Will Princeton's Leadership Airbrush Witherspoon Out of Princeton's History?

December 04, 2023 8 min read

This article by PFS co-founder Stuart Taylor, Jr. recounts the controversy surrounding the Witherspoon statue located on Firestone Plaza. The attempted cancellation of Witherspoon and what it means for academic freedom at Princeton has been a focus of our attention, as you can see in our just-published Annual Report HERE. If you like what we are doing, please consider a year-end donation to PFS HERE 

December 4, 2023
By Stuart Taylor, Jr. 

The University’s official proceedings on the petition by assorted students and faculty members to remove from its prominent setting on Firestone Plaza the bronze statue of Princeton’s greatest president, John Witherspoon, are looking bleak for the statue, for the memory of Witherspoon, and perhaps also that of other founders of the United States.

 The second and apparently final symposium on the statue, held on November 3 by the University’s Committee on Naming, was notable for the absence of any unambiguousstatement by any of the five invited speakers or by the moderator, Associate Professor Beth Lew-Williams, that the statue should be left standing undisturbed where it was placed in 2001, with the strong support of respected then-President Harold Shapiro.

 Instead, as reported by Julie Bonette in the Princeton Alumni Weekly  on November 16: “Though the speakers at the second Committee on Naming symposium on Princeton’s John Witherspoon statue were specifically asked not to make recommendations for the future of the statue, one presenter advocated for the destruction or permanent storage of monuments with ties to racism, and others alluded to adding contextual information, displaying it in the University’s new art museum, displaying an empty pedestal, and toppling the statue, which one presenter described as ‘a bad work of art.’ ”

 But a privately prepared transcript of the proceeding shows that one speaker, Patricia Eunji Kim, said during the Q&A: “This is my opinion, right? It’s probably better to just like, leave it up.” But the Q&A was omitted from the video of the symposium released by the Naming Committee – just the Q&A was omitted from the video of the first, April 21 symposium, during which Princeton Associate Professor Emmanuel Bourbouhakis said that he opposed removing the Witherspoon’s statue now because of condemnation of his ownership of slaves, would have to be understood as a damnatio memoriae, a modern Latin phrase meaning “condemnation of memory.”

 These omissions skewed against Witherspoon each video’s account of what was said at the two symposiums.

 Lew-Williams also summarized the April 21 symposium statements – including some favorable to Witherspoon -- and reviewed his role as a leader in the struggle for American independence and an advocate for gradual abolition.

 The PAWarticle did not mention who chose the five speakers: Rachael DeLue, a Princeton art professor; Ron McCoy Jr., the University architect; Renee Alter, a visiting professor in Africana Studies; Louis Nelson, a University of Virginia professor of architectural history; and Kim, an NYU professor of ancient art and culture.

 It appears that subordinates of Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber played prominent roles in choosing them. The CPUC (Council of the Princeton University Community) Committee on Naming’s ten current members are Princeton’s Vice President and Secretary Hilary A. Parker, a senior adviser to Eisgruber; Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter; three students; an architect; and four faculty members including Lew-Williams, the committee chair. The CPUC chair is Eisgruber.

 Three additional Eisgruber subordinates are identified on the website as “Sits with the Committee”: Kevin Heaney, Vice President for Advancement, Shawn Maxam, Senior Associate Director for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, and Nakia White Barr, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Affairs in the Office of the President. Barr issued email invitations for both the April and November Witherspoon Symposiums.

 Lew-Williams introduced the second symposium by thanking “especially Shawn Maxam, Heather Boyce, and Nakia Barr who . . . brought these experts to us.” Boyce, Administrative Assistant in the Office of the Provost, is listed as assistant to both Minter and Maxam.

 Witherspoon, who was recruited from Scotland to be Princeton’s president, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence (at risk of imprisonment or death) and a leader of the Continental Congress and the Presbyterian Church during his tenure from 1768-1994, which included saving the University from bankruptcy.

 He was described at the time of the statue’s installation as “one of the most towering figures in Princeton’s history” by then-Vice President and Secretary of the University Robert Durkee, who added that “the creation of such a compelling sculpture by a gifted artist presented us with a tangible way to remind all who live, work and visit on this campus of the pivotal role Witherspoon played in shaping this University and this nation.”

 The case for removing the statue is that Witherspoon owned slaves, as did a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and opposed immediate abolition of slavery.

 The case for keeping the statue in place is that Witherspoon consistently supported total, though gradual, abolition of slavery; that he appears to have arranged for the emancipation of his own two slaves after his death, fragmentary New Jersey tax ratable records suggest; that he baptized a fugitive slave; and that he tutored free black men at Princeton.

 Moreover, in his political life, as respected Princeton History Professor Sean Wilentz stressed at the April 26 Witherspoon symposium, Witherspoon “challenged the pro-slavery claim that abolition was unlawful, still the dominant view in New Jersey politics.  And he did so unequivocally as a member of the New Jersey General Assembly.” Wilentz added:“Witherspoon not only upheld that idea, the pro-abolitionist idea; he actually acted on it.”

 These historical facts, to which none of the speakers at the November 3 symposium alluded, suggest that John Witherspoon was enlightened for his time about slavery -- far more so than George Washington (more than 100 slaves plus his wife’s more than 200), Thomas Jefferson (more than 600 slaves), and James Madison (more than 100), whom Witherspoon taught at Princeton. Moreover, Witherspoon stood out among them in his willingness to educate black people.

