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The Way of Improvement Leads Home

In this first full biography of Philip Vickers Fithian, John Fea tells the story of how one young man sought to pursue the life of an eighteenth-century Presbyterian gentleman while continuing to yearn for the everyday passions that defined what it meant for him to be human.

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

John Fea

2008 | 280 pages | Cloth $39.95 | Paper $26.50
American History
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. A Cohansey Home
Chapter 2. A Presbyterian Conversion
Chapter 3. Ambition
Chapter 4. Rural Enlightenment
Chapter 5. A Virginia Sojourn
Chapter 6. Revolution
Chapter 7. The Call of God
Chapter 8. Duty
Chapter 9. Conclusion

Appendix. A Note on the Fithian Diaries

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 townships in southern New Jersey situated approximately forty-five miles southwest of Philadelphia.

Philip's activities illustrate his attempt to rise above the parochialism and rusticity of the Jersey countryside to be a "citizen of the world." By the middle of the eighteenth century the inhabitants of the British North American colonies had become exposed at an ever-increasing rate to the new learning emanating from such cultural and intellectual centers as London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. Networks of communications and trade allowed such ideas to reach remote corners of the American provinces and connected even the most ordinary farming communities to the world of the British Enlightenment. From the villages of Cohansey, Philip was able to participate indirectly in the eighteenth-century republic of letters—a transatlantic community of scholars sustained through sociability, print, and the pursuit of mutual improvement. Though abstract and boundless, the Enlightenment ideals forged by the republic of letters could indeed shape the "thoughts and deeds" of the republic's members.

Although Philip sought to partake in a fellowship of learning and letters that oriented his mental and social worlds away from the place of his birth, the long mid-July weekend of 1773 could just as easily be interpreted through the lens of parochialism. Long-standing personal relationships, local communities of faith, and a sense of social obligation to the men and women who inhabited the soil where he was raised often provided the context for enlightened conversation. Jonathan Elmer was a close family friend. Andrew Hunter was the clergyman who had baptized Philip as an infant, catechized him as a boy, and encouraged him to pursue a career in the ministry. Richard Howell was a former schoolmate. In fact, all the people Philip spent time with that weekend were Presbyterians affiliated with the religious community that gave meaning to life in Cohansey.

Indeed, no one was more aware of the tensions between cosmopolitanism and local attachment than Philip. The need to reconcile the pursuit of Enlightenment ambition with a passion for home or a desire for God was perhaps the greatest moral problem facing the newly educated sons of British American farmers. Philip learned quickly that his pursuit of a life of learning, a vocation in the educated ministry, and a call to serve God and his new country would require a degree of detachment from friends, family, and the very soil of his homeland. Yet, Philip's cosmopolitan turn is incomprehensible apart from these social connections. It was the people, the religious culture, and even the very landscape that continued to hold Philip's affections and that shaped—and transformed—all that he learned beyond its bounds. As a child of the American Enlightenment, Philip could rely on intellectual, religious, and social scaffolding that enabled him to live a life worthy of a man of letters and yet benefit from the virtues of his local attachments. As a patriot, he could continue support for a highly cosmopolitan revolutionary ideology with the intense Presbyterian view of everyday life that permeated Cohansey culture. Ultimately he confronted the task of finding how best to adapt to the social and religious consequences of the modern quest for self-improvement. The result was a cosmopolitan rootedness that, in the context of Philip's agrarian upbringing, I have called his "rural Enlightenment."

The Way of Improvement Leads Home is a cultural and intellectual biography of Philip Vickers Fithian, one of early America's most cited diarists. Historians who study colonial Virginia know Philip well. The journal he kept during the year (October 1773 to October 1774) he spent as a tutor on Robert Carter's plantation in Virginia's Northern Neck not only is a delight to read but also offers one of our most revealing glimpses into the life of the Chesapeake gentry at the time of the American Revolution. If the anecdotal evidence I have collected during the course of this project is any indication, Philip's Virginia diary was a staple of undergraduate and graduate history seminars for two generations of students trained during the cold war. Today, despite the fact that his name no longer appears with great frequency on college syllabi, more people are exposed to Philip's observations than ever before. One would be hard-pressed to find a book on eighteenth-century Virginia that does not mention him. Thousands of families learn about Philip each year at Colonial Williamsburg, where he is a regular part of its public history program. Tour guides echo his words as they lead visitors through the plantations of the Old Dominion. Philip even makes a cameo appearance in Liberty!, the popular six-part documentary on the American Revolution that aired on public television in 1997.

