Hunting for Diaries

This may sound strange, but I love reading the diaries of dead people. My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, told the story of one of early America’s most prolific diarists.

While reading The Guardian last night, Amelia’s Tait’s article on “diary hunter” Sally MacNamara caught my eye.

Here is a taste:

Sally MacNamara has long told her four children that if there’s a fire in her Seattle home, they should rescue Olga first. Olga isn’t the youngest family member or a beloved pet – in fact, MacNamara has never met Olga in person. The “Olga” that is so precious to the 63-year-old online seller is a 118-year-old diary written by a woman of the same name. Beginning in 1902, the diary chronicles the experiences of a young immigrant who was raised in a strict religious environment in America. “She did not care what she wrote, which I love about her,” MacNamara says. She purchased the diary online in 2005 – it is now one of her most prized possessions.

Over the past 35 years, MacNamara has read more than 8,000 strangers’ diaries. As a child, her mother would take her “dump diving” to salvage objects – when she discovered an old, handwritten piece of paper in the trash one day, she was immediately intrigued. MacNamara’s father killed himself when she was 13 and he left behind a locked trunk of papers that has now been lost. “I didn’t want that to happen to other people, so I started collecting and keeping people’s diaries and letters,” she says. “I fall in love with people I haven’t even seen.”

At first, MacNamara bought diaries in antique shops, but when a friend introduced her to eBay in 1998, she began using the auction site to buy and sell. She has the enviously simple username “diaries”, and 8,062 pieces of feedback on her profile prove her claims about the number of personal papers she’s collected. Yet while MacNamara has more than two decades’ experience trading strangers’ secrets, her hobby has recently become more widespread. On YouTube, videos entitled “I bought a stranger’s diary” are incredibly popular – an October 2019 video racked up 300,000 views, while the video that started the trend in December 2017 has been watched by over 6.4 million people.

Read the rest here.

Presbyterians in Love

Letter to Beatty

The first letter that Fithian wrote to Elizabeth Beatty, dated July 15, 1770. From the Fithian Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Courtesy of the Princeton University Library. 

I am glad to learn that Commonplace: The Journal of Early American History and Life is re-running my 2008 piece “Presbyterians in Love” at its new website. I love the subtitle they chose: “He was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion.”

I can’t I published that piece twelve years ago.

Here is a taste:

Can Presbyterians fall in love? Okay, everyone falls in love, but when people think of Presbyterians they normally conjure up images of stoic Protestants whose kids eat oatmeal and memorize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Reverend Maclean, the Montana minister and father figure played by Tom Skerritt in A River Runs Through It, comes to mind. Presbyterians don’t “fall” in love—they rationally, and with good sense, ease themselves into it.

This was my image of Presbyterians until I read the correspondence of Philip Vickers Fithian. Most early American historians know Philip Vickers Fithian. He was the uptight young Presbyterian who served a year (1773-1774) as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, and wrote a magnificently detailed diary about his experience. For most of us, Fithian is valued for his skills as an observer. His journal offers one of our best glimpses into plantation life in the Old Dominion on the eve of the American Revolution.

But despite Fithian’s ubiquitous presence in the indexes and footnotes of contemporary works of Virginia scholarship, most of us know little more about him than the very barest facts: He was born in 1747 in the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich. He was the eldest son of Presbyterian farmers but left the agricultural life in 1770 to attend the College of New Jersey at Princeton. After college he worked for a year on Carter’s plantation and was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. In 1776 he headed off to New York to serve as a chaplain with a New Jersey militia unit in the American War for Independence.

Such chronicling—the stuff of encyclopedia entries and biographical dictionaries—only scratches the surface of Philip’s life. It fails to acknowledge the inner man, the prolific writer who used words—letters and diary entries mostly—to make peace with the ideas that warred for his soul. Philip was a man of passion raised in a Presbyterian world of order. He came of age at a time when Presbyterians were rejecting the pious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening for a common-sense view of Christianity. And while Philip was clearly a student of this newer rational and moderate Protestantism, he remained unquestionably Presbyterian. For he was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion. His struggle to bring these worlds together is seen most clearly not in his well-known observations of plantation life but in his letters to the woman he loved—Elizabeth Beatty.

