Six Degrees of John Witherspoon

I’m in this space primarily to write about biology and ecology, but as you may know, I’ve been traveling this past week. The trip gave me a couple ideas for blog posts on those topics, but they need some time to percolate. In the mean time, an earlier love, history, is calling me from a discovery I made on my trip.

The unexpected appearance of an old acquaintance.

The unexpected appearance of an old acquaintance. Photo by me.

John Witherspoon was one of New Jersey’s signers of the Declaration of Independence. He’s a decently big deal there, particularlyin Princeton (he was also president of the University when it was still called the College of New Jersey): my middle school and a main road in town are both named for him. Basically, if you’re in New Jersey and looking to go past the top-tier Founders, he’s the guy you turn to.

But you might not have to turn very far. I’d like to propose a new game: Six Degrees of John Witherspoon.

My first unexpected Witherspoon sighting came about a half dozen years ago when I was learning about the Scottish higher education system. English university programs are three years long; Scottish four. Witherspoon was a key supporter of America adopting the latter system.

Then a few months ago, my parents were in town and happened to ask whose statue is at Connecticut and N. I’d never bothered to look, but I squinted a bit and lo and behold, it’s Witherspoon.

Most recently, Witherspoon showed up at the museum at the Hector Heritage Quay in Pictou, Nova Scotia, which chronicles an early ship of Scottish immigrants to ‘New Scotland.’ He lent his name to the expedition organizers looking to recruit settlers. From the museum, it doesn’t look like he had a particularly active role, but it’s not a particularly gleaming association: departure from Scotland was delayed, the ship left with insufficient supplies, and the land advertised as cleared farmland was actually forest. Most of the settlers ended up dying or fleeing to a nearby town.

The display also mentioned Witherspoon’s fighting for the royalists during the ’45, the (unsuccessful) Scottish uprising of 1745 against the English in favor of the so-called Bonnie Prince Charlie.

I’m drawn to the Six Degrees of John Witherspoon game because all too often, history is taught as a series of events with some cause and effect thrown in for good measure. But it’s really the story of a vast web of lives–and coincidences. What connections are there between education and immigration? If a man supported a monarchy, why did he help overthrow it three decades later?  For me, at least, the fun of history isn’t about names or dates, it’s about running into things like this.


One thought on “Six Degrees of John Witherspoon

  1. Pingback: Presbyterians, John Witherspoon, and Decline @logos | Unsettled Christianity

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