Indian Valley Public Library

This afternoon I drove to Telford, PA to do a book talk at the Indian Valley Public Library. The crowd was small, but very engaged. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are taken by Philip Vickers Fithian’s story. Thanks to Deborah Falkner for inviting me to speak in their “Learn Something New About Something Old” history lecture series.

After the talk I had a great dinner with some close friends and their family. Thanks Ted and Wanda for the invite. Thanks to Fern and John for the hospitality. We need to do this more often.

Green Ridge Village

I spent a pleasant afternoon today at Green Ridge Village, a Presbyterian retirement center in Newville, PA (just outside of Carlisle). I was there as a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Speaker, giving a lecture on courtship and marriage in revolutionary America that focused on the relationship between Philip Vickers Fithian and Elizabeth Beatty. Their relationship is chronicled in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Thanks to Naomi Moses and the rest of the residents who treated me to lunch and peppered me with some great questions.


As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I am in Boca Raton for a few days conducting a Gilder-Lehrman workshop on the early American republic for American history teachers from Palm Beach County Schools. The administrators asked me to spend two mornings delivering four lectures on the period. Today, I lectured on recent interpretations of the Federalists and the place of religion in the Early Republic.

I am also privileged to be working with Gloria Sesso, a veteran teacher and the co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies. Gloria is an old friend from graduate school. We went out to dinner tonight and shared stories about our grad school advisor, complained about the way that history education is being overtaken by “social studies,” and talked about our shared interest in early American history and religion.

The twenty-three teachers attending the workshop are a spirited and inquisitive bunch–a great group. We have a nice mix of 8th grade, 11th grade, and AP American history teachers. The morning included some deep discussions about how to teach historical thinking, whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation, and the way Federalists thought about women, the west, slavery, and conservatism. Gloria brings it all home in the afternoon sessions by trying to connect this content with pedagogical concerns.

Current Temperature in Grantham, PA: 52 degrees
Current Temperature in Boca Raton, FL: 77 degrees

Messiah Village

This morning I gave my talk, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation,” as part of the Pathways Institute at Messiah Village, a local retirement home loosely affiliated with Messiah College. I hope I gave the forty or so people in attendance something to think about. Though I lectured on the usual topics– religion and the founding documents, the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, and the role that Christianity played in the coming of the American Revolution–my main goal was to get them to see that the question of whether or not America was founded as a “Christian Nation” does not lend itself to easy answers. How we define “Christian” or “nation” makes a big difference in how we approach this topic.

The audience was very engaged and our two hours together went by quickly. Thanks to Susan S. of the Pathways Institute for inviting me to speak.

Back in Greenwich

I spent Saturday evening in Greenwich, New Jersey, the eighteenth-century home of Philip Vickers Fithian. This was my third speaking visit to Greenwich in thirteen months. In October 2007 I spoke at the 300th anniversary of the Greenwich Presbyterian Church. Back in September, I gave a book talk at the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Greenwich Tea Burners monument. This time I spoke at the annual meeting of the Cumberland County Historical Society. My topic, to quote from my good friend and host Jonathan W., was “the tempestuous relationship between Philip and Betsy.” (I have been doing this talk in my role as a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Speaker).

I have come to enjoy being with the people of Greenwich. Last night I had one of the best homemade ham dinners I have ever eaten. It was a night of friends, conversation, and Philip Vickers Fithian. Thanks to Joan M. of the Cumberland County Historical Society for inviting me back and to Jonathan for hosting me at his house in Millville.

I thought that this may be my last trip to Greenwich for a while, but I will probably return soon to continue work on a proposed book on the Greenwich Tea Burning. Stay tuned.

Washington County Free Library–Hagerstown

Tonight I got in my car and drove an hour south on Route 81 to Hagerstown, MD to do a book talk for The Way of Improvement Leads Home at the Washington Free Library. It was a small, but interested, group. I was especially glad to see one of my former students, Abigail Andrews, who is the children’s librarian at the library.

