A STATED Meeting of the Society was held, at the invitation of Mr. Augustus Peabody Loring, Jr., at No. 2 Gloucester Street, Boston, on Thursday, April 27, 1944, at a quarter before nine o’clock in the evening, the President, Kenneth Ballard Murdock, in the chair.
The minutes of the last Stated Meeting were read and approved.
Mr. Carleton Sprague Smith, of New York City, was elected a Corresponding Member of the Society.
The chair appointed the following committees in anticipation of the Annual Meeting:
To nominate candidates for the several offices,—Messrs. Lawrence Shaw Mayo, Fred Norris Robinson and Elliott Perkins.
To examine the Treasurer’s accounts,—Messrs. Allston Burr and Hermann Frederick Clarke.
To arrange for the Annual Dinner,—Messrs. Augustus Peabody Loring, Jr., William Alexander Jackson and Allyn Bailey Forbes.
The President reported on the condition of the Increase Mather tomb in the Copps Hill Burying Ground, which was in a very bad state of repair. As one of the historical monuments of Boston it seemed appropriate that it should be restored, and the Council had voted to put the matter in charge of Mr. Robert Peabody Bellows. Mr. Bellows then reported that he had found the tomb, which is of the table type, in very bad condition. He proposed that a new top be placed on the tomb, in which the original inscription should be set.
Mr. Richard Mott Gummere read a paper entitled:
JOHN Witherspoon, one of the outstanding Scottish-born settlers who should be numbered among the Founding Fathers, cannot be described as a statesman of the first rank. He was not a great constitutional interpreter like Madison or his own countryman, James Wilson.1 He was not supreme in diplomacy, finance, or political philosophy, as were Franklin, Hamilton, and Jefferson respectively. The “Roman Senator” traits of Adams were not reflected in his personality. Nor did he exchange the gown for the uniform, as General Mühlenberg did in such dramatic fashion. But he deserves to be included in any group of colonial leaders as an all-round exponent of the three main ideas which reached their climax in 1776. He tempered a sincere religious creed with the current Common-Sense philosophy; he stood out solidly for the Anglo-Saxon tradition of freedom; and he utilized in the most distinctive way the cultural and educational background of Greece and Rome. For an earlier parallel the student of American history turns to Increase Mather, a college president who was equally at home in the pulpit and in the statehouse. His is an impressive record—a half-century in the ministry, twenty-six years as a college president and trainer of statesmen, and twelve years as an active member of Congress and of the Provincial legislature of New Jersey. He is the only clergyman whose name appears on the Declaration of Independence.
Funeral orations, except for those spoken by a Pericles or a Bossuet, are apt to grow dull with the passage of time. Perhaps that of the Reverend John Rodgers of New York is no exception; but in his memorial sermon on Witherspoon, “delivered at Princeton before the Board of Trustees of the College of New Jersey, May 6, 1795,” the good Doctor did history a service by pointing out the late President’s political distinction, besides “his literature, his superintendency, his example as a happy model of good writing, and the tone and taste which he gave to the literary pursuits of the College.”2 It is therefore of some interest to examine the record of a spiritual leader, an educator deeply enthusiastic about belles-lettres, and a man who practised his political theories instead of allowing them to evaporate in the classroom.