Yet, despite Philip's ubiquitous presence in interpretations of colonial Virginia, we still know little about him. With the exception of Vincent McCluskey's 1991 New York University doctoral dissertation, there has never been an attempt to write a biography of the man. His writings are most often used by historians as window dressing for their studies of the plantation Chesapeake. It seems that a quotation from Philip Vickers Fithian is the perfect way to enhance any historical narrative. The lack of detailed attention to Philip's life is somewhat surprising in light of the fair amount of primary source material available to the biographer. Two older collections of Philip's writings are still easily accessible to those interested in learning more about him. In 1900 John R. Williams published many of Philip's personal letters and papers written during his years (1770-72) as a student at the College of New Jersey. Three decades later Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson edited Philip's 1775-76 journals recounting his two short missionary trips to the Pennsylvania and Virginia backcountry and his role as a chaplain with the Continental army in New York. Philip's unpublished writings have been virtually untapped by early American historians. This collection, housed in Princeton University's Firestone Library, includes valuable information on his early spiritual, intellectual, and agricultural life. While Philip did not live long enough to produce the kind of paper trail that the era's great statesmen have left us, such neglect of his story is unfortunate. His life sheds light on the history of colonial New Jersey and Virginia, the development of the early Presbyterian Church, eighteenth-century courtship rituals, and especially the impact of the Enlightenment on ordinary people at the time of the American Revolution.

In writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I have tried to remain as faithful as possible, with a few extended detours here and there, to the genre of biography. What follows is a roughly chronological account of Philip's life. The book begins at the turn of the century in East Hampton, New York, and Fairfield, Connecticut. as Philip's ancestors contemplate a move to the Cohansey River region of southwestern New Jersey. It chronicles the course of his formal and informal education, his experience in plantation Virginia, his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty, his commitment to the American Revolution, and his preaching tour of the Susquehanna and Shenandoah Valleys. Potential readers looking for a good story from the annals of Revolutionary America will, I hope, find one in these pages. At a somewhat more analytical level, this book also attempts to use Philip's story to explain the impact of the Enlightenment in the British American colonies. As a result, I have chosen to leave Philip's story at certain points of the narrative in order to explore more fully the cultural and intellectual milieu in which he lived.

Much of my interest in a book project that uses biography to explain the Enlightenment stems from my experience teaching undergraduates. In an age of the History Channel and best-selling biographies of the country's "Founding Fathers," I have found that a lecture on the Enlightenment in America tends to be a hard sell in the college classroom. Tell eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old college students that they will be spending the next fifty minutes of their lives exploring the intricacies of the Enlightenment and watch their eyes glaze over. Aware of the very real potential that such a topic might elicit boredom, I begin my class devoted to this theme by asking students to recall what they know about the Enlightenment. Someone will usually refer to the Age of Reason, and this will trigger others to start rattling off a short list of the usual suspects—Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire. Others think about the Enlightenment as an elite, secular movement dominated by a small circle of French philosophes who stressed rational thought over a religious worldview. What is missing is a sense that the movement drew strength from and informed everyday lives, dreams, and aspirations in colonial America—and, despite the postmodern turn, continues to do so today. I often ask my students if the idea of self-improvement is important to them and to Americans generally. Although the very act of sitting in a college lecture hall suggests that they are concerned about improving themselves (or at least looking to secure their credentials in the middle class, today's penultimate form of American self-improvement), they often do not know how to respond. Some students take modern notions of improvement and progress for granted and may never have thought critically or historically about such ideas. It is at this point that the story of Philip Vickers Fithian has come to my aid on more than one occasion. I have learned that biography can be used to help students locate the Enlightenment historically and suggest to them that ideas about how to make a better self always rise in a historical context.

