The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America

The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America

The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America

The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America

Synopsis

The Way of Improvement Leads Home traces the short but fascinating life of Philip Vickers Fithian, one of the most prolific diarists in early America. Born to Presbyterian grain-growers in rural New Jersey, he was never quite satisfied with the agricultural life he seemed destined to inherit. Fithian longed for something more-to improve himself in a revolutionary world that was making upward mobility possible. While Fithian is best known for the diary that he wrote in 1773-74 while working as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, this first full biography moves beyond his experience in the Old Dominion to examine his inner life, his experience in the early American backcountry, his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty, and his role as a Revolutionary War chaplain.

Excerpt

On the morning of Friday, July 16, 1773, Philip Vickers Fithian awoke early and traveled from his Greenwich, New Jersey, house across the Cohansey River to Fairfield. There he spent several days with William Hollingshead, who would soon be installed as minister of the Fairfield Presbyterian church. Together they dined, drank tea, and exchanged the “Usual Civilities” with other friends and relations. the two passed their time together conversing on topics including “the State of Affairs in Philadelphia,” Philip’s candidacy for Presbyterian ordination, Hollingshead’s upcoming sermon “States of Man,” and the “useful & well-chosen Books” in the minister’s personal library. Philip and Hollingshead ate breakfast on Monday with Jonathan Elmer, their representative in the New Jersey Assembly. Later that day this gregarious duo traveled back to Greenwich, where Philip observed a “long Confabulation” between Hollingshead and Andrew Hunter, minister of the Greenwich Presbyterian church, on the subject of “whether there is Scripture Authority for Diocesan Bishops” (which was decided “in the negative”). Here they also encountered Richard Howell, one of Philip’s former classmates at the local Presbyterian academy, who shared with them news of his legal studies in New Castle, Delaware. Philip lamented that although Howell was a “young Gentleman of considerable Genius, & has made good Proficiency in his Studies … he is remarkably profane in his Principles, & loose in his Behaviour!” After calling on several more friends, Philip returned home late Monday afternoon, “Drank Tea with several Neighbors,” and “Went to bed about ten.”

By examining Philip’s journal over this four-day period, one can learn much about what the young Presbyterian deemed important. His entries reveal the musings of an educated candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. the encounter with Richard Howell demonstrates his concern with personal morality and proper behavior. His breakfast with Elmer suggests an interest in political matters. Reflections on books and philosophy and discussions of current news from Philadelphia invoke a cosmopolitan spirit in the rural confines of “Cohansey”—a series of small . . .

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