Warning: You are using a browser that does not support angularJS. Some site functionality will not be available to you. Please consider updating to a newer version.
FEE.org does not currently support Internet Explorer. Please use a supported browser such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.

John Witherspoon: Disciple of Freedom

Mr. Bearce is a free-lance writer in Houston, Texas.

"There is not a single instance in history," declared Rev. John Witherspoon in 1776, "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."¹ Speaking as a minister, Rev. Witherspoon understood the inseparable tie between political freedom and spiritual freedom. Like John Adams and Patrick Henry, he was an outspoken Patriot, advocating independence from Great Britain.

Dr. Witherspoon is remembered mainly for his tenure as President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and for having been the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. His truly important contribution to American liberty and independence, though, was revealed by his stalwart labors as a member of the Continental Congress. Elected in 1776, he served his last term in 1782. During this period, he attempted to bring sound economic wisdom to Congressional deliberations. Unfortunately for the struggling Thirteen States, his astute views and timely admonitions were often rejected. Consequently, America had to fight both the British Army and the evils of inflation and price-fixing.

Eighteen years after the War for Independence was finally won, Witherspoon published his Essay on Money, "As a medium of commerce; with remarks on the advantages and disadvantages of paper admitted into general circulation."2 This excellent work gives hindsight, insight, and foresight into economic problems—the same problems faced by the United States in the 20th century. Writing about the general topic of money, Witherspoon also gives us a clear understanding of "commerce"—free exchange and free enterprise.

"Let us then begin," he says, "by considering what gave rise to money, and what is its nature and use? If there were but one man upon the earth, he would be obliged to prepare a hut for his habitation, to dig roots for his sustenance, to provide skins or fig leaves for his covering, &c. in short, to do every thing for himself. If but one or two more were joined with him, it would soon be found that one of them would be more skillful in one sort of work, and another in a different; so that common interest would direct them, each to apply his industry to what he could do best and soonest; to communicate the surplus of what he needed himself to that sort of work to the others, and receive of their surplus in return.

"This directly points out to us, that a barter of commodities, or communication of the fruits of industry, is the first principle or rather indeed constitutes the essence of commerce. As society increases, the partition of employments is greatly diversified; but still the fruits of well directed industry, or the things necessary and useful in life are what only can be called wealth. "3

A Preference for Gold

As a rugged Scotsman by birth, Rev. Witherspoon had an appreciation for gold. His distaste for printed bills was founded upon firm economic judgment, and he was ready to defend precious metals.

"It is likely some will say, What is the intrinsic value of gold and silver? They are not wealth; they are but the sign or representative of commodities. Superficial philosophers, and even some men of good understanding not attending to the nature of currency, have really said so. What is gold, say some, the value is all in the fancy; you can neither eat nor wear it; it will neither feed, clothe nor warm you. Gold, say others, as to intrinsic value, is not so good as iron which can be applied to many more useful purposes.”

"These persons have not attended to the nature of commercial value, which is a compound ratio of its use and scarceness. If iron were as rare as gold, it would probably be as valuable, perhaps more so. How many instances are there of things, which, though a certain proportion of them is not only valuable, but indispensably necessary to life itself, yet which from their abundance have no commercial value at all.”

"Take for examples air and water. People do not bring these to market, because they are in superabundant plenty. But let any circumstances take place that render them rare, and difficult to be obtained, and their value immediately rises above all computation. What would one of those who were stifled in the black hole at Calcutta, have given to get but near a window for a little air? And what will the crew of a ship at sea, whose water is nearly expended, give for a fresh supply?"4

The Weakness of Paper

Witherspoon understood the stability of gold just as he saw the weakness of paper. Why should nations fear printed bills as legal tender?

"The evil is this: All paper introduced into circulation, and obtaining credit as gold and silver, adds to the quantity of the medium, and thereby . . . increases the price of industry and its fruits."5

Today we call it inflation. By "the price of industry and its fruits," Witherspoon meant the higher costs for employment, land, tools, and business expansion. Expenses and prices go up. True profits and income go down. The individual’s "industry"—his daily labor or his business—might bring in more greenbacks, but their value will be shrinking.

"Experience," he warns, "has every where justified the remark, that wherever paper is introduced in large quantities, the gold and silver vanishes universally. The joint sum of gold, silver, and paper current, will exactly represent your whole commodities, and the prices will be accordingly. It is therefore as if you were to fill a vessel brimfull, making half the quantity water and the other oil, the last being specifically lightest, will be at the top, and if you add more water, the oil only will run over, and continue running till there is none left.

