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

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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.

Jonathan Wood, RIP

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Jonathan Wood in October 2016 doing what he loved.–talking about Presbyterian history at the Old Stone Church in Fairfield, Cumberland County, New Jersey

In the acknowledgements of my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I wrote: “Jonathan Wood of the Cumberland County Historical Society first introduced me to Philip Vickers Fithian’s homeland.  I enjoyed discussing Fithian with Jonathan during our driving tours of Cohansey and lunches in Dutch Neck Village.”

This small statement does not do justice to all Jonathan Wood taught me. Nor does it do justice to a friendship that lasted well beyond the publication of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Jonathan Wood, who passed away last night after a three-month battle with illness, taught me almost everything I know about the life of Philip Vickers Fithian, the history of Presbyterians in New Jersey, and the history of Cumberland County, New Jersey.

After graduating from Penn State and completing an M.A. in history at the University of Pennsylvania, Jonathan taught history for decades at Millville (NJ) High School.  I did not meet him until after he retired from teaching.  I was writing a dissertation on early New Jersey history. The history of Cumberland County, a county with settlements that predated William Penn’s founding of Pennsylvania, featured prominently in my work.

At an early stage in my research someone mentioned that I needed to get to know Jonathan Wood, an officer of the Cumberland County Historical Society.(CCHS). I corresponded with Jonathan for several months in 1996 before I drove to the town of Greenwich to spend a day with him and pick his brain about local history.  Shortly after I arrived we hopped in Jonathan’s Buick and he drove me around town, pointing out virtually every historic site related to Fithian, the American Revolution, and the Presbyterian community in the region.

We hit it off immediately.  Jonathan was passionate about his work as a historian.  He regularly quoted passages from Fithian’s diary.  He told me about trips he took to Virginia and New England where he tried to learn more about Fithian and some of the earliest seventeenth-century settlers of Greenwich and the surrounding townships.

I think he saw me as a kindred spirit.  There were very few people in Jonathan’s life able to talk about Fithian and local Presbyterian history at such a deep level.  As we said goodbye at the end of the day I noticed that tears were filling his eyes.  At the time I didn’t understand why he was so emotional. After all, he was just showing around a visiting graduate student. But as I got to know Jonathan I was able to understand just what this visit had meant to him.  He saw the potential of a friendship that I did not yet see.  And I am glad he did.

We stayed in touch.  After I had read all the materials I needed to examine in the Lummis Library I continued to make visits to Greenwich as a way of reinvigorating my passion for the project.  I always looked forward to running my latest ideas past Jonathan. We always walked the grounds of the place that Fithian called “Cohansey” (this was the part of the county situated along the Cohansey River. Jonathan was one of the only people I met who still used the term).  Jonathan knew the historical value of such a practice.  As we walked and talked (and sometimes drove) I would try to get Jonathan to think about Fithian and his relationship to what I was now calling the “rural Enlightenment.” He was skeptical at first, but eventually came around to the idea.

After The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in 2008 Jonathan started sending me reviews of the book in the form of hand-written letters.  He liked the book, but he also thought that there were dimensions of Fithian’s life that I got wrong.  I always pushed back at his constructive criticism.  He rarely backed down.  Jonathan relished in the give-and-take of historical conversation.  He once told me it reminded him of a graduate seminar he took at Penn with historian Richard Dunn.  (Jonathan got a big smile on his face whenever I reminded him that Dunn was my academic grandfather. My dissertation adviser at Stony Brook, Ned Landsman, studied with the esteemed early Americanist in the 1970s).

Whenever I returned to Greenwich for a book talk or lecture Jonathan always insisted that I stay with him at his home in Millville.  I recall staying-up late into the evening most nights talking about American history, Cumberland County history, and the many history books stacked-up next to his reading chair.  He always filled the guestroom where I was staying with early American history books from his personal library.  In the morning he would cook us breakfast before we headed off to the library for the day.

