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!

The Wren Building at the College of William and Mary

Chris Gehrz of Pietist Schoolman fame brought to my attention this interesting article on the Wren building at the College of William and Mary. (Chris is a William and Mary grad).  

I love old academic buildings (Nassau Hall at Princeton is my favorite for a variety of reasons).  I have been in the Wren Building a few times and have tried to wander through it whenever I am in Williamsburg.  It is a great old building that is still in use for academic purposes.

Here is a taste of Sarah Ruiz’s article on the Wren from The Flat Hat, the student newspaper of the College of William & Mary.

…The Wren is the United States’ oldest academic building but it was not always used for education. It served as a field hospital in two wars, and functioned as the Virginia capitol twice.
“It’s really fascinating to me to think about what rooms they used and how this building actually functioned as the Virginia government,” Kern said.
There were other moments in the building’s history, however, that threatened its existence. The Wren suffered through three fires in its time: once in 1705, just five years after its construction, and again in both 1859 and 1862. According to Kern, one professor’s account from the night of the 1859 fire tells the story of College President Bejamin Ewell rousing the grammar school boys from their beds on the second floor, and then rescuing important artifacts from the burning building. Among those artifacts were portraits of James Blair and his wife, the College seal and the Charter itself.
“The official apparatus of the College is saved during that fire,” Kern said. “The descriptions of all of that suggest an attention to the history of the College, and also give us this insight into how people are using the spaces at that moment. That’s a particularly exciting window into what must have been a terrifying night for lots of people.”
In 1881 the College building was again threatened when the school was forced to close its doors due to lack of funds until 1888. During these “silent years,” President Ewell continued to ring the Wren’s bell at the start of every academic year. Associate Director of Historic Campus Kimberly Renner said these moments of disuse are a testament to the building’s endurance….

Colonial Williamsburg Connect

The good folks at Colonial Williamsburg have started a new web project and online learning site called “Colonial Williamsburg Connect.”  This looks like it will be a great resource for teachers at all levels.

Here is a short description of the project:

Connect invites you to take part in the ongoing debate over the duties of citizenship and the promise of democracy. America is an idea, and debate is at its core.

Weekly questions probe the issues facing modern citizens, while traditional and multimedia resources provide background for an informed dialogue.

Visit often to see what’s new, and to add your voice to the discussion.

Together, we’ll examine current conflicts for their connections to the historic struggle for balance among freedom and equality, unity and diversity, law and ethics, private wealth and common wealth.

Colonial Williamsburg has come a long way.  They have moved away from the “consensus” narrative that has been at the heart of their interpretation of early America for decades and are now engaging in a “conflict” narrative centered around competing narratives of American life.

Want to Work at Colonial Williamsburg?

The Messiah College history department offers a concentration in the field of public history.  It is a growing concentration and some of our best majors flock to it in the hopes of working in a museum, a historical society, or some other job that brings history to a public audience.

But after reading Ralph Luker’s post at Cliopatria today, I was struck with just how much non-history related training it takes  to land a top job in the field.  Granted, not all public history students will land a prestigious gig at Colonial Williamsburg, but consider this recent job description for an “Associate Digital Content Specialist” at the Rockefeller Library at Williamsburg.

Advanced degree in architectural history, archaeology, American studies, or related field

Historical research in a museum or an academically related position

Ability to 1) work independently and as a member of a research team, and 2) complete work quickly and efficiently and to prioritize tasks across multiple projects to meet deadlines

Advanced knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia and American history

Experience with internet technologies, software and programming languages, which may include some or all of the following:  ArcGIS; AutoCAD; 3D Studio Max; Maya; Revit
Familiarity with scanning and digital imaging techniques as well as computer imaging software (Adobe Photoshop)

Highly desired:   Doctorate in architectural history, archaeology, American studies or related field; advanced historical research in a museum or an academically related position; proficiency in Microsoft Access database system, SQL server and/or The Museum System; familiarity with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and advanced knowledge of one or more of the following software packages: AutoCAD, 3D Studio Max, Maya, Revit.