"How absurd and contemptible then is the reasoning which we of late have seen frequently in print, viz, the gold and silver is going away from us, therefore we must have paper to supply its place. If the gold and silver is indeed going away from us, that is to say, if the balance of trade is much against us, the paper medium has a direct tendency to increase the evil, and send it away by a quicker pace. "6

"Hence it may be seen, that the resolution of the question, whether it is proper to have paper money at all or not, depends entirely upon another, viz. whether the evil that is done by augmenting the circulating medium, is or is not over-balanced by the facility given to commerce, and the credit given to particular persons, by which their industry and exertions are added to the common stock."7

Belief in Freedom Under God

When Rev. Witherspoon came to the Colonies in 1768 to assume the presidency of the College of New Jersey, he brought with him his evangelical Christian faith and a profound intellect. Sharp-minded but humble, he had the gift of aggressive, orderly thought. As a student of the Scriptures, he recognized that God did not compel men to accept Him. Individuals were free to choose or reject obedience to their Creator.

Likewise, he saw that God meant for individuals to have political and economic freedom in the earthly life. Man’s temporal rights—"life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"—were God-given. Freedom was a matter for one’s soul as well as his daily bread. Thus, the Princeton preacher applies the principle of voluntary action and personal choice to commercial enterprises:

"Well! Is it agreed that all commerce is founded on a complete contract? . . . One of the essential conditions of a lawful contract, and indeed the first of them, is, that it be free and mutual. Without this it may be something else, and have some other binding force, but it is not a contract. To make laws therefore, regulating the prices of commodities, or giving nominal value to that which had no value before the law was made, is altering the nature of the transaction altogether.”8

"Thus we know, that in cities, in case of a fire, sometimes a house, without the consent of its owner, will be destroyed to prevent the whole from being consumed. But if you make a law that I shall be obliged to sell my grain, my cattle, or any commodity, at a certain price, you not only do what is unjust and impolitic, but with all respect be it said, you speak nonsense; for I do not sell them at all: you take them from me. You are both buyer and seller, and I am the sufferer only.”9

"I cannot help observing that laws of this kind have an inherent weakness in them: they are not only unjust and unwise, but for the most part impracticable. They are an attempt to apply authority to that which is not its proper object, and to extend it beyond its natural bounds; in both which we shall be sure to fail. The production of commodities must be the effect of industry, inclination, hope, and interest. The first of these is very imperfectly reached by authority, and the other three cannot be reached by it at all.”

"Perhaps I ought rather to have said that they cannot be directed by it, but they may be greatly counteracted; as people have naturally a strong disposition to resist force, and to escape from constraint. Accordingly we found in this country, and every other society who ever tried such measures found, that they produced an effect directly contrary to what was expected from them. Instead of producing moderation and plenty, they uniformly produced dearness and scarcity."10

With Good Intention

Witherspoon insisted that "tender laws, arming paper, or any thing not valuable in itself with authority are directly contrary to the very first principles of commerce." Regrettably, "many of the advocates for such laws, and many of those who are instrumental in enacting them, do it from pure ignorance, without any bad intention."¹¹

Monetary considerations aside, Dr. Witherspoon’s observation points to one of the problems still facing the American economy. We have our own government officials, educators, and socio-political writers who in "ignorance, without any bad intention," propose coercive measures in economic matters. They are guided by a humanitarian spirit, but it is an idealism that ignores personal freedom and individual responsibility. Their "ignorance" fosters both economic stagnation and political regimentation.

With regard to attempts at corrupting a nation’s currency, Witherspoon observed that "the only thing resembling it in the English history is, James the second coining base metal, and affixing a price to it by proclamation; a project contemptible in the contrivance, and abortive in the execution. "12

"It seems to me, that those who cry out for emitting paper money by the legislatures, should take some pains to state clearly the difference between this and the European countries, and point out the reasons why it would be serviceable here, and hurtful there. "13 Again, laying aside the specific topic of paper currency, we have a general admonition that should be heeded. Statist-minded politicians and economists in the United States should explain why their own blueprints for a planned economy in America will work any better here than do their socialistic counterparts in Africa, Europe, Asia, or South America.