Thanks to Jonathan, I became captivated with the story of Greenwich and its history.  At the center of Greenwich history is an event known as the “Greenwich Tea Burning.”  In December 1774, about a year after the so-called “Boston Tea Party,” a ship filled with East India tea docked at Greenwich and local Presbyterian patriots confiscated the load and burned it in the center of town.  Philip Vickers Fithian may have been involved in this act of protest.  A monument to the event stands on the town’s “Ye Greate Street.”

It seemed to me that the story of the Greenwich Tea Burning might make a great study of how a local community remembered and commemorated its past.  I landed a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to fund a research project on the town’s history and gathered together students and former students into something we called “The Greenwich Tea Burning Project.”  The grant allowed us to spend a week or so in the summer conducting research in Greenwich.

I always got the impression that Jonathan was a bit overwhelmed when I showed up with three or four students to do research on the history of Greenwich and collect oral histories of some of the residents of the town.  The Lummis Library was small and he worried that we might get in the way of other patrons and researchers. Sometimes he would set-up a big work table for us on the second floor of the library, an area that was not open to the public.

But I also think Jonathan was always excited about our visits.  He was thrilled that I was so interested in the place where he had spent most of his life.  He liked to talk to the students (including my own daughter Allyson) about the history of the region and provide them with tours of the area.  I’d like to think that our visits kept him young and hopeful.

One of the highlights of our Greenwich Tea Burning Project visits was a Wednesday evening trip to the boardwalk at Ocean City, New Jersey.  This was Jonathan’s idea.  He thought the students needed a break after a long day in the library.  Jonathan could not get enough of Ocean City.  He talked about this Jersey Shore town with a child-like giddiness.  After he retired he would spend a week or two there every September. Jonathan really enjoyed seeing one of his favorite vacation destinations through the eyes of the students as we walked the boards and ate ice cream and pizza.

Eventually the funding ran out on the Greenwich Tea Burning Project.  The students on my team went on to bigger and better things and I got distracted by other book projects.  (I would like to return to it one day.  The book is actually almost finished!  I am envisioning it as a work of public history and memory.  And when I do finish it it will be dedicated to Jonathan).  I had not seen Jonathan in several years when his friend Joe Mathews wrote this morning to tell me of his passing.  I felt an overwhelming urge to write this post.

Jonathan Wood was a gentleman, a Christian, and the heart and soul of local history in this little corner of southern New Jersey.  Today I mourn with his family and friends.  I hope the Cumberland County history community recognizes the magnitude of this loss.

I am sure Jonathan is in heaven right now talking with Philip Vickers Fithian and getting all of his questions answered.

Rest in peace my good friend.  Rest in peace.

Here are some pics I dug up:

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I almost certain we are talking about Cohansey or Philip Vickers Fithian here

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Another one of Jonathan’s favorite places: the Ocean City boardwalk

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My daughter Allyson,  the junior member of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project, delivering some Kohr’s orange-cream custard to us.

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Jonathan (in the back) waxing eloquent on something related to American history as Katie Garland of the Greenwich Tea Burning team does her research

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Outside the Lummis Library during the 100th anniversary celebration of the erection of the Greenwich Tea Burning monument

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Jonathan Wood with the Greenwich Tea Burning team inside the historic Greenwich Quaker Meetinghouse

The Greenwich Tea Burning in the "Newark Star-Ledger"

The Greenwich Tea Burning Monument, Greenwich, NJ

It is always nice when a reporter from one of my hometown newspapers calls and wants to talk history.  

Last week I had a nice chat with Lisa Rose, a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, who was writing a piece on the so-called Greenwich Tea Burning.  Readers of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” or The Way of Improvement Leads Home know about this 1774 act of patriotic rebellion that occurred in the small southern New Jersey town of Greenwich.  You may also remember that I have made some significant headway on a book about the history and memory of this event.  I hope to return to it somewhere in the future, assuming that I can secure some additional funding to support the “Greenwich Tea Burning Project.”

Rose’s piece provides a nice introduction to this oft-forgotten slice of revolutionary-era history. Here is a taste:

On the night of December 22, 1774, a group of South Jersey patriots braved the cold to stage an incendiary protest against British taxation.

