The Ideal Place
The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural
Enlightenment in Early America (Early American Studies)
reviewed by Eric Miller
Feel very home-sick.” Thus whispered Philip Vickers Fithian to his diary on November 21, 1773, three weeks into what his biographer, Messiah College historian John Fea, calls his year-long “Virginia sojourn.” Employed by the planter Robert Carter, Fithian was to provide instruction for seven of Carter’s children and a nephew.
This, to be clear, was expert instruction. Fithian, age 25, had recently graduated from Princeton College and was commended to Carter by none other than John Witherspoon, Princeton’s president and the colonies’ most influential Presbyterian in the age of the Revolution. It was a heady appointment for the son of a south Jersey yeoman farmer; Fithian was especially thrilled with Carter’s impressive library. “Sir, to speak moderately,” Fithian marveled to his mentor back home, the Reverend Enoch Green, “he has more than eight times your number.”
Still, Fithian felt the need to whisper of his homesickness, and this seemingly mundane reality, homesickness, coupled with Fithian’s discomfort with it, becomes the starting point for Fea’s captivating journey into Fithian’s world. Cited frequently by colonial historians, Fithian has long held a place in twentieth-century historiography as a diarist, an insightful observer of American life on the eve of revolution. But no one had published a biography of Fithian before; one early-twentieth-century critic blessed and cursed Fithian’s diary as “the crude material without which history could not be written.”
A Fruitful Tension
Fea had eyes for a history different from the one this critic imagined, one centered on the at times debilitating, often fruitful tension Fithian felt between his longing for his native land of Cohansie, New Jersey, and his aspiration for enlightenment. It’s not simply that Fithian experienced these dueling impulses, home and high culture, as a tension—he was made to experience them as a tension. The intellectual community known as the republic of letters, whose values Fithian subscribed to, was, Fea writes, “above all else a rational republic with little tolerance for those unable to rid themselves of provincial passions. Its best citizens maintained primary loyalty not to family, friends, faith, or land but to an international commonwealth of humankind.”
As Fithian immersed himself in the Presbyterian variant of the Enlightenment, he came to perceive his intellectual and social ambitions as of a piece with the grand movement of history itself: the coming of a truly enlightened age when liberty, natural rights, and good taste would prevail due to the will of God himself; human communities would, accordingly, gain a prosperity hitherto unknown. “Providence was on the side of human progress,” says Fea, summarizing the conviction of Witherspoon, Fithian, and scores of other members of a Presbyterian church that “had wed its moral agenda to the cause of American liberty.”
Fithian returned from Virginia, married the woman he had long courted (or attempted to court—it’s a story Fea tells with insight and charm), and was ordained into the Presbyterian ministry. In the summer of 1776, after a year and a half as an itinerant preacher, he responded to the call of the New Jersey Provincial Congress and enlisted as a chaplain. He was sent to Long Island, only to witness a devastating defeat of the colonials. “O doleful! doleful! doleful!—Blood! Carnage! Fire!” he wrote in his diary in August. But he lost neither his courage nor his convictions. He was, he wrote, prepared to “lie here on the crimsoned Field and bleed out my life” if only his family and country would be saved from tyranny. And indeed, he did die, succumbing to complications from dysentery in the fall of 1776.
A Sign of Health
But did Fithian—whom Fea affectionately calls “this cosmopolitan dreamer”—ever learn to master his homesickness and his love for his provincial place? It is the reality of this persisting yearning that keeps Fea’s story taut. For amid Fithian’s youthful striving for refined brilliance and enlightened understanding, he had slowly come to sense, Fea suggests, that his intellectual and cultural achievements were oddly vacuous apart from serious and sustained connection to the world of Cohansie. “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.”
Homesickness, on Fea’s view (if not quite Fithian’s), far from being the mental disorder that the enlightened believed it to be, was actually a sign of health. Fithian would not master his longing for home so much as slowly come to accept it—although, even after returning home, he remained very careful to continue his cosmopolitan quest for “improvement” in the company of like-minded people.
The project Fithian found so enticing, to “transcend the parochialism of colonial life and replace it with a progressive vision of the good life tied to self-improvement,” still has plenty of purchase, and might even be regarded as the centerpiece of “the American dream.” Today’s Americans may not dream much about nation-building, nor of a kind of improvement centered on the “virtue” Fithian and so many like him sought. But many cling with touching faith to the possibility of transcendence over the mucky world of home and place, even as they descend into the most banal, debauched, and transient of lives.
Fithian’s “dreams were boundless, but his roots remained strong,” Fea concludes. We, too, dream on and on. But what good are the dreams of those convinced they were born to run? •
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“The Ideal Place” first appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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