Perhaps a collateral but not a direct descendant of John Knox, Witherspoon was born February 5, 1723, at Yester, near Edinburgh. Schooled at Haddington, he entered Edinburgh University with the customary classical equipment at the age of fourteen. Here, with his friend Dr. Alexander Carlyle of Inverness,3 he followed the usual program of Humanities. Latin, Greek, and Euclid occupied the first year; logic and rhetoric were added in the second year, especially the Poetics of Aristotle and Longinus’s On The Sublime (two books which are frequently reflected in his later writings). Classics and mathematics, with natural and moral philosophy, made up the rest of his degree requirement. Carlyle speaks of Witherspoon as a good scholar, shrewd, but with “a flat voice and an awkward manner.” He overcame this handicap later, as did Cotton Mather, following the advice to practice slow speaking and use a “dilated vocabulary.” The testimony of his contemporaries indicates that this difficulty stemmed from an irascible and dominating father.4 In later life, replying to a visitor who remarked of his estate in Princeton: “You have an excellent garden but no flowers,” Witherspoon replied: “No, madam, neither in my garden nor in my discourse!”5
In 1739 Witherspoon took his degree at Edinburgh, with a Latin thesis, De Mentis Immortalitate, dedicated to the Marquis of Tweeddale. Licensed to preach at the age of twenty-one, and declining a position as assistant to his father, he occupied successively the parishes of Beith and Paisley. He refused calls to Dublin, Dundee, and Rotterdam. But when Benjamin Rush pressed him to accept the presidency of Nassau Hall, he finally capitulated despite an offer from a rich bachelor relative to become his heir and remain in Scotland. Rush, writing home to Philadelphia and describing his efforts on behalf of the Princeton trustees to secure his prize, called him homo factus ad unguem; when the Scotsman accepted, Rush hailed the occasion with the words redeunt Saturnia regna.6 Thus with a Horatian and a Vergilian invocation, the Scotch preacher began in 1768 a career which lasted until blindness and old age ended his presidency in 1794.
That the eighteenth century, especially in its third quarter, represented the climax of Greek and Roman influence is a truism beyond question. Witherspoon was no exception. His country place was named “Tusculum”; over the front entrance of Nassau Hall was a bust of Homer, the only external ornament. His first Commencement address indicated his platform and policy: “The remains of the ancients are still the standard of taste.” “Though a schoolmaster can scarcely speak without citing Vergil or Horace, he is to be indulged.” Witherspoon kept up a correspondence with his son David in Latin and French, reminding him in one of the letters that when he could read Horace and Vergil comfortably at sight, he would derive no less pleasure than from an English poem. He contributed to the Pennsylvania Magazine under the pseudonym of Epaminondas and tried editing a short-lived Spectator-like periodical of his own, The Druid. In the fifth number of this publication, discussing vulgarisms and errors in English speech, the editor opens with the statement that “A man is not, even at this time, called or considered as a scholar, unless he is acquainted in some degree with the ancient languages, particularly the Greek and Latin.”7
Of the three main phases in Witherspoon’s career—Biblical, political, classical—he felt strongly, as did Cotton Mather, that the common law and the writings of the ancients should both be subordinated to the scriptural message. Unlike Dell, Webster, and other anti-education writers of the seventeenth century, he admitted that the Christian is all the better fortified by classical precedents in presenting the Word as the primary instrument of virtue. Mather, however, admitted more of a partnership: he followed St. Augustine in claiming the Greeks and Romans as Christian property. The trivium and quadrivium of the ecclesiastical scheme went hand in hand with a college education in the colonies; and Mather welcomed science into a higher category than did Witherspoon.8
The Princeton president, in his clerical capacity, drew a sharper line of demarcation. In a sermon9 which reminds us of one of Seneca’s earliest essays, he declares it to be shameful that the Church Fathers and good Christians should be attacked and defamed by infidels while “the wise men of the heathen nations are suffered to possess, without contradiction, all the reputation which their countrymen in after-ages have thought fit to bestow upon them.”10 He is pursuing the same thought when he declares that the verse “Let your light so shine before men” was addressed to all good Christians rather than to the twelve apostles alone, so that they might refute “the Heathen philosophers and the Jewish teachers.” Again, “What an inconsistency, for a Christian minister to speak of the Lord Redeemer in such a style as naturally leads the hearers to put Him upon a level with Socrates or Plato or other uninspired teachers, who never pretended to be saviors!”11