The villagers hauled a stolen shipment of tea into the town square and set it ablaze, building a bonfire to express their defiance.

The Greenwich Tea Burning may not be as famed as the Boston Tea Party but it has been a source of pride for generations of residents in the Cumberland County hamlet along the Cohansey River. The town’s centerpiece is a monument, built in 1908, listing the names of the tea burners.

Over the years, folks have re-enacted the event, setting tea on fire during festivals marking centennial and bicentennial anniversaries. To this day, Greenwich’s identity is built around scorched tea as a symbol of courage and independence. The town’s annual charity 5k run is called the Tea Burner Race. Its logo is a flaming crate.

“There were six incidents up and down the East Coast where they destroyed tea,” said Bob Francois, a member of the Cumberland County Historical Society who will be giving talks about the tea burning on July 4 at Potter’s Tavern in neighboring Bridgeton.

Francois said, “The most famous tea party was Boston in December of 1773 and our tea party was the last and least famous. It wasn’t in a major city. It was in a backwater Colonial seaport and it didn’t get the attention that bigger cities like Annapolis or Boston or Philadelphia got.

“In Cumberland County, there were no Revolutionary War battles. The tea burning was a major happening in our county and even though it happened back in 1774, it’s still in the forefront and the locals really celebrate it.”

There is very little documentation of the Greenwich rebellion, said John Fea, an associate professor of American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. He started researching the incident while preparing a doctoral dissertation on a pioneering 18th-century diarist, Philip Vickers Fithian, a Greenwich native who chronicled his experience working as a tutor on a Virginia plantation. In disturbing detail, Fithian described the treatment of slaves and the climate of racism in the South….

Fea said he looked for other firsthand descriptions of the uprising in historical newspapers but was only able to locate one brief article in the Pennsylvania Packet.

“We don’t know a lot about what actually happened that night,” said Fea, author of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.”

Fea said, “We know about the myths and legends that have grown up surrounding the Greenwich Tea Burning. They’re all based on oral tradition rather than historical evidence. Everything in Greenwich is about memory because these stories have been passed along from generation to generation. That’s fine but there’s a difference between history, what actually happened, and memory.”

Francois agreed that the stories told over time have been marred with errors and inconsistencies…

Teaching people about the tea burning is important, even if the details are scant, because it is a story of revolt in which the central characters are ordinary individuals rather than war heroes or firebrand politicians, Fea said.

“These men who burned the tea clearly saw themselves as connected to a larger patriotic movement,” said Fea. “It’s an inspiring example of grassroots resistance and the way in which local communities connected to the larger Revolution. The tea burning is what the Revolution looked like in a local town.”

Greenwich is a secluded village, with a population of less than 1,000, where the main thoroughfare is called Ye Greate Street. It’s right next door to Bridgeton, a once-booming factory town that’s been redeveloped several times over.

“When you drive from Bridgeton to Greenwich, it’s like you’re driving back in time,” said Fea. “All of the commerce, all of the trade went to Bridgeton during the Industrial Revolution. Greenwich has remained this remote place where they’ve turned to their history to build their identity. In many ways, the Greenwich Tea Burning is more of a 20th-century phenomenon than it was a 1774 phenomenon.”

Still Room on the "Religion, Rebellion and the Founding Fathers Tour"

As I have noted here before, I will be working with the good folks at America’s History, LLC to offer “Religion, Rebellion & the Founding Fathers,” a tour of colonial mid-Atlantic sites relevant to the founding fathers and their religious world.

We will be exploring the religious and political history of three local places that played a role in the American Revolution:  Philadelphia (of course), Greenwich, NJ (home of Philip Vickers Fithian and the Greenwich Tea Burning), and New Castle, Delaware.

The tour is scheduled for June 5-8.

For more information, including pricing, check out the America’s History LLC website.

