Did Philip Vickers Fithian Know James Madison?

Yesterday, March 16, was the anniversary of James Madison’s birthday. (He was born in 1751). Steve Waldman has a nice reflection in the Wall Street Journal on Madison’s commitment to religious freedom. Waldman admits on his blog that the op-ed is part of his efforts to promote the paperback edition of his excellent, Founding Faith. (See my review of it here).

I will take Waldman’s lead and use Madison’s birthday to help promote (shamelessly) the paperback version of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Madison and Fithian attended the College of New Jersey at Princeton together. Madison was in the class of 1771. Fithian was in the class of 1772. They were both students of John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. Madison was the president of the Whig debating society in 1771 and Fithian was the secretary. They both teamed up against the rival Clio Society, whose membership included Aaron Burr.

When I first embarked on this Fithian project I expected that Madison would have much to say about his classmate from southern New Jersey. I thought Fithian would have even more to say about Madison. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to find that Madison never mentions Fithian in any of his private papers and Fithian never mentions Madison. Yet both of them wrote all the time about their other Princeton classmates.

You will have to read the book to see my attempt to explain this. The fact that Fithian never mentions Madison is still one of the great mysteries of his story.