Monday, July 14, 2014

Featured Manuscript: John Witherspoon letter (Part 1)

Witherspoon manuscript, P234
The Lloyd W. Smith Collection contains a unique letter written by John Witherspoon in 1784. In 1783, the year before the document was written, John Witherspoon and Joseph Reed travelled to Great Britain to promote the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and to personally seek contributions for the college.  They found the people of Great Britain embittered toward their former colonies, and their fundraising mission was unsuccessful, netting them only 5 pounds, 14 shillings.

After Dr. Witherspoon’s return home, in 1784, he circulated the letter entitled “Memorial for the College of New Jersey”. The letter was intended as an aid to raising funds for the repair of the college. In it, he describes some of the history of the College of New Jersey, as well as some of the difficulties experienced by the college as a result of the Revolutionary War.   Copies of the letter were sent to likely donors.   This copy was sent to David Steuart, Earl of Buchan.

In the letter, Dr. Witherspoon describes some of the benefits that generous donations to the college made possible before the war. He makes particular reference to the Rittenhouse Orrery. He writes, “an Apparatus for experimental Philosophy provided of the most complete & perfect Kind and the famous Orrery of Rittenhouse  purchased for the use of the College [sic] …”

When describing the damages sustained by the college during the Revolutionary War, Dr. Witherspoon writes, “The Building was laid Waste the Library almost wholly destroyed the Apparatus entirely taken & the Orrery much injured though not removed.”

The orrery is one of Princeton’s oldest instruments for science instruction, and was purchased by Dr. Witherspoon for the college in 1771. It is a model that represents the motions of the planets around the sun. The instrument was named for the Earl of Orrery, who had one built for him in 1713. Princeton’s orrery was crafted in 1771 by a Pennsylvania clockmaker and self-taught astronomer, David Rittenhouse. It was damaged during the Revolutionary War, but was later repaired. It is presently exhibited in Peyton Hall on the Princeton University campus.

He ends the letter with the following plea:

“It is therefore hoped that Persons of enlarged & liberal mind[s] who wish well to the Interests of Religion & Science in general and to the human Race will contribute to restore this Seminary in an infant Country where the ancient & opulent  [Trad]itions for promoting Science so numerous in Europe are unknown. It shall only be further observed that such Acts of Generosity would have the happiest & most powerful influence in renewing & Strengthening the Affection between great Britain & America."

On the envelope, the following is inscribed:

“principal Witherspoon of Princetons College New Jersey to D.S. Earl of Buchan – a Memorial for his College with Lord B’s letters of recommendation”

It is possible that the letter was not further circulated, because at the end, the following is written:

“On further considerations I th[ou]ght it indecent for the United State that any thing of a Mendicant Shape should appear in Britain   It was accordingly relinquished”

It is unclear whether the above was written by Dr. Witherspoon, Lord Buchan, or someone else.

The Memorial is an interesting history of the college, as well as an explanation of the philosophy of the founders. It was a creative, although largely unsuccessful, fund-raising endeavor.

Blog entry written by volunteer researcher, Cynthia N.

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