John Witherspoon, the Scottish Common Sense School, and American Political Philosophy

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This article thus argues that we should interpret Witherspoon's relationship to slavery through the lens of his philosophical commitments. Perhaps John Witherspoon's most lasting contribution to American political culture was his introduction of Scottish Common Sense philosophy into American life. This body of philosophical thought that Witherspoon brought over from Scotland soon became dominant in American seminaries and universities. It helped shape the language of the Patriot cause during the American Revolution and seems to have, in concrete ways, influenced the Constitution. Scottish Common Sense philosophy helped to undergird much of the early anti-slavery movement. In this sense Witherspoon contributed significantly to the foundations of early American abolitionism. As the anti-slavery movement radicalized, though, decades after Witherspoon's death, Common Sense philosophy proved less useful, and generally faded as a source of anti-slavery commitment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)395-405
Number of pages11
JournalTheology Today
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Religious studies


  • American Revolution
  • anti-slavery movement
  • history of American higher education
  • John Witherspoon
  • Scottish Common Sense philosophy


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