Philip first met Elizabeth “Betsy” Beatty in the spring of 1770 when she visited the southern New Jersey town of Deerfield to attend her sister Mary’s wedding to Enoch Green, the local Presbyterian minister. It may not have been love at first site, but it was close. Philip was enrolled in Green’s preparatory academy, and Betsy was the daughter of Charles Beatty, the minister of the Presbyterian church of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and one of the colonies’ most respected clergymen.

Betsy was a new face in Deerfield, a fact that made her especially enchanting to the town’s young men. Philip had spent enough time with Betsy while she was visiting to begin a friendly correspondence with her. In his first letter, written shortly after she returned to Neshaminy, Philip wrote, “You can scarcely conceive . . . how melancholy, Spiritless, & forsaken you left Several when you left Deerfield!” He hoped for a prominent place “in this gloomy Row of the disappointed.” Since Betsy had departed Deerfield he could not “walk nor read, nor talk, nor ride, nor sleep, nor live, with any Stomach!” The “transient golden Minutes” they had spent together, he added, “only fully persuaded me how much real Happiness may be had in your Society.” Philip was smitten.

Betsy did not reply to this letter, and Philip’s obsession waned as he headed off to college in the fall of 1770. While he was there Philip had more than one opportunity to see Betsy again. He joined fellow classmates on weekend excursions to visit Charles Beatty’s church at Neshaminy, and it was during these visits that he made his first serious attempts to court Betsy. Though Philip and Betsy would spend much time together over the course of the next several years, the establishment of a correspondence was equally important to the development of their relationship. Betsy had given Philip permission to write her, a clear sign that she approved of his desire to move the friendship forward. By February 1772 he was signing his letters with the name “Philander” (“loving Friend”), an obvious indicator of his affection for his new correspondent.

Though much of Philip and Betsy’s courtship was conducted through letters, the exchange of sentiments usually flowed in only one direction. Perhaps Betsy did not like to write. Perhaps she preferred more intimate encounters or feared the lack of privacy inherent in letter writing. Or perhaps she did not want to encourage her suitor with a reply. Whatever the case, women generally did not write as much as men, especially when it came to love and courtship letters. In other words, Betsy may simply have been following the conventions of her day.

Read the rest here. Or get the entire story here:

Fithian Book



From Princeton to Williamsburg!

TWOILH at Williamsburg

In 1773, a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey at Princeton from the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich went to Virginia to teach the children of a wealthy plantation owner.

The tutor was Philip Vickers Fithian.  The planter was Robert Carter III.  Carter’s plantation was called Nomini Hall, but he also had a house in Williamsburg.

I wrote about Fithian’s experience in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: The Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  The teachers in my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America read the book during their week in Princeton.

So perhaps it is fitting that some alums from the Princeton Seminar traveled, like Fithian, to Williamsburg this week.  And look what they found on sale in the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore!

Thanks for sharing Jamie, Jen, and Tracy!

My Piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning at the Omohundro Institute Blog


Check out my piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning at Uncommon Sense, the blog of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.  The post accompanies “The Politics of Tea,” episode 160 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series.  Learn more here.

A taste:

In 1772, Philip Vickers Fithian, a twenty-four year old graduating senior at the College of New Jersey at Princeton, delivered his commencement disputation on the topic, “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” The disputation echoed the words of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters. It distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful to the kind of Christian morality essential to sustaining a republican government, and “political” jealousy, which Fithian described as “rational, uniform, and necessary.” The truly “jealous” citizen kept a careful and virtuous watch on his government leaders to guard against vice and corruption. Political jealousy served as a unifying force. Fithian said that it had the “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests closely associated with the preservation of a political community. Two years later, Fithian would witness political jealousy in action among the patriots of his hometown, the small hamlet of Greenwich, New Jersey.