A modern pagan is naturally abhorrent to Witherspoon. “A mechanic or peasant, instructed in the oracles of truth, has now more just and consistent notions of God, his perfections, his laws, his Providence, than the most renowned philosophers of ancient times.” It is a weakness to rely upon mere human nature, even when a heathen does so; but these pagans themselves acknowledged some higher power as approving their expeditions and undertakings—for example, the deus ex machina, the protecting Genius, amulets, and mystical incantations.12 This testifies all the more to the value of a Christian faith in God. It is not astonishing that Minos and Numa should pretend to the privilege of divine communication; but it is conclusive proof of the power of the Word, that it is found in Matthew the Publican and his associates.13 He defines the Stoic theory as an ignava ratio when contrasted with belief “in both the certainty of God’s purpose and the free agency of the creature.” Unlike Mather, he gives no credit to the early philosophers: “Natural knowledge was increased by religious light . . . all the theories of the ancients as to the formation and preservation of the earth and heaven, were childish and trifling . . . the latest discoveries in philosophy, including physics, have never shewn us anything but what is perfectly consistent with the Scripture doctrine and history.” Witherspoon admits, however, that all human science, in natural history, astronomy, and chronology, is not necessarily to be found in the Bible.14
There is no word in Greek or Latin, he declares, equivalent to the Christian humility: humilitas, mansuetudo, πραότης will not reproduce the English word. Heroism and magnanimity occur frequently in pagan literature, but never humility.15 Speaking clerically, he roundly denounces the younger Pliny for his report to Trajan concerning the Christians in Bithynia, forgetting the persecutions and cruelties in the church records of sixteenth-century Scotland.16 Some of them matched the gallery of wrongs available to the good Doctor in his reading of the ancients and in the pages of the historians Rollin and Goguet. At any rate, the ancients must be put in their proper place: Blackwell’s Sacred Classics proves that “there is no beauty in the classic authors in which they are not outdone by the sacred penman.” However, one understands this failing, due to polytheism and lack of revelation. The modern religious leaders should exercise the equivalent of the Roman censor’s function.17
Outside the church, however, Witherspoon welcomes the Greek and Roman writers. His really serious attacks are reserved for the Immaterialists, the current Moderates (as the Scotch called one of their groups), the modern sceptics. Hume, Voltaire, Herbert of Cherbury, Helvetius are the real infidels. While the Abbé Banier meant well, he was wrong when he tried to prove that Thales, Pythagoras, and heathen mythology “have a partial view of the Scripture history.”18 In this respect Witherspoon differs somewhat from Cotton Mather, and radically from William Penn, who ransacked ancient philosophy from Thales to Plotinus in order to prove the presence in every human being of the Indwelling Spirit.19 “I have,” declares the Scots preacher, “a much more lively idea of Jupiter and Juno, and many of their actions, from Homer and Vergil, though I do not believe that any of them ever existed, than I have of many things that I know happened within these few months.”20
The Moderates in the Scotch Kirk had always been the objects of Witherspoon’s scorn: he had denounced them in his Ecclesiastical Characteristics.21 They did not follow the Confession of Faith; they included in one benevolent embrace “the admirable heathens, Socrates, Plato, Marcus Antoninus, &c.”22 It is not true religion to “reckon Socrates and Plato to have been much greater men than any of the apostles.”23 The Moderates are like the eccentric artists in Horace’s opening lines of the Ars Poetica:
although they themselves regard such a monstrosity as a harmonious creation.24
These enemies of religion are like Julian the Apostate, whose method of suppressing the new creed was to encourage the philosophers and urge the pagan priests to steal a march on Christianity by a “mortified carriage.”25 Church Fathers should not be attacked by infidels while “the wise men of the heathen nations are suffered to possess, without contradiction, all the reputation which their countrymen in after ages have thought fit to bestow upon them.” Such modern infidels err “in following Nature,—the all-comprehensive rule of the ancients.” In satirizing these Moderates Witherspoon comes very near blasphemy: “I believe in the divinity of L. S---,26 the saintship of Marcus Antoninus, the perspicuity and sublimity of A-----e,27 and the perpetual duration of Mr. H------n’s28 works, notwithstanding their present tendency to oblivion.”29 Marcus Aurelius, he declares, and “Markii Medulla Theologiae” are two different matters.30 The ancients can be pardoned because they lived in darkness without revelation; but the Shaftesbury-Voltaire type of writer, appealing to Nature and relying on reason alone, is dangerous.
