Open Letter to President Eisgruber and Princeton's Board of Trustees

March 01, 2023 4 min read

Open Letter to President Eisgruber and Princeton's Board of Trustees

To: President Eisgruber
      Members of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University

We are writing to you on behalf of Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS) to bring to your attention important new information relating to the petition to remove the statue of John Witherspoon from its prominent place on the plaza near Firestone Library and the Chapel. PFS is a Princeton alumni organization devoted to promoting free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at Princeton. Thousands of Princeton alumni, as well as many students, faculty, and university staff, follow PFS on our website.

PFS believes that this new information, particularly that obtained from tax records pertaining to Witherspoon’s ownership of slaves, changes the narrative of the debate on removal of the statue and challenges the basic assertions in the petition. In addition, the listening sessions took place without participants being aware of the true history of Witherspoon. Furthermore, this new information shows the history of Witherspoon on the University’s Princeton and Slavery Project website to be both incomplete and misleading.

The narrative about Witherspoon that was presented by the petitioners may be summarized as: Yes, he was important to Princeton, and he signed the Declaration of Independence and participated in other actions relating to the founding of our country; but he also owned slaves and opposed the immediate emancipation of slaves in New Jersey. Even before the new revelations, this framing of the issue was misleading. First it understates the importance of Witherspoon to Princeton. He is arguably the most important figure in Princeton’s history and may well have saved the University from failure. Second it understates Witherspoon’s role in the founding of our country. He was involved at great personal risk. If the American Revolution had failed -- and it almost did several times -- he likely would have been hung. He not only signed the Declaration of Independence (the only member of the clergy to do so), he also signed the Articles of Confederation, served actively in the Continental Congress, and was central to New Jersey’s ratifying the Constitution, which was considered a critical event at the time, when ratification was far from certain.

With respect to slavery, it had already been established that Witherspoon had baptized a runaway slave in Scotland and tutored two former slaves at Princeton. Furthermore, it was already clear from the historical record that he (like many others) believed that slavery was rapidly dying out in the United States. That proved incorrect, in large part because the cotton gin and other new technology hugely increased the yield of raw cotton and thus the demand for slave labor to pick it, with the number of slave states rising from six in 1790 to 15 in 1860. Witherspoon also believed it important that freed slaves not be put out into society without being provided with the educational and economic tools they would need to succeed. This latter point is developed more fully in a  January 26, ‘23 article containing significant new information about Witherspoon by Kevin DeYoung, an expert on his life. It is also noteworthy, as DeYoung points out, that Witherspoon was a leading figure in the Presbyterian Church organization that in 1787 issued a statement calling for “eventually, the final abolition of slavery in America.” (Emphasis in the original.)

The most important new information in this DeYoung article is newly uncovered tax information from the New Jersey State Archives. While the Archives contain gaps, what they show is that Witherspoon owned one slave in 1780 and two in 1784, 1785, and 1786. 1787 is missing. However, from 1788 until Witherspoon’s death in 1794, he is shown as owning zero slaves, and his wife the next year is shown as owning zero slaves. It therefore seems likely that, in some fashion, Witherspoon had moved to “emancipate” his slaves. This puts an entirely different light on the assertion about his slave ownership that is the basis of the petition. 

As the DeYoung article lays out, this thesis that Witherspoon in some fashion had moved to “emancipate” his slaves is supported by the fact that there is also listed in the tax records for the years 1792, 1793, and 1794 another Witherspoon, designated as a Negro, and listed as owning cattle and as a householder. Given that at the time a freed slave almost always shared the last name of the landowner, it is likely that this was one of the slaves that had been listed on the tax rolls until 1786. These tax records may well mean that Witherspoon gave his slaves a share of his estate in preparation for their full legal emancipation and therefore no longer counted them as slaves. This conclusion is supported by the philosophy on slavery in Witherspoon’s own writings and by the 1787 statement on slavery of the Presbyterian Church in which he participated.

We do not know, and may never know, exactly what happened after 1786. As the DeYoung article points out, there are uncertainties in the record, and there is language in the appraisal of his estate relating to two slaves. What is clear is that with this new discovery in the New Jersey tax records the simplistic narrative in the petition to remove the statue is now highly questionable and should not be the basis for a decision by the naming committee. It is now incumbent on the University to do further research before making any decision.
The Witherspoon statue controversy directly tests Princeton’s stated commitment to academic freedom, intellectual diversity and open debate in the pursuit of truth. Without a full airing of historical evidence and perspectives on the life and legacy of John Witherspoon, Princeton’s leadership will acquiesce to the pall of orthodoxy that currently undermines the quality and vitality of academic life at Princeton.

Stuart Taylor, Jr  ‘70 -- President, Princetonians for Free Speech
Edward L. Yingling  ’70 -- Secretary, Princetonians for Free Speech
Todd Rulon-Miller  ’73 -- Treasurer, Princetonians for Free Speech
Leslie Spencer  ’79 -- Member of the Executive Committee, Princetonians for Free Speech

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