 But the historical evidence favorable to Witherspoon played no apparent role in the presenters’ analyses.  More generally, Witherspoon’s critics and the public have been misinformed by themisleading portrayals of his relation to slavery both by two online essays created by the Princeton & Slavery Project — “John Witherspoon” and“Princeton and Abolition” -- and by the official University website’s section headed “To Be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University.”

 ThePrinceton & Slavery Project’s essay on Witherspoon has portrayed him since 2017 in a misleadingly harsh light and has repeatedly twisted facts to assume the worst about his motivations. As PFS stressed in an editorial in April, the essay says that he “contributed to the United States becoming a cradle of slavery from its very founding,” “denied enslaved people their humanity and defined them simply as another form of property” and “retained ownership over” his two slaves, showing “an unwillingness to subject himself to the same moral philosophy he advocated to his students.”

The historical facts, on the contrary, show that Witherspoon consistently advocated gradual abolition of slavery (as noted above), which he and many others incorrectly believed would die out before long. The history also suggests that he “likely practiced what he preached by making [his slave] ‘Forton Weatherspoon’ a householder of his own and giving him the opportunity to be fully emancipated, which he appears to have been shortly after Witherspoon’s death.” (See Kevin DeYoung, A Fuller Measure of Witherspoon on Slavery, published by PFS.) 

 “To Be Known and Heard,” acontroversial web presentation by two University offices (the Carl A. Fields Center and the Office of Wintersession) that remains on the University website, misleadingly statedthat Witherspoon “recognized the immorality of slavery but did not fight for abolition.” The April 21 Sean Wilentz analysis quoted above suggests otherwise.

 And actual tax records indicate, DeYoung explains, that Witherspoon had begun as of 1788, six years before his death, to emancipate his two slaves and to provide them with the economic means to succeed – acting on the moral philosophy of gradual emancipation that he had urged on others, contrary to the Princeton websites’ portrayal of him as a hypocrite.

Even the Project acknowledged that Witherspoon had baptized a runaway slave in 1756 while serving in Scotland as a Presbyterian minister and tutored two freed African men in 1774 while serving as Princeton’s president

Meanwhile, the author of the Project’s 2017 John Witherspoon Essay, Lesa Redmond, said at the first Witherspoon symposium in April that historical understanding and her views have changed and she had come to give Witherspoon “the benefit of doubt.” 

 The Project’s deeply flawed Witherspoon essay heavily influenced the May 2022 petition to remove the statue that is now awaiting recommendation by the Naming Committee and subsequent action by President Eisgruber. He highly praised the Princeton & Slavery Project at its launch in 2017. Like the Project’s leaders, Eisgruber has ignored formal, documented requests by Bill Hewitt ’74 and byPrincetonians for Free Speech to correct misleading depictions of Witherspoon on the two websites.

 Hewitt has filed a formal complaint with the Judicial Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community requesting a full hearing on the merits and correction of what he calls the University’s “shameful” continuing display of misleading criticisms of Witherspoon on slavery. He also seeks a ruling that the Witherspoon statue should remain in place.

 If the powers that be decide to start down this path of cancellation, where will it lead? The James Madison statue on East Pyne’s west tower (near a second Witherspoon statue) and the George Washington portrait in the Nassau Hall Faculty Room may be the next targets. Not to mention the names in Nassau Hall’s Memorial Atrium of Princetonians who died fighting for the Confederacy,  as the project to brand as bad people most of the founders of our nation – and of Princeton University – and a lot of our other forebears rolls ahead.

 As PFS said in submission sent to Princeton almost a year ago, the push to cancel historical figures such as Witherspoon has profound implications for freedom of speech and thought -- which are already in eclipse at Princeton after Eisgruber’s 2022 ruling eviscerating Princeton’s pro-free-speech policy, which he purports to support, and a similarly shocking ruling by Minter. The PFS submission stated:

 “The petitioners [who seek removal of the statue] argue that Princeton, is a ‘home’ and therefore a place where students should feel comfortable and protected from disturbing associations. They argue that honoring John Witherspoon in such a prominent way in Firestone Plaza requires confronting the monument, which [for some is said to be] ‘jarring’ and upsetting, and will, the petition claims, make them feel ‘less at home’ because Witherspoon’s legacy includes the fact that he owned slaves. Is Princeton a ‘home’ in this sense of intellectual comfort and refuge? Princeton is supposed to be a place of learning, a place where rigorous debate and disputation are central to the process of education. It is a place designed to stretch minds, to challenge assumptions, to foster curiosity and humility. In short, it is a place that is meant to be sometimes uncomfortable, as Princeton’s own commitment to free speech and academic freedom implicitly affirms.

“The petition assumes a monolithic point of view among students, particularly students of color, when they see or pass by the statue honoring a historical figure who was at once foundational both to Princeton and to the fledgling nation, and who was also was an owner of slaves. In fact, however, students of every ethnicity and background possess widely varied views, not towards the ethics of slavery as an institution, but towards how they, today, should think about people, norms and practices of different eras.”

Stuart Taylor, Jr. is co-founder of Princetonians for Free Speech.

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