The fortress of Christianity is, therefore, in the eyes of Witherspoon, a home of revelation and inspiration. But for purposes of its defense one may call upon outside assistance: “The gospel has never been without enemies from without and within; and as it is usually by means of human learning that they make the attack, it is necessary that some should be ready to meet them and unravel the subtilty with which they lie in wait.”31 A classical parable illustrates this point of view: “An ancient artist, who, being employed to build a magnificent and elegant temple, had the ingenuity to inscribe upon it his own name, and so to incorporate it both with the ornaments and body of the structure, that it was impossible afterwards to efface the name, without at the same time destroying the fabrick. In the same manner, Christ dying for sin is engraven in such characters through the whole revealed will of God, that it is impossible to take it away without overturning the whole system.”32
In Witherspoon’s second phase, the “superintendency,” as Doctor Rodgers defined his presidency of the College of New Jersey, the Scottish-born leader applied all three of the fundamental elements to which reference has been made. When religion is the criterion, a clear distinction is set up for the students between “a knowledge of God natural in and by his works” (a process in which classical learning is essential) and “a knowledge supernatural out of the Word.” “Piety without literature is but little profitable, and learning without piety is pernicious to others and ruinous to the possessor.” The studies which, in his opinion, contribute most to theology are “Languages, Moral Philosophy, History sacred and profane, and Eloquence, including belles-lettres in general.” Cicero’s Archias is a model; for cultural pleasure is highly desirable.33 Greek and Latin should be read “both with pleasure and profit.” “So certain a truth is this, that one of the ancient authors34 gives it as a rule for moral conduct that men should always imagine themselves in the presence of such a man as Cato, renowned for gravity and virtue.” If a mortal can furnish such an example, how much more can God in His holiness accomplish!
For purposes of Moral Philosophy, the classics are regarded as essential. In the lecturer’s estimation, Cicero and Plato rank high, the latter frequently conveyed through the medium of Cudworth. While the Socratic “know thyself” is often mentioned, one is surprised that there is no reference to the Politicus,35 where Plato describes the cycles through which man has passed in this order: 1. a state of innocence and prosperity under divine direction; 2. the Fall; 3. still deeper decline into barbarism; 4. restoration of man by partial interference of God and the natural growth of arts and civilization. For in this passage Plato is a true Calvinist. Solomon’s prayer for an “understanding heart” is compared to that which Socrates taught Alcibiades, beseeching “the Supreme God to give him what was good for him, though he should not ask it, and to withhold from him whatever would be hurtful, though he should be so foolish as to pray for it.”36 Nor need one think too closely about any comparison with the Symposium, when, in a sermon on “A View of the Glory of God humbling to the Soul,” the preacher uses such a sentence as: “Any piece of deformity appears more hideous and shocking when compared with perfect beauty.”37 Cicero is approved on the lower level as a person of dignity and high standards: if only the De Natura Deorum were possessed of revelation, it would rank with any piece of literature extant.
