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Remembering Witherspoon, rejecting the status quo

John Witherspoon Statue GENERIC
Photo courtesy of © Richard Trenner ’70

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

When we began circulating the petition for removing the Witherspoon statue last summer, one of the more valuable criticisms we heard was that changing iconography should be, at best, only auxiliary to structural changes that make the University more inclusive or the world more equitable. The University’s second principle on renaming also makes this point. We recognize that what we’re campaigning for doesn’t have the same direct significance as adequate funding for the programs of the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, for example. Yet, we saw removing the statue as an important and reasonable recommendation to help the University’s physical iconography catch up to the Princeton & Slavery Project website in displaying a more nuanced perspective of the University’s history.


Another criticism we heard was that we were wrong to recommend a plaque detailing the good and bad of Witherspoon’s legacy as a replacement for the statue. Critics asserted to be consistent with our stated goals, we must leave no trace of the statue nor of the memory of Witherspoon — some would say, to “cancel” him. But, if we wanted to educate people about Witherspoon’s legacy, we were asked, why not stick with the statue and just attach a plaque about Witherspoon’s slaveholding to the statue?

What this response missed was that our central claim was, and still is, that this statue is not a satisfactory means of remembrance nor of education. This statue, unlike some other ways of remembering Witherspoon, unduly glorifies him in a way that negatively impacts campus.

Unfortunately, this point has so far not been seen as the center of the campaign.

This is apparent in most of the critiques that have emerged, on campus and in the wider media, since the University announced in November that removal was being considered. Critics have expressed a range of sentiments, including genuine confusion about the principles behind our campaign, bemused or indignant frustration at the predictable misadventures of the young and woke, and deep concern about the direction the University is headed if the petition’s proposal is accepted. Nearly all, however, including Bill Hewitt ‘74, have implied that Witherspoon’s legacy stands or falls with this statue.

If Witherspoon’s entire legacy is being put on trial, critics argue, he’s owed a proper defense, and the details about slavery that we have pointed out must be put into the proper context of his life and times. It is noted that Witherspoon, despite owning two people as slaves, saw the wrongness of slavery as a system and indeed hoped and expected that America would leave slavery behind. It is noted also that some of his actions seem aligned with freedom, or at least unlike the deeds of a dyed-in-the-wool racist anti-abolitionist.

If he was about as good on race and slavery as could be expected for his times, the defense argues, the University should not stand over him in judgment. Instead, it should exercise moderation and humility, consider his character holistically, and forestall cancellation. Furthermore, the defense continues, if the University does not now stay its hand, it will soon find itself drawn to the logical conclusion of its actions, erasing many of its benefactors and heroes and leaving itself with no foundation to stand on except the latest moral fashion. “History” thus becomes twice over the rallying cry of the defense: The statue could only be removed by those (perhaps willfully) ignorant of history’s nuances, and its removal would threaten our connection to history.


The statue itself, however, does not tell us about the nuances of history. Its theme is pure praise. We expect the underlying reason that a plaque describing Witherspoon’s connections to slavery (which many defending the statue now support) was never attached is the obvious dissonance between the statue and any criticism. Indeed, the statue is so effective in magnifying Witherspoon that it would tend to overwhelm a critical plaque. The statue’s almost 18-foot height plays a leading role here. Along with its size, its stern facial expression, commanding posture, uplifting symbols, and central (and uphill) location — each of which we expanded upon in the Committee on Naming’s feedback form — combine to lift Witherspoon above all criticism.

That the statue elevates Witherspoon in this way is no accident. Consider the sculptor’s Schopenhauerian aesthetic views: Great art momentarily frees you from the ceaseless striving of everyday life, the “will to live,” through a “lullaby”-like encounter with something transcendent. For Schopenhauer, this experience is an essential reprieve from life’s misery, and makes room for compassion. But to accomplish this purpose with a statue, the subject must be invested with an aura of time-transcending greatness.

This suggests immediate problems with a historical subject who, like Witherspoon, considered it, in practice, acceptable for one part of humanity to purchase enslaved members of another part of humanity. An encounter with the transcendent and noble is not equally available to all through the Witherspoon statue, and particularly not to those whose ancestors were enslaved. Indeed, the very transcendence of the depiction, and its humbling effect may become odious for someone who does not feel that Witherspoon stands with them — we did a disservice to this in the petition by primarily naming such an experience a “discomfort.” Furthermore, that it may evoke different levels of belonging in viewers can hinder a sense of University community and shared mission “in the service of humanity” — which (to answer Hewitt) is what we meant by “distraction from the University’s mission.”

Looking at Witherspoon’s character with context does matter, just as the views of Woodrow Wilson Class of 1879 relative to his times mattered in his 2020 case. What we meant to suggest in the petition (to answer Hewitt again), when bracketing Witherspoon’s moral standing given his context, is that the case for installing or retaining a particular statue or representation does not come down to whether the subject “deserves” to have it. 

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This is illustrated by another Wilson case, the removal of his photo from the dining hall of Wilson (later First) College in 2016. It was not removed because he didn’t deserve it, but because the mural was “unduly celebratory” — because of the impact its depiction of Wilson had on the space it was in. This suggests the necessity of judging based on not only a figure’s moral legacy, but also the aesthetic qualities of a given representation, with attention to the space and the time in which the representation stands.

Our premise, then, is that representations of a certain grandeur, depicting subjects involved in racialized slavery, are inappropriate for certain spaces. But this raises an immediate question — how do we know whether this is one of those cases? When is a statue too big, too grand, for a certain space?

We believe that, generally speaking, this requires a judgment call, guided by the University’s renaming principles and informed by both historical and aesthetic details. What makes the case of this statue particularly clear is its size and the way that every physical feature is marshaled in the service of elevating, lionizing, Witherspoon. This visual panegyric currently presides with stern countenance over a major hub of University life, and it should not. Yes, the case would be even clearer if the statue was 20 feet tall and its pedestal 15 feet tall. But we encourage anyone unsure about the statue to walk out to Firestone Plaza, consider how the statue looms over the space, and perhaps try to meet Witherspoon’s gaze.

But that is the statue, not Witherspoon himself. We agree that if the University were to forget Witherspoon, we would lose valuable things: continuity with our history, a sense of our past failings as an institution, an awareness that, as many are keen to point out in Witherspoon’s defense, everyone is imperfect. Indeed, people can display strength of character in some dimensions of life, make wise choices that benefit many who come after, yet also enact violent coercion against others based on their race.

So, how should we remember Witherspoon?

We remain convinced that the answer begins: not with this statue. Well before the statue’s recent arrival in 2001, he was the namesake of Witherspoon Hall. Today, his face and name also adorn a campus cafe. And while we think a plaque is a reasonable replacement for the statue, perhaps there are others that are much better. Should we add a hallway with pictures and written descriptions similar to the Princeton and Slavery project? A prominent picture of his signature on the Declaration of Independence?

There are many options, and the Committee on Naming’s feedback form about the statue remains open. Those most concerned to preserve Witherspoon’s legacy, if they agree the statue isn’t the way to go, may have the best proposals here. And, of course, good artistic ideas require time, finesse, and perhaps luck: Double Sights, meant to contextualize Wilson’s legacy, has been deemed less than a complete success. We simply remain convinced that, whatever the best proposal is, we should reject allowing Witherspoon to stand over us. We should reject the status quo.

Brendan Kolb, Waner Zhang, and Katie Rech are graduate students in the Department of Philosophy. They can be reached at,, and, respectively.