NOTE: THIS TOUR HAS BEEN POSTPONED.  STAY TUNED FOR MORE DETAILS

The Greenwich Tea Burning Project

Greenwich Friends Meetinghouse

I am hoping for a small revival of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project this summer.  To learn more about this public history project click here.

In addition to my work on another public history/consulting project this summer, I hope to make some headway on the book manuscript associated with the project, “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in an American Town.”  Stay tuned.

If you are interested in following the progress of The Greenwich Tea Burning Project join our Facebook group. We would love to have you!

Join Us For The "Religion, Rebellion & the Founding Fathers" Tour

Christ Church, Philadelphia

NOTE: THIS TOUR HAS BEEN POSTPONED.  STAY TUNED FOR MORE DETAILS

This Spring The Way of Improvement Leads Home is teaming up with America’s History, LLC to offer a three-day tour focused on religion and the American Revolution in the Delaware Valley.  I will be serving as the historian for a tour of early American religious sites in Philadelphia, Greenwich (home of the famous “Greenwich Tea Burning” and the less famous Greenwich Tea Burning Project), and New Castle, Delaware.

If you are interested in early American religious history and how it intersects with the history of the American Revolution, I want to encourage you think about joining us.  The tour is scheduled for June 5-8, 2013.  Watch the America’s History, LLC website and The Way of Improvement Leads Home for more details.

The unveiling of the Greenwich Tea Burners Monument, Sept. 30, 1908

Presbyterian Church, New Castle, DE

NOTE: THIS TOUR HAS BEEN POSTPONED.  STAY TUNED FOR MORE DETAILS

What About the Ghosts of the Greenwich Tea Burners?

I first met Gregg Jones, a resident of Greenwich, New Jersey, while doing research on the 1774 Greenwich Tea Burning. He is a great guy who loves the history of his historic home town.

I recently learned that Gregg been leading ghost tours down “Ye Great Street,” the wide thoroughfare, built in the 1670s, that runs through the middle of historic Greenwich.  Here is a taste of a recent article at NJ.Com

After meeting up at the Leonard Gibbon Homestead, reported to be haunted by lovers whose last quarrel ended in murder, Jones led The News down Ye Greate Street on Tuesday. Along this quiet path, Jones highlighted a number of buildings from the 18th and 19thcenturies where residents and visitors have experienced sightings, sounds, smells and sensations that have made at least one woman flee her home in fear.

Jones pointed out the Richard Wood Mansion, located next to the first Wawa, as a historic site where Wood’s brother is believed to wander the halls at night. A portrait of George Bacon Wood was found upstairs at the home and unleashed the sound of footsteps among other eerie occurrences once it was displayed, as if hanging the portrait in the home “released him,” Jones said.

I want to hear about the ghosts of Philip Vickers Fithian and the other so-called “tea burners” from revolutionary-era Greenwich.  It may help my research!  I will have to get the Greenwich Tea Burning research associates–Cali, Ally, Katie, Valerie, and Tara–on the case.  Stay tuned.

Greenwich on My Mind

It looks like I will not be spending time in Greenwich, NJ this summer.

As many longtime readers of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” know, I have been leading a small public history project in this community for the past several years.  We have been examining the history and memory (mostly memory) of a 1774 event in the town that has been called “The Greenwich Tea Burning.”  The research phase of the project is nearing completion and, although there is still work to be done, I could not make a strong enough case to the New Jersey Historical Commission for an additional year of funding.

I was first introduced to the town of Greenwich close to fifteen years ago ago when I began to explore the life of its most prolific resident, Philip Vickers Fithian.  My research on Fithian’s life in Greenwich (and elsewhere) resulted in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America.  (It also led to this blog!).

After completing The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I was convinced that there was more to tell about this amazing little town nestled along New Jersey’s Cohansey River. Others agreed, and before I knew it I had funding for what we are now calling The Greenwich Tea Burning Project.  I assembled a team of students (graduate and undergraduate) and we went to work in an attempt to explain the ways in which the tea burning has been remembered in Greenwich from the early 19th century to the present.  We have read newspaper, diaries, and manuscripts, conducted oral history interviews, and developed a very strong working relationship with the good folks at the Cumberland County Historical Society’s Lummis Library.

