Not All Presbyterians Were Radical Whigs in April 1776

This morning I was reading the memoirs of Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), a Presbyterian lawyer from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, the president of the Continental Congress (1782-83), and the first president of the American Bible Society (1816).

Boudinot was a strong supporter of the American cause, but in the months leading up to July 4, 1776 he was a bit more conservative than some of his fellow Presbyterian Whigs. Boudinot thought that John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, was moving far too quickly toward independence in some of his speeches and political activities.

In April 1776, Boudinot attended a meeting of the Board of Trustrees of the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian school in Princeton that Witherspoon had transformed into a bastion of American patriotism. After a routine day of business, Boudinot found it odd that Witherspoon did not show up for the second day of meetings.  What college president skips out on a meeting of his own Board of Trustees?  There must have been something more important to tend to.  And there was.

Witherspoon had left the Trustees meeting to give a speech to a gathering of New Jersey county representatives who had answered an anonymous call in a New York newspaper to come to New Brunswick for the purpose of discussing a “matter which greatly concerned the province.” As the delegates learned upon their arrival to New Brunswick, it was Witherspoon himself who had called this meeting for the purpose of “declaring a separation from Great Brittain.”

Meanwhile, on his return to Elizabethtown following the College of New Jersey Trustees meeting, Boudinot and his traveling companion, William Peartree Smith, stopped at New Brunswick to feed their horses. They soon learned that Witherspoon was not only the driving force behind the delegates meeting, but he was also planning a speech later that afternoon to try to convince the delegates to support independence.  Concerned that Witherspoon’s ideas were too radical, and perhaps wondering what kind of revolutionary fire Witherspoon was going to try to ignite among the gathering of delegates, Boudinot and Smith decided to make a stop at the meeting before heading to Woodbridge for dinner.  Here is his description of what happened that afternoon in New Brunswick:

We accordingly attended the Meeting in the Afternoon when Dr. W rose and in a very able and elegant speech of one hour and an half endeavoured to convince the audience & the Committee of the absurdity of opposing the extravagant demands of Great Brittain, while we were professing a perfect allegiance to her Authority and supporting her courts of Justice.  The Character of the speaker, his great Influence among the people, his known attachment to the liberties of the People, and the artful manner in which he represented the whole subject, as worthy their attention, had an effect, on the assembly that astonished me.

Boudinot was obviously impressed by Witherspoon’s rhetorical skills, but he was also angered by the Princeton president’s political scheming.

I never felt myself in a more mortifying Situation.  The anonymous publication; The Meeting of the Trustees of the College but the Day before made up wholly of Presbyterians; Their President leaving them to attend the meeting & avowing himself the Author of it; The Doctor known to be at the head of the Presbyterian Interest; and Mr Smith & Myself both Presbyterians, arriving at New Brunswick in the morning, as if intending to go forward & then staying an attending the meeting, altogether looked so like a preconcerted Scheme, to accomplish the End, that I was at my wit’s end, to know how to extricate myself from so disagreeable a situation, especially as the measure was totally ag[ainst] my Judgment.

I am still trying to decipher what Boudinot is saying here, especially related to his remark that the Princeton board meeting was scheduled a day before the New Brunswick meeting and the former meeting was “made up wholly of Presbyterians.”  Does this means tha Boudinot believed that Witherspoon scheduled the New Brunswick meeting at the time he did precisely because he knew there would be a large number of Presbyterian patriots down the road in Princeton who might come to New Brunswick to support his political ends?

Whatever the case, Boudinot would not allow Witherspoon to dominate the New Brunswick meeting. When the opportunity arose, he gave a thirty-minute extemporaneous speech opposing Witherspoon’s plea for independence.  Boudinot claimed that Witherspoon’s plan:

…was neither founded in Wisdom, Prudence, nor Economy; That we had a chosen Continental Congress, to whom we had resigned the Consideration of our public affairs; That they, coming from every part of the Union, would best represent all the Colonies not thus united.  They would know the true Situation of our Country with regard to finances, Union & the prospects we had of a happy reconciliation with the Mother Country…”

Of course Boudinot could not have been more wrong about the Continental Congress. Two months later its members would take the radical step of breaking with England. And it would be Witherspoon, representing the New Jersey delegation, who would end up signing the Declaration of Independence.

But on this particular day, Boudinot was victorious. After his dissenting remarks, Witherspoon responded and a debate between the two Presbyterians ensued on the floor of the meeting.  When Boudinot sensed that he had the upper hand and had won over the delegates with his rhetoric, he called for a vote on independence. Witherspoon was not happy:

The Doctor was a good deal out of humoor & contended warmly against a vote, but a large Majority of the Meeting insisted on a Vote, which, being taken, out of 35 Members, there were but 3 or 4 who Voted for the Doctors proposition, the rest rejecting it with great warmth.  Thus ended this first attempt to try to the pulse of the People of New Jersey on the Subject of Independence….”

Stay tuned for more stuff like this when and if I ever complete my manuscript: “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.”  I am hoping to make some good headway this summer.

3 thoughts on “Not All Presbyterians Were Radical Whigs in April 1776

  1. Thought so too. I also enjoyed the use of “warmly,” which clearly means “heatedly” here.

    Should be kept in mind as we read the Founding docs, that Brit sense of understatement. To this day, in Brit sport—esp cricket, the gentleman's game—“an “ordinary” performance means it sucked.

    A strong performance is often tabbed “useful.”


  2. I think that perhaps Dr. B was suggesting that Dr. W had constructed the trustees meetings to make it appear that he had the support of the trustees. Then with Dr. B and his companion happening to be in town and stopping in to see what he was up to, it would appear that Dr. B supported Dr. W's position, which he did not, and was mortified to think he might be associated with. Just a guess from a non-historian. Take it for what it is (or isn't) worth. 🙂


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