With this in mind, Philip's biography illustrates four interrelated themes at the heart of the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century America. While these themes are not new or groundbreaking, they do offer an introduction to what the Enlightenment meant in America and provide the essential framework for understanding the course of Philip's life. First, the Enlightenment was about self-improvement. For the first time in history the bettering of one's condition (and by extension the condition of society as a whole) became a real and viable possibility. In this sense, the Enlightenment challenged the prevailing view that people were incapable, largely because of their sin natures, of improving themselves apart from divine intervention. Knowledge about the world and its creatures was now attainable through reason by a variety of people in a variety of places, including ordinary farmers in the rural corners of British America. The Enlightenment was about breaking down social and cultural boundaries through human initiative. Enlightened people could leave the farm to pursue progressive ways of living that challenged the limits imposed on them by traditional forces.

Second, enlightened people were able to employ reason as a necessary check to the individual passions. Their lives were characterized by restraint. Sentiment always needed to be contained by the dictates of reason. Passions, whether they be directed toward a particular place, religion, or relationship, were viewed as irrational unless properly controlled. The struggle to subdue desire, to cultivate reason, and—in Philip's case—to distinguish which passions were useful and which ones were dangerous was the mark of a truly enlightened gentleman. Modern people could be tempted by an array of inappropriate and irrational feelings, but local affections for one's homeland and romantic yearnings for members of the opposite sex were perhaps the most damaging to the pursuit of Enlightenment self-improvement. As we will see, Philip had difficulty in these areas his entire life.
Third, to be rational in the eighteenth century one needed to direct one's passions away from parochial concerns and toward a universal love of the human race. Enlightened people embraced cosmopolitanism. They championed ideas that belonged to all people and were not confined to a particular locale, region, or nation. The republic of letters was above all else a rational republic with little tolerance for those unable to rid themselves of parochial passions. Its best citizens maintained primary loyalty not to family, friends, faith, or land but to an international commonwealth of humankind. Not all its members could frequent the coffeehouses, clubs, and salons of Paris and London, but they could still think and feel beyond the bounds of their local attachments. They could make choices for their lives that ultimately carried them—geographically or in imagination—away from home. As the historian Gordon Wood has aptly put it, "local feelings were common to peasants and backward peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world." To be too wedded to local attachments was "a symptom of narrow-mindedness, and indeed of disease."

Fourth, the Enlightenment always existed in compromise with the deeply held Christian faith of the American people. The American Enlightenment was appropriated most often by the proponents of traditional Christianity. Philip's pursuit of self-improvement was impossible without his Presbyterian faith. His enlightened social world and the rural religious culture in which he was raised were often one and the same. During the eighteenth century some Christians began to believe that they could embrace relatively optimistic views of human nature, particularly in the realm of the human capacity for moral improvement, without abandoning their faith commitments. The Presbyterian Calvinism that Philip inherited provided the theological and moral resources for people to achieve the betterment of self and society. The formal and informal institutions that supported Philip's Enlightenment were all affiliated in one way or another with Cohansey Presbyterian life.

Philip's "way of improvement" was by no means a smooth one. His passion for "home," which I use broadly in the title of this book to encompass not only his longings for his Cohansey homeland but also his desire for a friendship with his future wife (who lived in Cohansey), and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety (which informed the culture of Cohansey and his Christian calling to the ministry) frequently got in the way of his attempts at Enlightenment self-improvement. In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical. It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain. Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in "compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism." However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip's story so interesting. His attempt at easing them is the focus of this book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian's "rural Enlightenment." My study of this ordinary farmer argues that an Enlightenment life was complex and complicated. It could be lived locally—even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

On one hand, Philip is an Enlightenment (and American) success story: the oldest son of a grain grower who turns his back on the farm to pursue a college education and a life of learning. On the other hand, his life reminds us that even the most eager of eighteenth-century Enlightenment hopefuls balanced rational quests for improvement with longings that could not be explained by reason alone. Philip's cosmopolitanism was tempered by his multiple bouts with homesickness for his rural upbringing and family farm. His efforts to cultivate human relationships based on sober reason were often undermined by passion, especially when it came to his courtship of Elizabeth Beatty. His personal ambition, self-improvement, and Revolutionary optimism were always understood in the context of his belief in a sovereign God's providential ordering of His creation. Though I cannot say so for sure, it appears that Philip's life is symbolic of the struggles that many young men in the late colonial period faced as they responded to the spirit of the age. In the end, whether or not I convince my readers that Philip Vickers Fithian's story is the story of the Enlightenment in America, I still think it is one worth telling.

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