I also learned a few days ago that the Messiah College History Department will be recognizing The Way of Improvement Leads Home on Saturday at Messiah’s Homecoming. It will be part of the History Dept. alumni reception. If you are a Messiah history alum, from any generation, I hope you can make it. The event runs from noon to 1pm in Boyer 131. Friends of the department who were not history majors are welcome to crash!

Freedom Village at Brandywine

This afteroon I did one of my Pennsylvania Commonwealth Speaker talks at Freedom Village at Brandywine, a retirement community in Coatesville, PA. As part of the Commonwealth Speakers program, I have been traveling around the state addressing the topic, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.” Once again, it was a lively and appreciative group who were eager to debate this topic. This was definitely the least contentious crowd I have encountered with this talk, but they did bombard me with questions.

Thanks to Alvin for his technical support and getting my powerpoint working and to Wilma, a retired economics professor, for inviting me to speak.

If you live in Pennsylvania and would like to host me for one of these talks, feel free to contact me or the Pennsylvania Humanities Council directly. I speak for about 40 minutes and allow a good twenty minutes for questions. If you do not live in Pennsylvania and might be interested in me coming for this talk, feel free to contact me directly.

Aaron Burr vs. Philip Vickers Fithian

Both men were members of the College of New Jersey at Princeton class of 1772, but after that their careers went in very different directions. Fithian felt called to a ministerial vocation while Burr, the son of a noted Presbyterian minister and the grandson of the great Jonathan Edwards, would end up in New York politics. It is unlikely that Fithian and Burr ever spoke after they left Princeton, but both men were in Manhattan with the Continental Army in the summer of 1776.

In my Early American Republic course we are reading Edward Larson’s The Magnigicent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. Larson portrays Burr as a modern politician–a man who is driven by political ambition. Chapter Four describes his amazing efforts to recruit a slate of candidates for the New York assembly who would, in turn, elect Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800 and make Burr the leading candidate for vice-president.

We have been talking a lot in class about the changing nature of political ambition in early American life. Burr was certainly ambitious, but so was John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and perhaps even the supposedly disinterested George Washington. Fithian presented a paper on ambition before the College of New Jersey’s Whig debating society, a paper that Burr would have certainly heard. Fithian defended ambition, as long as those ambitions were directed toward good or moral ends. I am not sure he would have agreed with Burr’s ambitious behavior, especially after his duel with Hamilton.

Cold Spring Presbyterian Church

I gave a couple of talks this weekend at the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church near Cape May, New Jersey. The congregation dates back to 1714 and the building in which I spoke dates to 1823. Most old churches like this have burial grounds, but the Cold Spring Church is situated in the middle of what seems like acres of tombstones, many of them dating back to the 18th century. In fact, one gets the impression that this is a church IN a graveyard rather than a church WITH a graveyard.

One of the first early American history articles I ever published appeared in New Jersey History in the 1999. I wrote a piece about a debate over the proper mode of baptism which occurred in Cape May in 1743. The principal debaters were Samuel Finley, an itinerant evangelical Presbyterian who would later become president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton and Abel Morgan, a prominent Baptist minister from Middletown, New Jersey. The debate probably occurred somewhere near the Cold Spring Church.

Slaves sat in this section of the church balcony

Thanks to Bob, Bonnie, and Damien Bakley for their hospitality during my visit.