I would really like to conduct more interviews, but if I do not get the chance, I think we have enough to work with.  I also need to do some more work on the 200th anniversary of the tea burning, which occurred in 1974.  But most of our research is complete.

We have enough research to write the final chapters of a book tentatively titled: “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in an American Town.”  My former student and fine young historian in her own right, Cali Pitchel McCullough (of History to the People and Dispatches from Graduate School fame), will be co-authoring the book.

I will miss not being in Greenwich this summer.  I will miss not seeing my good friend Jonathan Wood.  I will miss doing research in the Lummis Library.  I will miss working with my research team.  And I will miss the eighteenth-century “feel” that still pervades much of this place. I will miss strolling down “Ye Greate Street.”

While this project may not seem particularly significant in the larger scope of American historiography, it has always occupied a special place in my professional agenda.  The Greenwich Tea Burning Project not only connects with my interests in local history, place, public history, and memory, but it also provides a venue for teaching, doing collaborative research with students, and serving a particular community by telling the story of its past. My work here has been one of the highlights of my career.

I am sure that most publishers will tell me that the story of Greenwich will not make them a profit (many already have). And they are probably right.  But I have learned from this project that telling the story of a people has merits regardless of its marketability.  My own faith in the dignity of all human beings–regardless of how well they fit with some kind of grand narrative that helps publishers sell books–keeps me motivated to tell the story of the people of Greenwich and their tea party.

I hope to be back in Greenwich next summer to finish what I believe to be good and meaningful work.

Want to stay up to date on the Greenwich Tea Burning Project?   Follow us at Facebook.

Let’s Go Ralph DePalma!

I just got off the phone with Ralph DePalma, a 6th grader from Manalpan, New Jersey who has advanced to the state finals for the National History Day competition with an exhibit on the Greenwich Tea Burning.  Ralph is a very bright kid who had a lot of very good questions for me.  We had a good chat as well about one of the tea-burners, Philip Vickers Fithian.  (The guy whose “way of improvement” led him “home”).  Ralph even understands the difference between the history of the tea burning and the way it has been remembered.  I hope he wins on Saturday and advanced to the national finals!

Let’s go Ralph!

P.S.  If you are from Pennsylvania and will be at Cumberland Valley High School tomorrow for the PA state finals, feel free to stop by an say hello at the Messiah College History Department table in the domed gym.  I will be there with several students signing the praises of our department.

2011 Greenwich Tea Burning Project–Day 5

We wrapped up the 2011 edition of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project with mixed emotions.  After close to forty full hours of research in the Lummis Library of the Cumberland County Historical Society, most of us were tired and ready to head home.  Yet I think all of us will miss Greenwich.  We did our work with a sense of purpose and community and I think we all learned to appreciate the people of this small village.  I even came home with a souvenir in the form of a badly sprained ankle.

Our book project, “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in an American Town,” has really taken shape.  With Cali Pitchel McCullough on board as a co-author, I am confident that we will get this book into print sooner rather than later.

At the moment, we are envisioning a book about the way a community has remembered the most important event in its history. The people of Greenwich and neighboring Bridgeton–mostly women– have called upon the Tea Burning when faced with societal changes such as industrialization, immigration, the Cold War, and industrial decline, to name a few.

Our last day was another busy one.  We explored a lot of local history files and the research associates took a walk down “Ye Greate Street” to the Greenwich Tea Burning monument.  Last night we headed to the Cohansey River where we joined CCHS president Jonathan Wood for a farewell dinner at the Bait Box restaurant and then said our goodbyes for the year.  It was a great week.

If you are interested, we know have a few photos up at our Facebook page.

