Sunday, July 4, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Rev. John Witherspoon, on America's 'Cause of Justice, of Liberty, and of Human Nature’)

“You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely confined to those parts of the earth where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle, from the imperfection of human society, and the unjust decisions of usurped authority. There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”—Rev. John Witherspoon (1722-1794), President of Princeton and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men” (May 1776)

In case that surname sounds familiar: Yes, John Witherspoon was indeed an ancestor of Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon—one of her proudest boasts.

As the only clergyman and college president to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Rev. Witherspoon would have commanded a great deal of attention in the Continental Congress and the early republic in any case. Yet he also exerted influence as the teacher of the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison.

Fifteen years ago, in an essay for The New Criterion, Roger Kimball lamented Witherspoon’s status as “The Forgotten Founder.” Unfortunately, if the minister is better known today, it is not because his views on the impact of virtue on republics have become more widely disseminated, but because his status as a slaveholder led the Princeton Board of Education to remove his name from a middle school last year.

You can read more about this decision in this August 2020 article in the Daily Princetonian. It is instructive, however, to note one of the names proposed to replace Witherspoon: Paul Robeson. If the school board hoped for someone with fewer blemishes than Witherspoon for this honor—or for an avoidance of reckoning with a painful past—they were mistaken.

For all their expressed concern about shielding students from a “hostile environment,” the 1,000 signers of the anti-Witherspoon petition and the board of education that supinely followed their lead in removing the cleric’s name only left these youngsters woefully unprepared to survive in a contentious, complicated world—afraid to debate with skillful persuasion the racists of today who pose a real threat, and lacking the traditional adult understanding that even the best of humans are intellectually, emotionally and spiritually disjointed and damaged. 

Sadly, they are as unable to grapple with dissent as hard-right politicians, who—dreading even want a hint that the prominent Texas Revolution members (including Alamo defenders) might have died for the right to own and trade in slaves—have created bills to restrict how this foundational state conflict is taught.

Despite all his legendary achievements as athlete, singer, actor, and activist, Robeson also, as blogger and commentator Andrew Sullivan noted in 2003, eulogized Joseph Stalin, “one of the worst mass murderers in human history,” upon the dictator's passing in 1953. Robeson did not denounce the anti-Semitic campaign that would claim the lives of poet Itzik Feffer within the Soviet Union, nor the Stalinist “cult of personality” revealed by Nikita Khrushchev, nor any aspect of this totalitarian regime.

Certainly Robeson was complex, and a man caught in the uncomfortable coils of his age. Yet the same is true of Witherspoon.

By all means, the manner in which historical figures have fallen short of ideals of justice and equality should be addressed, as it will help the mass of today’s human beings work to surmount their own faults and failings.

But such disclosures about the past should not encourage extremes of lionization and demonization of such legends. Otherwise, the search for elusive blemish-free heroes only repeats what revisionism aimed to avoid in the first place: a continual whitewashing of history. 

That was a mistake that Witherspoon, vitally concerned with “the imperfection of human society,” would never have made.

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