Bethany Village and the VP Debate

Tonight I gave a talk at Bethany Village, a local Methodist retirement home in Mechanicsburg, PA. I believe that this was the sixth talk that I have given there. The main reason I keep coming back to Bethany Village is the people who reside there. (And the fact they keep inviting me back!) The residents are very engaged and always prepared with well-informed questions.
My talk tonight was entitled “A Short History of Religion and Politics in America.” I chose to focus on a few presidential elections in which religion played an important role. We discussed the Federalist attacks on Jefferson’s religion in 1800, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold Speech” in 1896, Al Smith’s failed 1928 campaign as the first Catholic candidate, John Kennedy’s famous Houston religion speech in 1960, and the Bush-Rove appeal to evangelicals in 2000 and 2004. I ended with some reflections on the major role religion has played in the 2008 campaign, discussing Obama and Reverend Wright, Sarah Palin’s Pentecostalism, Mike Huckabee’s southern evangelicalism, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, and the Compassion Forum at Messiah College and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Forum.

I tried to end my talk before 9pm eastern time so that the residents could get to their television sets to watch the vice-presidential debate. I thought Sarah Palin was well-spoken tonight and I am sure her folksy “dog-gone its,” “ya’s,” and winks to the audience probably won her points with her base and annoyed her opponents. She did not make too many major blunders, but she did not say too much outside of the McCain talking points. She seldom answered the questions posed to her, preferring instead to fall back on her role as a small town Alaskan mayor and governor, her stump speeches, and whatever other things the McCain campaign prepped her to say. This was obviously her strategy–to answer the questions she wanted to answer. I was surprised to hear her interest in having more legislative power for the vice-president, a proposal that Joe Biden countered with some shaky U.S. Constitutional history (he confused Article 1 and Article 2 and misrepresented the role of the V.P. as president of the Senate) and an assertion that Dick Cheney was the most dangerous Vice-President ever.

I am now watching Pat Buchanan on MSNBC who claims that Palin “wiped up the floor with Biden” in the debate. He claims that she has returned to her Republican convention popularity. Frankly, I am not sure what debate Buchanan was watching.

Now I am over at FOX News watching a focus group of thirty people, most of whom seem to think that Palin won because she “connected” with the American people in a more effective fashion than Biden.

Biden managed to control himself and displayed a much greater knowledge of the issues than Palin. He rarely challenged Palin for not answering the questions posed to her. Whether you like him or not, Biden knows what he is talking about. He can talk about McCain’s votes on the senate floor because he was there. This was another clear example of the level of Palin’s unpreparedness for the presidency should something happen to John McCain. If one votes entirely on the “hearbeat away” issue, I cannot see how anyone can conceivably pull the lever for McCain-Palin. She may have “connected” with the American people, but she said virtually nothing in terms of policy and issues.

Let the spin begin.

Book Talk

Apparently one of the attendees of my book talk on Saturday at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Greenwich, NJ took videos of the lecture and has posted them on You Tube and on his own blog, Route 55.

Some context is necessary here. This is the standard book talk for The Way of Improvement Leads Home that I give to popular audiences at local historical societies, libraries and bookstores, although I often tailor the talk to a specific event or organization. On this day I tailored it to suit the event at hand: The Greenwich Tea Burning of 1774.

P.S. I usually do not look this frightened by questions from the audience!

Greenwich Tea Burning Commemoration: Day One

We spent the day today in the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich attending the two-day festival celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the unveiling of the 1908 monument commemorating the Greenwich Tea Burning of 1774. In other words, the town of Greenwich is spending the weekend commemorating a commemoration. Several thousand people converged on this sleepy little town for the day’s festivities.
Since Philip Vickers Fithian may have been involved in the tea burning I was invited by the event organizers to give a short book talk on The Way of Improvement Leads Home at the Lummis Library of the Cumberland County Historical Society. Earlier in the day I signed some books during the annual Greenwich “Artisan’s Faire.” The weather held up and all went well. Here are a few highlights:
At 11:00am the 19the century tall-ship A.J. Meerwald came up the Cohansey River and docked at Greenwich to unload the tea just as the 18th century brig Greyhound did in December 1774.
The unloading of the tea at Greenwich

Replica tea boxes are placed onto a wagon for safe storage at the home of loyalist Daniel Bowen.