2011 Greenwich Tea Burning Project–Day 4

We got a lot accomplished today during our work at the Lummis Library.  After a day of being quarantined to the attic, we once again returned to the main reading room.  When we entered the library we were greeted by Jonathan Wood who was eager to tell us about an 1814 letter written from John Dickinson of Cape May County to Ebenezer Elmer of Cumberland County.  Dickinson describes the militia of Cape May “beating back” British raiding parties that were invading the Jersey shore-line during the War of 1812.  The letter was found among the recently donated William T. Nixon family papers.

We spent most of the day continuing our research in We Women, the minutes of the Greenwich chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution, newspaper clippings dealing with the town of Greenwich, personal letters filled with reminiscences about growing-up in Greenwich, and a host of other miscellaneous items.

It was also decided that our book, “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in an American Town,” will be co-authored by myself and Cali Pitchel McCullough, the Arizona State graduate student known best by readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home for her regular column “Dispatches from Graduate School.”

We cut off work early today so that we could head to the beach!  In order to give the members of the team a break from research, we drove down to Ocean City, New Jersey this evening to eat some delicious Mack and Manco pizza and do some walking on the boardwalk.  Unfortunately, due to my badly sprained ankle (see yesterday’s post), I spent the evening sitting on a bench.  Fortunately, I was joined by our esteemed host Jonathan Wood.  It was good to catch up.

Tomorrow is our last day in Greenwich.  We still have a lot of work to do.

Greenwich Tea Burning Project 2011-Day 3

Day 3 of the 2011 edition of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project is in the books.  It was a productive, but tiring day.  Fatigue is starting to set in and we are all hoping and praying that our proverbial “second wind” will arrive tomorrow.

When we arrived at the Lummis Library today we were told that we would be spending the day in a small second floor space away from the main reading room.  The library is open to the public on Wednesdays and the librarians wanted to make room for patrons.   So we made the best of it.

Cali and Valerie began work on issues of We Women, a local women’s magazine from the 1950s.  They are finding a host of information on the way that local women promoted local history, patriotism, and civic mindedness in the region.  This was the culture that produced the commemoration ceremonies for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1908 erection of the Greenwich Tea Burner’s Monument (1958). (Yes, you read that correctly).

Tara managed to learn a great deal more about the ways in which the residents of Greenwich expressed their dissatisfaction with an attempt to build a nuclear power plant in this rural village.  She then moved on to explore the records of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Ally continued to work her way through a series of diaries that describe everyday life in Greenwich during the 1920s.  She also did some bibliographic work in the Vineland Historical Magazine.

It was not one of my better days.  On the research front, I found useful materials on the history of the Cumberland County Historical Society and the attempts to turn Greenwich into a Colonial Williamsburg-type public history park. 

The low point of the day was when I crashed my head into a door frame at one of Greenwich’s 18th century homes.  The bang to the head caused me to fall to the ground, resulting in a badly sprained ankle.  To make matters worst, the accident happened about three minutes before I needed to be on the air with the host of a South Dakota radio show who asked to interview me about Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I am writing this with my ankle covered in ice and propped up on several hotel-room pillows.

Stay tuned.  I am sure there will be more adventures to report tomorrow!

Greenwich Tea Burning Project Update

We are just about five days away from the 2011 edition of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project.  The rooms are booked, the van is rented, and I think they are ready for us at the Lummis Library in historic Greenwich, New Jersey.

I will be leading a team of four students and former students to Greenwich to continue our work on how the past has been remembered there.  We are using the 1774 event known as the “Greenwich Tea Burning” as a window into the history and memory of this fascinating community on the Cohansey River.  We are funded this year by a generous grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Stay tuned to The Way of Improvement Leads Home for regular updates starting Monday, June 27th.

Also, if you want to follow our progress, support our efforts, or stay up to date on what we do, feel free to join our Facebook page.

The Greenwich Tea Burning Project in The Bridge

The Fall 2010 issue of the Messiah College alumni magazine, The Bridge, is running a short piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning Project.

As some of my readers know, last year I took three students to the tiny town of Greenwich, New Jersey to work on a project on the Greenwich Tea Burning.  We worked in the archives of the Cumberland County Historical Society‘s Lummis Library and thought together about the relationship between history and memory in a local community.  I think it was a great experience in doing local history and connecting it to larger issues in the American past.

