John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794) is remembered today as one of only two Scots among the 56 ‘signers’ of the Declaration of American Independence and the only clergyman to have added his name to the list of founding fathers of the nation that was set to become the United States. On that basis alone, Witherspoon earns his place as an important figure in the early history of the ‘Empire of Liberty’ – even though he has been described by some American scholars as the ‘forgotten Founder.’
But Witherspoon had two careers. His American career (as College President at Princeton and an influential politician in the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary war period) has understandably tended to overshadow his earlier career in Scotland as a leading light within the Popular (or Evangelical) party in the Church of Scotland at a time when the Kirk was dominated by the Moderates led by such men as William Robertson, Hugh Blair and Alexander ‘Jupiter’ Carlyle. This study shows that he had few friends among the preponderance of Moderate ministerial colleagues in the Presbytery of Paisley.
The ground-breaking research underpinning this book reveals for the first time the full astonishing story of Witherspoon’s involvement in an action against him in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, a process that was begun by a lawyer, John Snodgrass, and five others in 1762 and was not determined until 1776, by which time the Paisley minister had long left Scotland for a new life as sixth President of the College of New Jersey. The process would engage the professional skills of some of the most celebrated figures in Scottish advocacy of the period, including George Wallace, Henry Dundas, David Dalrymple, Charles Hay and Andrew Crosbie.
In an important ‘Concluding Essay’ the author makes a convincing case for the Snodgrass affair having influenced Witherspoon’s decision to make a new life for himself and his family in America, demolishing the traditional view that it was somehow irrelevant to that decision.