In the second class come Xenophon, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, who “contain many moral sentiments but little or nothing of the principles of morals.” Most highly praised is the Tablet of Cebes, the dialogue which sets moral worth above erudition as an element of education. These ancients, however, are all aids and an effective background for the church as well as for the study. They furnish models of conduct: “It is a well-known saying of a heathen philosopher, that a great man, suffering with invincible patience under a weight of misfortunes, is a sight, which even the gods must behold with admiration.”38
This classical atmosphere follows Witherspoon in all his academic relations. When Hugh Henry Brackenridge on entering Princeton complained to his President that he had had a hard and poverty-dominated youth, quoting Juvenal:
Haud facile emergunt quorum virtutibus obstat
Res angusta domi;
Witherspoon retorted: “There you are wrong, young man! It is only your res angusta domi men that do emerge.”39 In his Seasonable Advice to Young Persons40 he declares it easier to ridicule and expose folly than to “reason with justice and propriety.” Even Socrates, “the wisest and best man of all the heathens . . . [was] successfully turned into ridicule by a person [presumably Aristophanes] whose writings . . . are to the last degree mean and contemptible.”41 Addressing the senior class on Sunday, September 23, 1775, he warns them42 of the close relationship between covetousness and profusion, quoting Sallust’s description of Catiline: alieni appetens, sui profusus. But he defends all those who feel a consciousness of rectitude in the face of attacks by the words magna est veritas et praevalebit. In a sermon preached in New York in May, 1789, On the Religious Education of Children,43 he urges the importance of a good example, quoting “the Roman Satyrist” [Juvenal]:
Nil dictu fœdum visuque hæc limina tangat
Intra quae puer est,
as well as the other famous phrase of the same author:
Maxima debetur puero reverential.44
In his Letters on Marriage45 he ridicules the current fashion of naming Venus and Minerva as allegorical compliments to young people in love.46 “I wish every Strephon and Daphne heartily well, and that the exalted and rapturous phrases of Arcadia may be soon brought down to the composed discourse of a quiet man and wife in Philadelphia.”47
These letters are clear; they read easily. The speaker understands young people. He compares the play of children with the futile pursuits of many of their elders: “Schemes of ambition, . . . political struggles, . . . contests for power . . . are often as great trifles as the playthings of children, only that they are the playthings of men.”48
Among undesirable playthings, in the preacher’s opinion, is the theatre. A Serious Inquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage49 reflects the current idea that the spoken drama was not yet emancipated into respectability. Others, he declares, “have made it undeniably appear that the theatre was opposed and condemned by the best and wisest men, both heathens and Christians, in every age.” Tertullian and Augustine50 are called to witness for proof of the infamy of the scenici. But Witherspoon is only half right when he makes the statement that “Particularly at Athens both tragedy and comedy were soon abolished on public authority; and among the Romans they did not permit any public theatre to continue above a certain number of days.”51 The theatre of Scaurus was soon taken down, and the first permanent one, that of Pompey, was not built until 55 b.c. Roman Law is quoted to show that actors were classed as infames; and the words of Seneca are invoked, although they apply rather to the amphitheatre than to the drama: nihil tam damnosum bonis moribus quam in aliquo spectaculo sedere.52 Plutarch is appealed to as frowning on Menander’s plays,53 and Witherspoon brands much of Aristophanes as puerilities. (So, however, did Arnold of Rugby.) Finally, the typical old Spartan answered an Athenian who spoke to him of the excellent lessons to be found in the Attic tragedies: “I think I could learn virtue much better from our own rules of truth and justice than by hearing your lies!” One also wonders why Witherspoon did not draw on Plato’s Republic for support of his views. Admitting, with Samuel Werenfels,54 that good school plays are sometimes worth while, and perhaps having in mind those of Westminster or the British universities or the Inns of Court, he concludes that the professional public stage is to be “viewed with abhorrence.” A Roscius, a Molière, a Shakespeare may “overcome the prepossession”; nevertheless, the Roman tribune was right when he said to Nero that he began to hate him when he became “a charioteer, a comedian, and a buffoon.” Aristotle may have been a perfect critic of the dramatic art, but the improvement of the art did not mean an improvement of the morals.
Witherspoon’s Lectures on Eloquence55 are the climax of his interest in the classical authors. They are Johnsonian rather than Addisonian in style. Like many of the eighteenth-century writers, he uses words with meanings closer to their Latin derivation than they are today. With him radical means “fundamental.” Denounce means “report unfavorably.” Ascertain signifies “make sure” rather than “discover.” When Witherspoon says incumbent, the meaning is “weighing heavily upon.” Police equals “civil government.” Discussing the value of a national capital, he suggests that it be “unfixed and ambulatory.” Obviate occurs in the sense of “go to meet” or “forestall.” Object (as a verb) is equivalent to “throw in the teeth of.” Notify implies that the thing is made known to the person rather than that the person is informed of the thing. And so in many other cases which need not be catalogued further.
