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Princeton may remove statue of Founding Father John Witherspoon

A Princeton University committee is slated to consider the removal of a prominent statue of Founding Father John Witherspoon in the center of their campus as a result of a petition demanding its removal.

Witherspoon was a member of the second Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was Princeton’s sixth president.

But he owned two slaves on his farm in New Jersey and voted against a plan for abolition in the state, according to historical records.

A petition, started by three graduate students in the Philosophy Department, states that the “prominent place on campus of the John Witherspoon statue is inappropriate” and calls on the university to “remove it from its pedestal in Firestone Plaza.”

The petition asks that officials replace the statue with an informational plaque that reflects both the “positive and negative aspects of Witherspoon’s legacy.”

The petition adds that the statue, as it stands, pays honor to Witherspoon in a way that ignores his participation in and support for American slavery.

“In such a hub of University life, where people eat, study, socialize, and commute on a daily basis, should students, staff, and faculty not be free from the elevated gaze of someone who held beliefs, and engaged in and defended practices, which we all find so repulsive,” the petition asked.

“Particularly for community members descended from enslaved peoples, the homage the statue does to Witherspoon can be a jarring experience.”

Princeton media relations did not respond to requests from The College Fix seeking comment.

The director of the Witherspoon Institute, John Doherty, also did not respond to a request from The College Fix for comment.

The Witherspoon Institute is not directly affiliated with Princeton, but is located nearby. It is an “independent center that renews culture by fostering the intellectual and moral formation of students, families, and tomorrow’s leaders.”

According to its website, its namesake takes on the ideals Witherspoon advanced during his life as a mentor to James Madison and as a proponent of “a just government.”

Witherspoon also helped raise funds for the school, increased student enrollment, and expanded the school’s curriculum.

According to a description of the statue, the “Bible and Witherspoon’s pose portray his role as a clergyman. An eagle, positioned at the top of the fasces and under the Bible, symbolizes both the state and the church,” according to the university’s website.

“At his feet are five books. Four have their spines to the front, so that we can see they are the works of Cicero, Principia, Locke, and Hume,” it adds.

The petition dismissed the idea of only adding a plaque to contextualize Witherspoon’s legacy, rather than replacing the statue with one, arguing the “honorific message of the statue will tend to overwhelm any critical reminders of Witherspoon’s failings.” Additionally, they contend that “many of the daily visitors to the University will simply see the statue from afar without ever stopping to read the fine print.”

Princeton’s Council of the Princeton University Community will consider removing the statue, the Daily Princetonian reported on Nov. 15. The committee consists of administrators, students, faculty and staff.

MORE: Check out The College Fix’s Campus Cancel Culture Database

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About the Author
Finn McCole -- Trinity College