Greenwich is located on the Cohansey River about six miles from the Delaware Bay. In the eighteenth century it served as an official British customs port, albeit not a very busy one. Sometime in the second week of December 1774 a brig—local lore identifies it as the Greyhound—docked at John Shepherd’s river landing. It carried East Indian tea. Fithian, who had just spent a year working as a tutor on Robert Carter III’s Nomini Hall plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia, was in town when the Greyhound arrived. He knew that these were not ordinary times and the Greyhound, because of its cargo, was no ordinary ship.

Read the rest here.

Happy Anniversary Philip and Betsy!

298ce-fithiancover2Darryl Hart just called my attention to today’s post in “This Day in Presbyterian History.”  On this day in 1775, Philip Vickers Fithian married Elizabeth “Betsy” Beatty.   Anyone who has read The Way of Improvement Leads Home knows that Philip and Betsy had a rather tumultuous courtship.

Here is a taste of the entry:

An opportunity for further service interrupted this formal schooling. He was asked and encouraged by John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, to became a tutor of the large family of Robert Carter the Third in Virginia. Hesitant to go at first, he finally decided to take the opportunity and traveled south to this new ministry.

Chief also in his thoughts at this time was a young lady back home, the daughter of Rev. Charles Beatty, Elizabeth Beatty. His attempts of devotion and love toward her was met with silence or opposition. Even when he proposed to her, she rejected his proposal. All during the one year of tutorship, he wrote often to her.

Upon returning to New Jersey, he was licensed to preach the gospel. His ministry involved preaching to the vacant pulpits of Southern New Jersey. After a while, he transferred to the Donegal Presbytery in Pennsylvania, and was sent on two tours to western Pennsylvania and Virginia. In the middle of these tours, on this day, October 25, 1775, he was united in marriage with his long term sweetheart, Elizabeth Beatty.

Read the entire entry here.

The 8-Minute Homily

When Philip Vickers Fithian was living in Virginia in 1774 he was a bit surprised when Thomas Smith, the rector of the local Anglican church, preached a sermon that lasted only fifteen minutes. From this point forward Philip made a habit of timing Smith’s sermons, informing his correspondent John Peck that Smith’s messages were “seldom under & never over twenty minutes.”

Later, while preaching through the Shenandoah River Valley, Fithian remarked that a minister who can “Preach without Papers” and “seem earnest & serious” will be “listened to with Patience & Wonder.” According to Fithian, ministers who were not wed to a text in their delivery would be greeted after the service with handshakes of appreciation and invitations to dinner. However, even the most learned and elegantly written sermon would not please Shenandoah Presbyterians if it was read instead of preached: “Backs will be up at once, their Attention all gone, their Noses will grow red as their Wigs–And let me whisper this, you may bet your Dinner where your Breakfasted.”

(By the way, you can read more about Fithian in a pretty good book called The Way of Improvement Leads Home).

I wonder what Fithian, a good evangelical Presbyterian, might think of the Vatican’s recent suggestion (via the Catholic News Service):

Homilies should be no longer than eight minutes — a listener’s average attention span, said the head of the synod office.

Priests and deacons should also avoid reading straight from a text and instead work from notes so that they can have eye contact with the people in the pews, said Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops.

In a new book titled, “The Word of God,” the archbishop highlighted some tips that came out of the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Bible. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, reproduced a few passages from the book in its March 10 edition.

The archbishop wrote that it’s not unusual for preachers to recognize that they have less-than-perfect communications skills or that they struggle with preparing homilies. Everyone should spend an appropriate amount of time to craft a well-prepared and relevant sermon for Mass, he said.

Westmoreland County Museum and Library

I was in Montross, VA tonight at the Westmoreland County Museum and Library. It was a beautiful day on Virginia’s Northern Neck. I was in Montross as a speaker in the museum’s “Virginia Authors” lecture series. (Even though I am not a “Virginia author,” Philip Vickers Fithian certainly was!). The crowd was small, lively, and very knowledgeable about Fithian’s Virginia diary. Thanks to Alice French for inviting me and hosting me during my visit.