These lectures will bear reading today; we can even now appreciate the gusto with which the President heard and criticized every senior at the delivery of his weekly oration. He follows and acknowledges Quintilian56 in recommending “for the complete orator a combination of natural talents and acquired skill.” Pericles, Demosthenes, and Cicero should be studied, and the rhetorical works of Cicero and Quintilian should be mastered. The trite story of his physical handicap brings the great Greek orator especially to Witherspoon’s attention because he himself had very nearly despaired of success as a speaker on account of his slowness of enunciation. The orator also, as all the ancient experts recommend, should be in hard training, live simply, and concentrate on his task.
A sound writer and speaker should, first, be thoroughly familiar with his own language, plus Latin and Greek. He should be master of syntax and forms: Latin gives “muscle” and Greek gives grace. What a difference exists between the Latin and modern Italian! Emphasizing the proper use of figures of speech, with illustrations from the classical and vernacular languages, and recommending frequent practice in style, the lecturer runs the whole gamut of suggestions for good writing and speaking. For example, personification is exemplified by the dialogue between Cicero and his beloved Italy. Euphemism is found in Cicero’s comment on the slaughter of Clodius by Milo’s servants: “They did that which every good man would want his servants to do in like circumstances.”57 Propriety avoids extravagance: it would be absurd to quote the passage from Homer where Jupiter brags that he could hang all the other gods on a chain and toss them up as easily as a ball, or (as Longinus also felt) the Hesiod episode which includes a disgusting description of the Goddess of Darkness.
The proper use of clausulae in sentence rhythm (for which he gives examples from Cicero) and the correct divisions of an oration should form the base of style. Proverbial advice, of the traditional type, is frequent: scribendum quam plurimum; nocturna versate manu, versate diurna; reddere auditorem attentum, benevolum, docilem; denique sit quodvis, simplex dumtaxat et unum.58
Livy should be studied for straightforwardness, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia for directness. Address different audiences in different ways: Seneca’s genus dicendi mutatur per publicos mores59 is very much to the point. Select from the short and “dry” method the elegant and ornate or the diffuse. The “pointed style” is compared with the brief and epigrammatic sentences of the English Gentleman Instructed. One must be cognizant of the five ingredients that are important for the leader who aims to convince—elevation, feeling, figures, nobility of language, and arrangement of words. Most vital of all are sales (wit), eutrapelia (appropriate manner), and urbanitas. That is why Lucian’s dialogues possess such charm, following Horace’s dictum:
et prodesse volunt et delectare poetae.60
All this is, to be sure, old-fashioned stuff for these modern days; but when one thinks of the results, in the shape of the men trained in this school of writing and thinking, one realizes the truth of the proverb so popular with the President himself: abeunt studia in mores. And Witherspoon was the first to admit that eloquence does not accomplish everything. He explains that when Caesar had it in mind to condemn Ligarius and was ultimately led to pardon him, it was accomplished not so much by the persuasive tongue of Cicero as by Caesar’s own habit of making friends by forgiving enemies, as well as by his desire to flatter and win over Cicero.61 It is anyhow a large-scale problem; and Cicero’s own Archias points the way: omnes artes quae ad humanitatem pertinent, habent quoddam commune vinculum.62
The third phase of Witherspoon’s activity is the most impressive—his preparation of young men for political life and his own participation in national affairs. He established graduate courses “to fit young gentlemen for serving their country in public stations.”63 In Scotland he had taken a modest part in local affairs; but in the colonies he believed that a clergyman should apply his morals and learning to national matters. As a member of the Continental Congress, he objected to the clause in the constitution of Georgia which forbade a minister to serve in the legislature. It was a duty. In a sermon On Nature under Sin, he explained his idea: “I have in view the sages and legislators of antiquity, who acquired so much renown by establishing systems of policy and government for different states. What was this else but taming the savage, and restraining the profligate part of their fellow-creatures?”64 What Witherspoon desired was the σπουδαιότης of the classical writers, directed efficiently to modern statecraft. Guidance is vital: “Some states are formed to subsist by sobriety and parsimony, as the Lacedaemonians. . . . Public spirit in others, as in Greece, ancient Rome, and Britain. . . . Sometimes [public spirit] is a passion for acquiring glory and dominion, as in Rome, and sometimes for preserving liberty, as in Greece and Britain.”65 By such illustrations he oriented the minds of his students. He believed earnestly in the future of America. Ancient systems may have been founded “by caprice or accident, by the influence of prevailing parties, or particular persons, or prescribed by a conqueror”; but America was settled on a large and cooperative scale. In some details his statements may be inaccurate; but his main aim was the building of a great republic.