If funding comes through, and the good folks in Greenwich will have us, we hope to return again in 2011.

For more information and photos check out our Facebook page and feel free to join the group!

Greenwich Day 4 and Wrap-Up

The current phase of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project came to a close last night and the team has returned safely to their respective homes to get on with the summer. Day 4 was bittersweet. We had a productive day in the archives, but also had to say goodbye to all of our new friends and acquaintances.

Two of those new friends were Tom and Mabel, the owners of the Greenwich General Store, which also happens to be the only store in this tiny historic town. Tom and Mabel cooked lunch for us each day and by the end of the trip seemed to really look forward to our daily visits. (You can see some of the team with Tom and Mabel at the Greenwich Tea Burning Project Facebook page).

Of course we also said goodbye, at least for now, to Jonathan Wood and Warren Adams, the guardians of the Lummis Library collections. We are grateful to Jonathan and Warren for keeping the library open for us and providing us with access to the materials. Jonathan was our fearless leader for the entire week and we appreciate his passion for history and working with students. We also want to thank him for taking us to Ocean City and buying us that delicious gelato!

I think the team left Greenwich pretty fired up about the project and the general sense was that we need to make another visit to complete our research.

But most importantly, I think the students who worked for the Greenwich Tea Burning Project got a glimpse of the way in which the study of history can serve a local community. Greenwich has a population of 800, so the presence of five “outsiders” wondering down “Ye Greate Street” (Greenwich’s main street), stopping into Tom and Mabel’s for lunch (a community gathering place), or touring some of the town’s eighteenth-century buildings, created quite a spectacle. Moreover, I think we are doing a service to this community by helping them to uncover their past and explore their identity in new ways. For the first time this week I truly saw the connection between the practice of history and service-learning.

Want to learn more or see the photos from the trip, join our Facebook Page!

Greenwich: Day 3

We had another productive day in Greenwich, New Jersey despite the 98 degree heat. After a quick stop at the local Best Buy to purchase a hard drive, we spent the day reading diaries, records from the Women Christian Temperance Union, newspapers from the 1970s, and a newsletter published by the alumni association of a country school. I had a chance to interview a 92-year old gentleman who lived in Greenwich from 1918-1936. We also got a tour of the Gibbon House (built in 1730), the Greenwich Quaker Meeting House (built in 1771), and the 18th century home of Philip Vickers Fithian.

We ended the day with a trip to the Ocean City boardwalk where we ate the famous Mack and Manco’s pizza and Schriver’s gelato.

One more day left. Phase two of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project is already in the works.

Interested in learning more? Join us on Facebook at “Greenwich Tea Burning Project.”

Greenwich: Day 2

The Greenwich Tea Burning Project is starting to hit its stride. Today we examined a few late nineteenth-century diaries, a diary from the 1930s, and newspapers from 1958, 1974, and 1976. I conducted three interviews with local residents, including the town fire-chief. The team is beginning to settle into their surroundings at Lummis Library, but tomorrow we may be overrun by a bunch of eager genealogists. (The library is open to the public!).

Cali M., one of our team members and the staff photographer, has started a new Facebook page called “The Greenwich Tea Burning Project.” If you have any interest in Greenwich, NJ and the surrounding area, local history, the relationship between history and memory, Philip Vickers Fithian, tea parties, public history, or small town USA, then this group is for you. Or you may also want to consider joining if you happen to know one of the project’s research associates. Or you may just want to join for the fun of it.

Tomorrow will be a lighter day. Stay tuned.

Greenwich: Day One

Blog posts will be sporadic the next several days as I am spending the week in Greenwich,New Jersey-the ancestral home of Philip Vickers Fithian. I am trying to make some headway on a project I have been working on for several years about the Greenwich Tea Burning. The working title of the project is “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in an American Town.”