I am off to Williamsburg tomorrow!

Happy New Year from Philip Vickers Fithian

Philip Vickers Fithian spent January 1, 1774 on the plantation of Robert Carter on Virginia’s Northern Neck. This is what he recorded in his diary on that day:

Another Year is Gone! Last New Years Day I had not the most remote expectation of being now here in Virginia! Perhaps by the next I shall have made a longer and more important Remove, from this to the World of the Spirits!

It is well worth the while, for the better improving of our time to come to recollect and reflect upon the time which we have spent; The Season seems to require it; it will give entertainment at least, perhaps much substantial pleasure too, to be able to make with a considerable degree of certainty a review of the general course of our Actions in the course of year. This shall be my employment, so far as I am able to recollect, when I shall have suitable time for the fixing & laying my thoughts together–

Fithian would get his thoughts together the next day in a long diary entry describing his decision to come to Virginia. If you want to know more about why the son of a New Jersey grain grower and 1772 Princeton graduate chose to spend a year working as a tutor on a large tobacco plantation get a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Has Anyone Ever Died for the Atlantic World?

A few years ago I gave a “state of the field” lecture on early American history to a group of college professors and high school teachers attending the week-long AP U.S. History grading session at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. This summer I did a similar lecture, sponsored by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History, to a group of secondary teachers from Bledsoe County, Tennessee.

If I ever give this lecture again, it will be much richer thanks to an article in December 2008 issue of the Journal of American History (which I received today). Chris Grasso and Karin Wulf, editors at the William and Mary Quarterly and members of the history faculty at the College of William and Mary, have written “Nothing Says ‘Democracy’ Like a Visit from the Queen: Reflections on Empire and Nation in Early American Histories.” This article should be on the reading list of every graduate student in early American history.

Grasso and Wulf use the May 2007 visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Jamestown as their starting point to critique the nationalist and presentist impulse that is still very much a part of the way the general public thinks about colonial America. Their essay reminded me that there is still a very large gap between the kind of early American history that the public wants (one connected to a national narrative) and the kind of early American history that scholars are writing, which tends to focus on empire, the Atlantic World, interdisciplinary analysis, and the west (meaning the trans-Mississippi). The best synthetic overview of this new literature (which, surprisingly, Grasso and Wulf do not mention in their essay) remains Alan Taylor’s American Colonies.

Grasso and Wulf conclude the essay by reminding scholars that theoretical concepts such as “Atlantic World” need to be grounded in particular contexts. They write:

Conceptual spaces such as the Atlantic or the North American continent throw into relief both the power and the fragility of political structures such as empires and nations. Putting those structures into play as subjects of our inquiry, not simply as default frameworks of analysis, continues the field’s tradition of attention to these subjects, but with a twenty-first century sensibility about the significance of culture and greater geographical, even global, contexts. We continue to reach for ways to connect the traces of rich and complex experience on the ground in places like Jamestown to accounts of broad structures and transformations that can be discerned only retrospectively.

On this point the authors quote Atlantic historian Ian Steele: “No one ever worked, prayed, fought, or died for an early modern multinational Atlantic.”

Well put.

My own biography of Philip Vickers Fithian, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, is pretty traditional fare. Fithian was a white male Presbyterian from the British colony of New Jersey–not very exciting from the perspective of current scholarship. But I did try to take Fithian’s diaries and life and connect them to a larger Atlantic world of religion, morals, and the Enlightenment.

