2, Folder 13-14; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


1778-1796; 1778-1796; Board of Trustees Records, Volume 1B; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


It is unclear whether the College ever acted on the charge to fund Chavis. Chavis, John; circa 1796; Historical Subject Files Collection, Box 101, Folder 35; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


David Walker Woods, John Witherspoon (New York: F.H. Revell Company, 1906), 179.


Berlin, Generations of Captivity, 103.




James J. Gigantino II, “Trading in Jersey Souls: New Jersey and the Interstate Slave Trade,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 77, no. 3 (2010): 282.


Woods, John Witherspoon, 217, 248.


Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1790 (1821), 44.


Witherspoon held intermittent positions in Congress from 1773 to 1776, then from 1780 to 1781. Collins, President Witherspoon, A Biography, 2:3.


John Witherspoon and Jack Scott, An Annotated Edition of Lectures on Moral Philosophy (Newark : London: University of Delaware Press ; Associated University Presses, 1982), 125.




Varnum Lansing Collins, President Witherspoon, A Biography, Vol. 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1925), 167.


James J. Gigantino II, “Trading in Jersey Souls,” 296-97.


Collins, President Witherspoon, A Biography, 2:177.


John Witherspoon; Biographical Information; 1834-1973; Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, Box 2, Folder 13-14; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Wertenbaker, Princeton, 1746-1896, xxvii.

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