How Princeton is dealing with John Witherspoon’s slave ownership

Princeton 2018 2

The Witherspoon statue at Princeton University

I must have missed this from two weeks ago, but the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to change the name of John Witherspoon Middle School because the Presbyterian minister, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and former president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now Princeton University) owned slaves.

Marissa Michaels has it covered at The Daily Princetonian. She also reports on an attempt to remove the Witherspoon statue from the campus of Princeton University. Here is a taste of her piece:

Their petition — which has garnered 1,558 signatures — reads, “In the midst of the ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, this has created the opportune moment for John Witherspoon Middle School to rid itself of its slave-owning and anti-abolitionist namesake … This change is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and district’s racially diverse student body.”

A full letter to the Board, which includes alumni testimony, outlines the reasons for the Witherspoon name removal, citing the Princeton & Slavery Project. Witherspoon, the University’s sixth president (1768–94), owned slaves, as did his children. In 1790, Witherspoon and the majority of a New Jersey Board voted against helping to abolish slavery, believing it was “already dying out.” Slavery in New Jersey, however, continued until the end of the Civil War.

Witherspoon’s legacy has also sparked debate at the institution over which he once presided. An early-July open letter signed by over 350 University faculty members called on Nassau Hall to remove a campus statue of Witherspoon. When asked about the letter then, University Spokesperson Ben Chang said the administration was “currently reviewing these and other suggestions for change that have been made by members of our community” as part of a process laid out in June.

In a controversial response, classics professor Joshua Katz wrote, “Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the  building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved  away—but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the  Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and  American history with a complex relationship to slavery.”

Witherspoon middle school

My take on this story is similar to what I wrote about the removal of the George Whitefield statue at the University of Pennsylvania.

If Princeton University does decide to remove the Witherspoon statue, we should not interpret the decision as “erasing history.” We will still talk about Witherspoon. In fact, he features quite prominently in my uncompleted book manuscript (very) tentatively titled, “God in the Crossroads: The American Revolution in New Jersey.”