Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: November 18, 2009

"Phillip Vickers Fithian: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of an 18th Century Diarist," Dr. John Fea

A lot of people may be familiar with Fithian’s diary when he was working as a tutor in Virginia. However, there was much more, and in fact there are approximately seven volumes of his writings and other items.

Fithian was a chaplain in the Continental Army. He was present at the Battle of Long Island and attended the College of New Jersey at Princeton, now known, of course, as Princeton University.

Dr. Fea has written a book with this same title that can be read either as a biography or in a broader context as reflective of what was going on during these days in our country’s history.

Fithian was born in a small town about twenty-five miles southwest of Philadelphia. His life stretched out before him was to continue working on the farm as so many others did. But Fithian did not want to stay on the farm. He would perform his farm tasks but at night would read quite extensively from Cato’s Letters, Locke, Hobbs, Voltaire, etc. So he was not like the others his age.

He was most interested in political ideas about a decade before the American Revolution.

He often wrote letters to his father which seems kind of strange to us since his father lived right there, but apparently this was quite common in that time. Within these letters to his father, we find him begging to go to school and he finally convinced his father to let him go. Obviously, he saw his path differently from that of others.

When Fithian got to Princeton he saw that it was very strongly evangelical and John Witherspoon, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was the President at the time. The school was intensely religious and patriotic and they all understood that “God was on the side of America” and that England was the tyrant.

Madison was about a year ahead of him and Aaron Burr was in his actual class, so he was quite steeped in all of this revolutionary fervor.

One of the incidents mentioned was when he forgot his “robe” which of course the students in those days were wearing. He didn’t have the money to buy another. He felt excluded and so wrote his folks for the money to buy another robe.

In his senior thesis he wrote that political jealousy is a good passion.

Fithian joined fifty of his classmates in becoming a preacher and of course he went on to be a tutor at the Carter Plantation in the Northern Neck of Virginia. He was most concerned about loyalists but from there he went on to serve as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War.

There are three main ideas that Dr. Fea pointed out that were paramount in Fithian’s mind:
1. Religion was a motivating factor in politics. He felt that all Christians were patriots and if you fought with the British you were not being a Christian. The Presbyterians were of course Calvinists and felt that God was in control. In all of this thought really merged with the thinking of the Enlightenment.

They felt very strongly that they needed to rebel against England and that tyranny was a sin, that God hates sin and thus God was on the side of the Americans. He was what we would call a “Wig Providential.”

2. People had to have a conversion to the revolution and so the idea of becoming a patriot was more of a religious experience. He was willing to risk his life for this!

3. This is also sometimes known as “The Rural Enlightenment” when the American Revolution was coming to local places. It came to the New Jersey countryside where a lot of the young ones were getting together and debating the various issues of the day.

As far as the question and answer session was concerned, it was somewhat abbreviated for various reasons, but one related to the fact that Fithian as a chaplain did carry a musket but he never fired it. Also there was a story of how the British would support Anglican Churches and the American Revolutionaries would support the Presbyterian Churches. In fact there was one stand-off where the British were taking cover behind an Anglican Church while the Americans were taking cover behind a Presbyterian Church. The British prevailed and burned the Presbyterian Church to the ground. In other words, the British were very suspect of the Presbyterians and of any religious orders that were not Anglican. The loyalist were obviously mostly Anglican.

We certainly enjoyed Dr. Fea’s presentation and he gave us some very special insights into how the American Revolutionary fervor and the religious fervor were tied together in those days.