John Witherspoon and the right of resistance

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Bartley, David D.
Hoover, Dwight W.
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Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of History
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This study investigated one central aspect of the political views of John Withexspoon: His steadfast belief in the right of resistance. A product of the Reformation and Enlightenment movements, this doctrine offered justification for questioning the authority of magistrates acting contrary to their sovereignty: it further compelled disobedience to unjust laws and the removal of unjust officials to protect the instituted social order. The context of post-Union Scottish society provided a distinct setting for Witherspoon's introduction to resistance theory. As a devout Scottish Presbyterian and a learned Enlightenment scholar, Withexspoon commanded a thorough understanding of this civil-religious right and duty to protect society.Through his education at Edinburgh University, Witherspoon became acquainted with the substance of Scottish Enlightenment philosophy. Edinburgh instructors utilized the writings of Commonwealth theorists and the classical writers to construct their views of society and social obligation: Society was a constituted civil order, restrained by law, preserved by the efforts of every individual citizen. Witherspoon's Scottish ecclesiastical heritage served to vindicate his Enlightenment education by echoing a similar view of restraint and balance.Covenant Pianism, the product of the 16th-Century reformer John Knox and the Westminster Assembly of the 1640s, invoked the supremacy of a sovereign God over all instituted states. In the Scotsman's view, human depravity and selfish ambition would destroy government if not for the diligent vigil of involved, virtuous citizens. Members of society were thus obliged to oppose tyranny -the unjust, illegitimate exercise of civil-religious authority. Hence, both academic enterprise and doctrinal conviction provided Witherspoon a firm theoretical foundation to support the right of resistance.As President of Princeton during the Anglo-American crisis of the 1770s, Witherspoon directed the education of many future leaders of the new American nation. He was certainly not an idealistic crusader nor a reluctant follower, but consistently argued for the right of American colonists to resist the tyranny of England's Parliament. An early supporter of independence, Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign Jefferson's Declaration. His most significant contributions, though, were made as a committee member in the Second Continental Congress.