An Incisive Approach

Although Rev. Witherspoon was not an eloquent speaker, he knew how to present basic truths clearly and forcefully. Serving as a member of Congress during the war, he spent fewer hours preaching from the pulpit. Work in Congress, though, enabled him to demonstrate his clarity of thought and his ability to get to the heart of a problem.

When proposals for price-fixing came up, he protested vigorously —both in speech and print. In 1777 Congress was considering whether or not it should recommend to all the States the "Connecticut Act for Regulating Prices" —a plan already adopted by a convention of four New England States. It would have regulated prices of labor, manufactures, imports and provisions.

Witherspoon voted an emphatic "Nay!" to the "Connecticut Act": "Sir, it is a wise maxim to avoid those things which our enemies wish us to practice . . . Remember, laws are not almighty . . . It is beyond the power of despotic princes to regulate the prices of goods . . . If we limit one article, we must limit everything, and this is impossible. "14

General Washington also heard from the New Jersey sage on the evils of price-fixing. Describing himself as a "Jersey Farmer," Dr. Witherspoon advised the Commander-in-Chief that several states had already tried to set prices by law. The measures had only made food and supplies even more scarce. "To fix the prices of goods, especially provisions in a market," he wrote, "is as impracticable as it is unreasonable."

Freedom of Exchange

Who, then, should regulate prices? The buyer and seller themselves, without interference from politicians! Freedom of exchange! Freedom for both the consumer and the businessman!

Behind the different attempts at controlling prices was the staggering inflation. An estimated $200 million of paper money had been issued by 1781. State and Continental currency was almost worthless. Paper money was always Wither-spoon’s thorn in the side. Looking back upon the inflation of the war, he wrote in Essay on Money:

"I observe, that to arm such bills with the authority of the state, and make them a legal tender in all payments, is an absurdity so great, that [it] is not easy to speak with propriety upon it. Perhaps it would give offense if I should say, it is an absurdity reserved for American legislatures; no such thing having ever been attempted in the old countries. It has been found, by the experience of ages, that money must have a standard of value, and if any prince or state debase the metal below the standard, it is utterly impossible to make it succeed.”¹5

"Why will you make a law to oblige men to take money when it is offered them? Are there any who refuse it when it is good? If it is necessary to force them, does not this system produce a most ludicrous inversion of the nature of things. For two or three years we constantly saw and were informed of creditors running away from their debtors, and the debtors pursuing them in triumph, and paying them without mercy.”

"Let us examine this matter a little more fully. Money is the medium of commercial transactions. Money is itself a commodity. Therefore every transaction in which money is concerned, by being given or promised, is strictly and properly speaking, a bargain, or as it is well called in common language, an agreement. To give, therefore, authority or nominal value by law to any money, is interposing by law, in commerce, and is precisely the same thing with laws regulating the prices of commodities, of which, in their full extent, we had sufficient experience during the war. Now nothing can be more radically unjust, or more eminently absurd, than laws of that nature."16

A Contractual Arrangement

What is the basis for a productive, creative society? How does free enterprise operate? The ingredients are goods and services, money, freedom, and the willingness of the individual to cooperate voluntarily with his fellow man. Witherspoon does not speak of a need for government compulsion in commerce:

"Among all civilians, the transactions of commerce are ranged under the head of contracts. Without entering into the nicer distinctions of writers upon this subject, it is sufficient for me to say, that commerce, or buying and selling, is found upon that species of contracts that is most formal and complete. They are called in the technical language, Onerous contracts, where the proper and just value issupposed to be given or promised, on both sides. That is to say, the person who offers any thing to sale, does it because he has it to spare, and he thinks it would be better for him to have the money, or some other commodity, than what he parts with; and he who buys, in like manner, thinks it would be better for him to receive the commodity, than to retain the money."17

Freedom guided Witherspoon’s economic beliefs. He traced most economic difficulties to the conflict between freedom and coercion. Times have changed since the publication of the Essay on Money, but his wisdom goes beyond the subject of the American monetary system in 1786.

"I must here take the occasion and the liberty of saying, that it were greatly to be wished that those who have in their hands the administration of affairs in the several states of America, would take no measures, either on this, or any other subject, but what are founded upon justice, supported by reason, and warranted to be safe by the experience of former ages, and of other countries. The operation of political causes is as uniform and certain as that of natural causes. And any measure which in itself has a bad tendency, though its effects may not be instantly discernible, and their progress may be but slow, yet it will be infallible; and perhaps the danger will then only appear when a remedy is impossible.”

