According to the president’s biography on the Princeton website, he was “a man of strong convictions,” but introduced students to ideas with which he had publicly disagreed. He is remembered as a dynamic intellectual who brought the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment into the mainstream in the colonies. Indeed, his ideas have a direct link to the nation’s history, since the students who graduated during his tenure included one president (James Madison), one vice-president (Aaron Burr), 60 members of Congress and three Supreme Court justices.
But even though he had only a meek presence in the political sphere, Witherspoon was the person who coined the term “Americanism” in an essay on language. When John Adams visited Princeton in 1774, he met with Witherspoon and was seriously impressed. The future president of the U.S. said the college president was “as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America.”
On a less historical note, Reese Witherspoon, who played Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde movies, is a direct descendant. John would surely be proud.