There are no people on earth who are more interested in Philip Vickers Fithian than the people of Greenwich. Philip was born and raised here. We thus signed many books–many from people who had already read it. Megan, a former student of mine, and her friend Greg, helped me at the book table. As you can see from the picture they were both dressed in colonial garb.

Later in the day the re-enactment of the “tea burning” took place. Patriots disguised as Indians rode into an open field and set the boxes aflame.

And they burned.

The day ended with the extinguishing of the fire, a nice dinner at the Bait Box restaurant at the Hancock Harbor marina, and a fireworks display over the Cohansey River. Stay tuned for more updates from day two of the event. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine is expected to arrive and address the crowd.

Friends of Murray Library

Tonight I gave a short address about The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the annual meeting of the “Friends of the Murray Library” at Messiah College. It was a great night. I found many to be very engaged with Fithian’s story and several attendees, including one very bright student, asked some excellent questions. The “Friends” do wonderful work in support of Messiah’s Murray Library. They run an annual book sale, support a host of special book collections, and fund student research projects.

I also met a reader of this blog who was aware that I was heading to Greenwich this weekend for the commemoration of the tea burners monument! It gave me an opportunity to talk a bit about Fithian’s role in this event.

Thanks to Phil L. for inviting me. Cherie F. for hosting me. And Jocelyn C. for helping me with the book signing.


Several of you wanted to know more about my talk on “microhistory” during the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. My talk was part of a larger panel on the state of the field of early American history. Rick Pointer, the author of the recent Encounters in the Spirit , spoke about Indian history and the intersection between this field and American religious history. Tim Hall, the co-author (with T.H. Breen) of Colonial America in the Atlantic World spoke on “The Atlantic World.”

Since this was a roundtable, I did not prepare formal written comments, but I will try to summarize what I said here:

First, I became interested in microhistory only after I wrote The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This interest came about when one of the blind evaluators of the book called it a “microhistory.” Since then I have had others call it a microhistory as well. I found this interesting since I never set out to write what might be called a “microhistory.”

I talked a bit about the way microhistory has been gaining momentum in early American circles thanks largely to the initiatives of Richard D. Brown at the University of Connecticut. Brown has spearheaded an NEH seminar and an OIEAHC conference on microhistory and has produced, with his wife Irene Q. Brown, a microhistory of his own: The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America. Some of the following early American books have also been described as microhistories: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale; Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town; Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson, The Kingdom of Matthias; and John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive.

Most of my thoughts at the panel were informed by two important articles: Richard D. Brown’s presidential address at the Society for the History of the Early Republic (SHEAR) which was published in the Journal of the Early Republic in 2003 and Jill Lepore’s “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory,” Journal of American History (June 2001).

I was a bit surprised to find that my work had been described as microhistory since I had long assocated this genre of history writing with Italian historians who were reacting to the social science approach of the Annales school by focusing on small worlds or obscure individuals as a means of explaining larger concepts. (See Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms). I also associated microhistory with narrative history and the anthropological approach to history-writing inspired by Clifford Geertz’s idea of “thick description.” And finally, microhistories seem to concentrate on ordinary people who only become famous through the pen of the microhistorian.

While my book on Fithian does contain much “narrative history,” it also departs from the narrative at times to explain things about his larger social, cultural and religious world. And while I do try my hand at “thick description” as an approach to explaining Fithian’s agricultural world, the book is not very Geertzian in its analysis. Fithian was certainly an ordinary person, but he was also a Princeton graduate and a Presbyterian minister.

So is my book a microhistory? Lepore’ article is very helpful in sorting this out. For example, what is the difference between biography and microhistory? If the topic is a famous man or woman, does that mean that the project ceases to be a microhistory? Can you write a micrhistory of a significant event or does it have to be an obscure world or person otherwise unknown to the average history student? Brown, for example, suggests that David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride is a microhistory. Brown wonders how we distinguish between a “case study” and a microhistory, or between a “community study” and a microhistory? (Can we really call the Greven, Zuckerman, Demos, Lockridge “town studies” of the early 1970s “microhistory?”)