“Nature” and “Natural Rights” were of course ingredients of many articles and speeches by Witherspoon. Beginning with Winthrop’s “liberty natural and liberty civil,” they had occupied colonial pamphleteers. Provided Nature, with all its implications of human inadequacy, is not used in a religious sense, as in the opinions of the deists and the Moderates, it is a good weapon for American rights. And so, when the lecturer remarks: “Separate and independent states are, with regard to one another, in a state of natural liberty, or as man to man before the commencement of civil society,”66 we can hear the voice of both Cicero and Samuel Adams. Fortified by ancient testimony, as well as by reading in modern political economists, Witherspoon marched in the vanguard, with Ulpian and the Stoics, toward the Declaration of Independence.67
This “State of Nature” is, in the President’s opinion, only the prelude to a properly balanced social order. He stands half-way between the Winthrops and the Cottons (who shuddered at Nature in this sense) and keen practical politicians like Dulany and Sam Adams, who felt that the colonies were free from Great Britain and therefore were “in a state of Nature.”68 He commends “imperfect natural rights,”—such as gratitude, and mutual good offices. These, he tells us, are what the Stoics called “advantages.” But in the social stage which follows the natural stage, liberty should be continued, and the mixed form of government (here he agrees with Winthrop) should be maintained. He follows Aristotle and Polybius. The doctrine is stamped with the seal of Montesquieu, and approved by such statesmen as Daniel Dulany of Maryland and James Madison.
The “compact” is a vital thing. “In migrations and the planting of colonies, we see evident traces of an original contract and consent taken to the principles of union.”69 In this way natural liberty is corrected by the Law of Nature and Nations, with the “law of general Reason” overall. Because of this belief, when Article 17 of the Confederation was being discussed, Witherspoon opposed Franklin, holding out for one vote for each state, instancing the fate of the Helots in Sparta and the Roman provincials.70 In the Continental Congress, he pressed for the “information” (i.e., development) of the original confederation, and for more control by the Federal government.71 He belonged to the Committee of Secret Correspondence, fought paper currency, and wrote An Essay on Money.72 The main point of the Essay is the undesirability of debasing the medium of exchange; and of course the author spoke feelingly. In comparison with his fellow-countryman Adam Smith, the learned Doctor is not profound; he cites President Goguet’s “Rise and Progress of the Laws, Arts, and Sciences,” explaining the derivation of pecunia, discoursing on the money of Servius Tullius, which was stamped with likenesses of sheep and oxen, and commenting on the bronze weapons of the Homeric heroes. It is much less interesting than the congressional debates in which the author took a prominent part.
A speech in Congress on the convention with General Burgoyne contains a warning to his countrymen that they (the Americans) should live up to their agreements and not give the British just cause for complaint that the articles of surrender were not being carried out. He illustrates the situation by the behavior of the Romans when their army was captured at the Caudine Forks;73 the Romans sent the defeated consul back to the Samnites rather than approve the terms of peace. Rome broke the league agreement and sent an army against the enemy, in spite of the courteous behavior of the Samnites toward the consul. The Samnites, he concludes, were not wise, and the Romans were not honorable.
