Roger Kimball of The New Criterion argues that John Witherspoon should be rediscovered as “The Forgotten Founder.” As he explains, “This Scotch Presbyterian divine came to America to preside over a distressed college in Princeton, New Jersey, and wound up transmitting to the colonies critical principles of the Scottish Enlightenment and helped to preside over the birth and consolidation of American independence.”
For us looking back on the generation of the Founders, it is easy to deprecate the religious inheritance that, for many of them, formed the ground of their commitment to political liberty. Theological skeptics and even atheists there were aplenty in late eighteenth-century America. But for every Jefferson who re-wrote the Bible excising every mention of miracles, there was a platoon of men like Madison who wrote commentaries on the Bible. Witherspoon believed that religion was “absolutely essential to the existence and welfare of every political combination of men in society.” Madison agreed. As did even the more skeptical Washington, who in his Farewell Address observed that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… . And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.” For many, perhaps most, of the Founders, Morrison observes, the chain of reasoning ran thus: “no republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, and no virtue without religion.” John Witherspoon did as much as anyone to nurture that understanding. Which is perhaps yet another reason he is less known today than other figures from the period. Whether that is a sign of our maturity and sophistication or only, as Witherspoon might put it, our pride and natural depravity is a question we might do well ponder.