My talk then offered two reflections: First, it is interesting that early American historians are finding microhistory at the same time that they are celebrating the “Atlantic World” as a category of analysis. Indeed, Atlantic history can be a bit “macro” in nature. It often neglects the stories of how these broad changes may have affected individual lives. How did ordinary people engage with the Atlantic World and, as I argue in my book on Fithian, what did they lose in the process? It seems that as long as early American historians remain interested in the Atlantic World then microhistory will continue to flourish.

Second, I talked about Richard Brown’s suggestion that microhistory is more effective than synthesis at helping the historian find the truth of what happened in the past. Grand narratives leave too much out, but microhistorians are interested in the concrete details of everyday life and are thus more likely to be on surer footing in their quest to tell the truth. I though that Brown’s epistemological reflection on microhistory might resonate with the CFH audience.

Finally, I speculated a bit about how microhistories might (or might not) influence textbooks and the larger narratives we are forced to tell about the early American past. Can microhistory catch on in American studies, especially when much of American history today continues to serve a role in the civic education of school children? Microhistories do not lend themselves to national stories and ideals.

In the end, I prefer to describe The Way of Improvement Leads Home as a “biography of an ordinary New Jersey farmer” rather than as a microhistory, but I will not argue with those who want to label it this way.

Northern Neck: Day Two

I spent the day exploring Virginia’s Northern Neck. This region is very rich in history. Today I either drove by or visited:

Stratford Hall: The home of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee (both signers of the Declaration of Independence), Henry “Light Horse Harry Lee” (who attended Princeton with Philip Vickers Fithian), and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Last night at the Lancaster Community Library in Kilmarnock I met Paul Reber, the executive director at Stratford Hall.

Sabine Hall: Home Robert “King” Carter, grandfather of Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall.
I spent most of my time at Nomini Hall, the home of Robert Carter III and the place where Philip Vickers Fithian worked as a tutor from 1773-1774. The original plantation house burned down in the mid-nineteenth century and was rebuilt in 1850. It is a private residence today, so I did not get to move freely around the plantation. (When I got too close I got some dirty looks from some construction workers digging in the back yard). I did, however, take some pictures:

This is Nomini Hall from the front driveway. Notice the huge poplar trees lining the lane. This was once a great entryway to a great eighteenth-century tobacco plantation. Philip Vickers Fithian would have looked up this driveway when he first arrived at Nomini although the poplars were smaller and the manor house was a lot larger.

Another shot of the driveway. (Notice my luxury ride: the ’97 Ford Taurus!)

The driveway taken from the house.

The day ended with a talk at the “Books Alive” program at the Northumberland Public Library. Thanks to Jay and Earline Walker, transplanted Long Islanders, for hosting me and treating me to a great Northern Neck dinner!

Back in the Northern Neck

I am doing a couple of book talks this week on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the location of Robert Carter III’s plantation. This was the place where Philip Vickers Fithian served as a tutor between 1773 and 1774. Tonight I spoke at the Lancaster Community Library in Kilmarnock at an event co-sponsored by the library and the Mary Ball Washington Museum. (Mary Ball Washington was George Washington’s mother). I spoke to a group of folks who were very knowledgeable about Fithian. Most of them were quite familiar with his Virginia diary and asked questions that clearly showed that they have read it.

Tomorrow night: The Northumberland County Library.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

I took the train into Philadelphia today for an evening book talk and signing at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. My talk on The Way of Improvement Leads Home was part of a program entitled “The People of Revolutionary America.” I shared the night with John Nagy, an independent historian and the author of Rebellion in the Ranks. John probably knows more about mutinies during the American Revolution than anyone else alive. Thanks to Christi B. for the invitation.

I am off to Ohio tomorrow morning for the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.