Under the pseudonym of “Aristides” Witherspoon discusses Paine’s Common Sense and attacks the author of Plain Truth.74 He is against all forms of communism: Sparta had a system somewhat like it, and a breakdown resulted. When enlarging on the evils and horrors of civil war, he draws lessons from Marius and Sulla.75 Rulers should conduct themselves, at any rate, like Philip of Macedon, who “heard reproofs not only with patience but with pleasure.” In all history, Cicero appeals to Witherspoon as the only man who behaved better in a prosperous than in an afflicted state: he was at least dignified in prosperity, while abject in adversity, perhaps because pride was his ruling passion. A worthy example for all statesmen is the self-sacrifice of Fabius: when his rash colleague engaged the enemy contrary to orders, Fabius made himself responsible for the defeat, and thus won a great victory. This story illustrates the quality of magnanimity.76
A satire or squib77 entitled The Supplication of J. R------contains an attack on “Hortensius,” the Tory governor of New Jersey. Witherspoon represents Rivington as saying: “I have served many of the British officers in a most honorable station and character, of which the great Pandarus of Troy was the most ancient example.” This mock-plea for protection on the departure of the British was addressed to Henry Laurens, President of Congress, and is full of Latin proverbs like the slogan nemo me impune lacessit and egomet sum proximus mihi. The writer also puts into his mouth a phrase indicating the danger of offending Scotchmen: Buchanan’s perfervidum est Scotorum ingenium.
The titles of senior theses and Latin orations by Witherspoon’s students at Princeton reveal the usual number of topics chosen on the theme of resistance to the mother country. In 1771 Freneau and Brackenridge had composed jointly a poetical dialogue on The Rising Glory of America, and Witherspoon’s son James had defended in a 1770 Latin oration the same theme which Samuel Adams had selected at Harvard in 1743—that subjects were justified in resistance if the government were tyrannical. In 1774 T. H. McCaule delivered a Latin salutatory, Bellum Servituti Anteponendum.78 Some of these eloquent thrusts seem far-fetched, as in the case of a boy orator in 1783 who, in the presence of Washington himself, in the course of an impassioned speech on the removal of Caesar by Brutus, caused a British officer named Michaelis (who was on parole and in the audience) to wonder regarding the appropriateness of the allusion. But he had probably forgotten that a parallel between Caesar and George III had originally been suggested by Patrick Henry, and was now presumably a cry of triumph rather than a reference to George Washington.79
The result of this training did not end in the classroom or on the platform. The practical politics to which it introduced so many of Witherspoon’s pupils is his crowning glory. We may amend upwards the figures given in the tribute of Doctor Rodgers, who stated that more than thirty congressmen had received this hallmark. President Madison heads the list. Aaron Burr, whose disgrace the old man was lucky enough to have pre-deceased, was probably the most brilliant student of them all. Ten Cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one United States senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (three on the Federal Supreme Court), and over fifty state legislators make up an astonishing number.80 While there was much duplication, and while in those days leadership in public affairs was held as a rule by college-bred men of property, and granting that the Presbyterian tradition was strongest in the Middle States, the sum total is still impressive.
We may conclude that in Witherspoon we find a character remarkably close to all the problems of colonial life. Besides his familiarity with contemporary conditions, the classical heritage was expressed by him in terms that every church-goer or student or politician could understand. In his system, the policies were all workable; they were not mere abstractions. His Justice, Temperance, Prudence, and Fortitude, with the Greek ideal of ἐγκράτεια, or Self-Restraint, translated themselves not only into discourses but into the lives of his pupils and the measures debated on the floor of Congress. One recognizes Cicero, Aristotle, and Montesquieu, blending with the common-sense philosophy of an earnest churchman, and resulting in a constructive Americanism. The often-asked question: “Can the procedures of a large state or nation be conducted like those of the ancient Greek city-state, where every free citizen had a vote?” was a frequent subject of debate by John Witherspoon and his colleagues. They only made a beginning of the solution. The uphill struggle still continues.