What I also tried to do in The Way of Improvement Leads Home is raise some of the real life tensions that eighteenth-century people faced as they tried to be part of a so-called Atlantic World or “Republic of Letters.” Fithian always tried to balance his Atlanticist or cosmopolitan instincts with his deep affection for home (place) and the burgeoning nation. As Steele notes, the Atlantic World is a fine theoretical framework, but it does not completely explain Fithian and other rising young men like him in revolutionary America. As I suggest, Fithian was willing to die for his homeland, and by that I mean the people of Cohansey–the local south Jersey community in which he was born and raised. He was also willing to die for the abstract intellectual ideas (republicanism) of the Atlantic world, but only as those ideas were embedded in a particular view of what Philip Freneau, his classmate at Princeton, called the “Rising Glory of America.”

Future historiographers will look back on the recent flood of literature on the “Atlantic World” and explain it in terms of early American historians trying to connect their scholarship to a changing world defined by globalization and cosmopolitanism. But we need to be careful that we don’t fall into a presentist trap similar to the one that Grasso and Wulf lament about the nationalization and democratization of public history at Jamestown. In other words, many early Americanists possessed loyalties to place, home, community, and nation that often clashed with some of these global ideas. The Atlantic World is useful, but it does not explain everything.

The Ubiquitous Philip Vickers Fithian

On p.3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home I write: “One would be hard-pressed to find a book on eighteenth-century Virginia that does not mention him (Fithian).” I do not think I exaggerate the point when I say that Philip Vickers Fithian was one of the greatest diarists in early America. He commented on virtually everything!

I recently typed the name “Philip Vickers Fithian” into Google Books and found that he is cited in a variety of books on a variety of subjects, such as:

Early American Proverbs and Proverbial America(1977)
The Making of Our Middle Schools (1903)
Christmas in America (1995)
At the Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005)
A Documentary History of Conservation in America (1972)
A Social History of Wet Nursing (1996)
Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature (2008)
A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950)
People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo America (1986)
American Architects and their Books (2001)
Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty (2004)
Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988)
Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts (1983)
Sweet Songs for Gentle Americans: The Parlor Song in America (1980)
People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas (1986)

My favorite reference comes from the May 1, 1901 issue of the The Dial: A Semi-Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism. (If I am not mistaken, this is a later manifestation of the old transcendentalist journal founded by Margaret Fuller and edited at one point by Ralph Waldo Emerson). In his review of John Roger Williams’s published collection of Fithian letters and papers, Percy Favor Bicknell describes Fithian’s writings this way: “Ill-spelled, worse punctuation, and well-nigh without literary form or grace of style.” He starts his review by describing Fithian’s writings as “the crude material without which history could not be written.”

I would beg to differ with Bicknell’s assessment of Fithian’s style, but that argument must wait for another blog post.

The Fithian Diaries

Occasionally someone will ask me how they can read the diaries of Philip Vickers Fithian. (A curious gentleman at the Philadelphia Roundtable last night asked me about this). A good portion of them have been published and can be found in the following volumes:

Hunter Dickinson Farish, ed., Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion (University of Virginia Press, 1968). This volume includes the rich and detailed diary Philip kept while he was a tutor on Robert Carter III’s plantation on Virginia’s Northern Neck. (While I was in Pittsburgh last weekend my friend Eric found an old hardback copy of the diary at a University of Pittsburgh used book store)

Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, ed., Philip Vickers Fithian: journal, 1775-1776, written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York (Princeton University Press, 1934). This diary, as the title suggestes, cover his years in the backcountry and as a chaplain with the Continental Army in New York.

John Williams, ed., Philip Vickers Fithian: Journal And Letters, 1767-1774; Student At Princeton College, 1770-72 (Kessinger Publishing, 2007; originally publised by Princeton University Press, 1908). This volume contains random letters and diary entries from Fithian’s years at the College of New Jersey.

All of the Fithian papers and diaries are located at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. There is much material in these papers that is not published.

In conjunction with an article I published about Fithian in 2003, the Journal of American History put hundreds of pages of Fithian’s writings on-line. The site, which is part of the journal’s “Teaching the JAH” feature, includes the article and study questions suitable for the high school and undergraduate classroom. I will try to get a link to these writings on the book website soon.

Fithian’s diaries make for great reading. I am always amazed how many people I run across who have read them.