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

 

 

Zakaria: “Trump does not have a foreign policy. He has a series of impulses”

Trump Iowa

Great insight here from Fareed Zakaria:

Three months ago, President Trump suddenly withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria that were, in part, thwarting Iran’s efforts to dominate the country, declaring, “Going into the Middle East is one of the worst decisions ever made in the history of our country. It’s like quicksand.” Well, last week he dramatically escalated America’s military engagement in the region, ordering a strike on Iran’s most important military leader and deploying thousands more troops. How to make sense of this Middle East policy?

It gets more confusing. Around the same time that he was urgently withdrawing U.S. troops from what he called the “bloodstained sand” of Syria, Trump sent 3,000 additional troops to Saudi Arabia. (When asked why, he answered that the Saudis were paying good money for this deployment.) And just a few weeks after announcing the Syria withdrawal, he reversed himself and left some troops in the north “for the oil.” All clear now?

After the killing last week of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Trump warned that were Iran to attack “any Americans, or American assets,” he would retaliate “VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” And yet after Iran did attack two bases in Iraq hosting U.S. forces, Trump essentially did nothing, announcing that Tehran “appears to be standing down.” I’m glad Trump chose to deescalate, but that doesn’t change the fact that he reversed himself yet again.

The problem with Trump’s foreign policy is not any specific action. The killing of Soleimani could be justified as a way to respond to Iranian provocations, but this move, like so much of Trump’s foreign policy, was impulsive, reckless, unplanned and inconsistent — and as usual, the chief impact is chaos and confusion. Trump did not bother to coordinate with the government of Iraq, on whose territory the attack was perpetrated. After the Iraqi government protested and voiced a desire to have U.S. troops leave Iraq, he threatened to sanction the country and stay put until it paid the United States billions of dollars for an air base.

Read the rest here.  Diplomacy requires prudence and patience.  Trump does not possess these virtues.  As a result, he is a foreign policy disaster.  His narcissistic passions control his ability to think rationally and consistently.

“Political Jealousy is a Laudable Passion”

eacac-fithian2bbookI was watching the news last night and remembered this passage (p.142) from my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Philip reached maturity in this patriotic culture.  He was taught at Princeton that it was appropriate to exercise the passions in the defense of liberty.  In his 1772 commencement disputation he echoed the words of the eighteenth-century political tract of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, by defending the notion that “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” His speech distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful, and “political jealousy,” which was “rational & uniform & necessary.”  As Philip had learned all too well through his courtship with Elizabeth Beatty, “jealousy” was normally a dangerous “disease” that could blight friendships and lead to “suspicions” among acquaintances.  However, when channeled in the right direction, it was also a useful passion.  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–a common political ideology of resistance grounded in a common morality–that held a community togehter in times of strife and preserved societal order.  Philip said that it had a “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests that were closely associated with the preservation of the nation.”

What Would Jefferson Think About Trump?

jefferson-trump

Here is a taste of my op-ed at today’s Harrisburg Patriot-News:

…When Webster visited Jefferson in December, the election had not yet been decided.  Ironically, for a man who built his political career defending the rights of farmers and frontiersmen, Jefferson was no fan of Andrew Jackson. 

The Virginian worried what might happen to the country if the House of Representatives chose the military general from Tennessee.  Here is what he told Webster:

“I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President.  He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.  He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.  His passions are terrible.  When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.  I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.  His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Head and the Heart: Thomas Jefferson and Philip Vickers Fithian

I really enjoyed engaging with Rivka Maizlish‘s recent post at U.S. Intellectual History, “Rethinking the Head-Heart Dichotomy in American History.”  I especially appreciated the way she used Thomas Jefferson as a window into the way so-called “men of reason” in early America spent a lot of time wrestling with their passions.  Drawing on the work of Nicole Eustace in Passion is the Gale, Maizlish urges historians to “unsettle their categories of reason, emotion, and Enlightenment.”  Here is a taste:

Jefferson’s heart claims dominion over all matters of emotion, justice, love, friendship, and morals. “To you [nature] allotted the field of science; to me, that of morals,” Jefferson’s heart tells his head. This association of love, justice, and morals with the heart suggests that Jefferson would also place religion in that category, and indeed, throughout the dialogue only Jefferson’s heart invokes God. Historians of religion in America, however, often present Jefferson as the embodiment of “head religion” as opposed to “heart religion.” In Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in Americahistorian Gary Wills’ operative definitions of head religion and heart religion make head religion synonymous with reason and the Enlightenment and heart religion synonymous with emotion and evangelicalism. “The emphasis of Enlightened religion is on the head. The emphasis of Evangelicals is on the heart,” Wills states. As a Deist and an intellectual product of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson fits historians’ conventional “head religion” category. The dialogue between his head and his heart, however, complicates the issue by suggesting that Jefferson conceived of religion as a matter of the heart.

As longtime readers of this blog know, these are issues that I used to think about a lot (and continue to think about, although not as much) when I was writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.   In that book I tried to explore the way Presbyterian evangelicals embraced the Enlightenment and how one particular Presbyterian (Fithian) tried to balance Presbyterian sobriety, evangelical passion, romantic love, homesickness, cosmopolitan ambitions, the pursuit of gentility and an “enlightened life.”