"This is the case, in some degree, with all political measures, without exception, yet I am mistaken if it is not eminently so with respect to commercial dealings. Commerce is excited, directed, and carried on by interest. But do not mistake this, it is not carried on by general universal interest, nor even by well informed national interest, but by immediate, apparent, and sensible personal interest. I must also observe, that there is in mankind a sharpsightedness upon this subject that is quite astonishing.”

"All men are not philosophers, but they are generally good judges of their own profit in what is immediately before them, and will uniformly adhere to it. It is not uncommon to see a man who appears to be almost as stupid as a stone, and yet he shall be as adroit and dextrous in making a bargain, or even more so, than a man of the first rate understanding, who probably, for that very reason, is less attentive to trifling circumstances, and less under the government of mean and selfish views."18

Today, there is still a "sharpsightedness" on the part of individuals who are left free to manage their own interests. Our problem lies in the fact that too many politicians believe themselves to be the only possessors of "sharp-sightedness." They reject Wither-spoon’s faith that men are "good judges of their own profit." They show contempt for the average citizen—his sense of personal accountability, his intelligence, his self-reliance and discipline.

Individual Responsibility

In May 1776, Rev. Witherspoon spoke to the average American on the occasion of the General Fast, a day of fasting and prayer. His sermon, "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men," touched upon both man’s spiritual and earthly needs. Besides urging individuals to seek their eternal welfare, he emphasized individual responsibility in the present, temporal life:

"I exhort all who are not called to go into the field to apply themselves with the utmost diligence to works of industry. It is in your power by this means not only to supply the necessities, but to add to the strength of your country. Habits of industry prevailing in a society not only increase its wealth, as their immediate effect, but they prevent the introduction of many vices, and are intimately connected with sobriety and good morals. Idleness is the mother or nurse of almost every vice; and want, which is its inseparable companion, urges men on to the most abandoned and destructive courses. Industry, therefore is a moral duty of the greatest moment, absolutely necessary to national prosperity, and the sure way of obtaining the blessing of God.”19

"This certainly implies not only abstaining from acts of gross intemperance and excess, but a humility of carriage, a restraint and moderation in all your desires .. . The riotous and wasteful liver, whose craving appetites make him constantly needy, is and must be subject to many masters, according to the saying of Solomon, ‘The borrower is servant to the lender.’ But the frugal and moderate person, who guides his affairs with discretion, is able to assist in public counsels by a free and unbiased judgment, to supply the wants of his poor brethren, and sometimes, by his estate, and substance to give important aid to a sinking country."20

Rev. Witherspoon preached his sermon during the critical period of our War for Independence. Liberty was in the balance—would Americans be ruled by oppressive government authority or would they be free to accept their just right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"?

We are faced with the same question. The true patriot today is one "who guides his affairs with discretion." Not governmental social-planning, but personal responsibility! The true patriot is the citizen who acts according to his own "free and unbiased judgment." Not the dictates of government, but individual initiative!



¹The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon

(Philadelphia: W.W. Woodward, 1800(, Vol. II, p. 427, "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men."

2The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon, (second edition: Philadelphia: W.W. Woodward, 1802), Vol. IV, p. 203.

3I bid., p. 204. 4Ibid.,p. 210. 5Ibid., p. 232. 6lbid., p. 233. 7 Ibid., p. 234. 8lbid., p. 224. 9Ibid., pp. 244, 245.

‘°Ibid., p. 225. "Ibid., p. 226. ¹²Ibid., p. 235. ¹³Ibid., pp. 235, 236.

14Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (eds.), The Spirit of Seventy-Six (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1967), pp. 783-784.

¹5Works (2nd edition: 1802), op cit., pp. 222-223.

16p. 223.

¹7 Ibid., pp. 223-224.

¹8Ibid., pp. 241-242.

¹9Works (1800), op cit., p. 434.

²ºIbid., pp. 435-436.


Varnum Lansing Collins, President Witherspoon, 2 vols. (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969).

Russell T. Hitt (ed.) Heroic Colonial Christians (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1966(.

Martha Lou Stohlman, John Witherspoon —Parson, Politician, Patriot (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976). 

See what we've been working on.   Network with FEE's sponsors and donors at FEEcon this June. Visit FEEcon.org.

Related Articles


{{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}