I actually have a team of students with me this time–two current students and a former student who will begin a Ph.D program in U.S. urban history in August. I also have the 2010 Mechanicsburg, Middle School 6th Grade Student of the Year with me. (She also happens to be my daughter). The students are getting some good experience in a small archive. They are reading newspapers, minutes of organizations like the Daughters of the Revolution, and diaries. I am conducting interviews with local Greenwich residents. (I did three today and have three more slated for tomorrow!).

It was a long day in the archive today, but we are off to a good start. I will try to provide a bit more detail about the project in future posts.

Christian Tea Parties?

In December 1774, a group of young Presbyterians from the tiny hamlet of Greenwich, New Jersey had a tea party. Actually, the event is probably better described as a “tea burning.” When a British brig filled with East India tea docked at the port of Greenwich (an official British customs port) the young Calvinists, obviously protesting the dreaded Tea Act and copying a similar event that occurred the year before in Boston, seized the tea from storage and burned it in the town square. As I tried to argue in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and hope to argue in a currently stalled book project titled “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in a New Jersey Town,” it is not insignificant that these tea burners were Presbyterians. Middle Colony Presbyterians were at the forefront of the Revolution in this region. Whether it was John Witherspoon at Princeton, so-called “Presbyterian Parties” in New York and Pennsylvania, or ordinary Calvinists like Philip Vickers Fithian, the Revolution can be legitimately interpreted as a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”

But the more I think about the Greenwich Tea Burning, the more I wonder just how “Presbyterian” this event really was. While it is true that almost all of the participants were affiliated in one way or another with the three Presbyterian churches in the region, what they did that December evening seems to be motivated more by traditional Whig ideas about tyranny and liberty than any sort of Christian public theology–Presbyterian or otherwise. I thus wonder if the so-called “Presbyterian Rebellion” was little more than a political rebellion carried out by members of a religious denomination who had drunk deeply from the Whig/Enlightenment well and simply baptized this Whig thought by claiming that God, in his providence, promoted it.

I still need to think through a lot of this, but this whole idea of a Christian tea party came to mind today after reading Sarah Posner’s essay on this past weekend’s Values Voters Summit. (See my take on the event here). Posner describes the way the Christian Right has been promoting “tea parties” as a way to protest the policies of the Obama administration. In fact, tea-party-type protests against the current administration seemed to have played a more prominent role at the Values Voter Summit than traditional Christian Right hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.

So I wonder: Just how “Christian” are these tea-parties? It seems like a lot of Christians are involved in them, but do they get involved out of some sort of well-thought-out Christian understanding of public life.? The last I checked there is nothing in the Bible that condemns socialism or universal health care. On the other hand, there is a lot in capitalist thought that condemns socialism and a lot in libertarian thinking that condemns universal health care.

Or let’s take another example. The Bible says more about Christians submitting to governmental authority (see Romans 13 for example) than it does about rebelling against governmental authority. Whig political thought and Lockean liberalism says more about rebelling against governmental authority than it does about submission to the authority of government. You could argue based upon Whiggism or Lockean liberalism that a revolution against unjust taxation is morally legitimate. But can you make the same argument from the Bible?

If Posner is right, and conservative Christians are hitching their wagons to the tea-party movement, it forces me to ask whether they are motivated to do so by Christian convictions or convictions that stem from other sources. The members of the Christian Right who Posner interviewed believe that their involvement in this kind of protest movement is Biblical. But if you go back to the age of the Revolution there were a lot of Christians who misused the Bible to justify rebellion. (See the work of Mark Noll in this area).

In the end, it seems that the decision by Christians to promote the so-called tea party movement repeats the same old mistake that Christians made in the years leading up to the American Revolution, namely confusing Biblical teaching on government and public life with the popular political ideals of the day. Presbyterians promoted the Greenwich Tea Burning, but one would be hard pressed to say they were motivated by any Presbyterian principles beyond a certainty that God was on their side. In the same way, it seems that the Christian Right’s turn to tea parties to protest the policies of the Obama administration is little more than libertarianism and capitalism baptized by a Christian view of providence.