Wow! Does such a person exist?  I would like to meet the person who knows all of this software and has a Ph.D in American Studies with an extensive knowledge of early American history and Virginia history.  I could be wrong, but it sounds like this position was tailor-made for an inside candidate.

Whatever the case, I think Luker may be right when he suggests that this job listing is a “commentary on the state of our profession.”

Whig History at Williamsburg

Historians tend to be critical about a lot of things. I often drive my non-historian friends and family members crazy by pointing out the problems with how people use the past in public discourse. So you can imagine how much I drove my family crazy this past weekend during our trip to Williamsburg.

Since it has been a while since I visited CW, I expected to be overwhelmed by what is called a “Whig” interpretation of early American history. Whig history tends to see the past as a constant progression toward liberty, freedom and the Enlightenment. As I try to teach my students, a Whig approach to colonial American history tends to treat the period predominantly for the way it provides a link to the American Revolution. Whig historians will focus their attention on various parts of colonial American life that might serve as a precursor to Independence. As historian Brendan McConville has recently shown, such an approach to the colonial period fails to address the deep sense of Britishness that pervaded American life between 1680 and 1765.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Colonial Williamsburg has not entirely fallen prey to Whig history. For example, our guide through the Virginia colonial capitol building made it clear that the government, especially the House of Burgesses and the Royal Governor, showed very little signs of the political order that was to come after 1776. (In other words, there was no “democracy” in colonial Virginia). A re-enactment of Benedict Arnold’s raising of the British flag over the capitol building (with patriot colonials booing him in protest) was also a clear sign to those in attendance that Williamsburg was the capital of a very British colony.

But throughout the course of our visit, Whig ideas did tend to rear their ugly heads. This was especially the case during our tour of the Governor’s palace. At first, our guide made the point that the palace, especially during the rule of Lord Dunmore, was meant to exemplify British power. One could not miss the muskets and swords that decorated the walls of the rooms. She was right. This was a British building meant to exude a sense of British glory.

And then the train got off the track.

As our guide began explaining the picture of George III on the wall of the foyer, she noted that most people in England believed that the Hanoverian line, and George III specifically, ruled by divine right. This fact was certainly true, but her interpretation of this fact fell head first into the Whig quagmire. “So you can see,” she noted, “how this view that the King ruled by divine right, and the picture of him hanging here, would have angered the colonists and caused them to start thinking about independence.” (How many ordinary Virginians would have actually entered the foyer?)

This of course led me to wonder aloud to my poor wife why this tour guide assumed that eighteenth-century Virginia’s minds would have immediately jumped to independence when they thought about George III’s claim to divine right? No, it seemed that the natural way of thinking when exposed to the picture of George III would have been a reflection on how much they were part of a great British empire ruled by a King who had God’s favor. The picture would have triggered Britishness and not some nascent sense of American independence.

This is why Whig history can be dangerously ahistorical.

We ran into other examples of this throughout the day, but I think I will stop there and give you some time to feel sorry for my wife and kids after a day in Williamsburg with me!

Random Musings from Williamsburg

We did not find a Fithian re-enactor in Colonial Williamsburg, but we did find the next best thing–a man who portrays Robert Carter III. When Baptist preacher James Ireland (on the left) heard I had written a book about Fithian he helped me track down Carter (the re-enactor was playing someone else on this particular day). Here is our encounter:

I did manage to find Carter III’s reconstructed house next to the Governor’s Palace. Fithian never visited this house, but Carter would occasionally leave the Nomini Hall plantation to go to Williamsburg to conduct business:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home made it to the College of William and Mary (Barnes and Noble) bookstore:

Slavery at Williamsburg and Jamestown and Nomini Hall

Back in the 1970s, with the rise of American social history, Colonial Williamsburg was often criticized for its neglect of slaves and free African-Americans in their programs. The criticism was a legitimate one. Williamsburg was, after all, the capital of a slave state. With that many Virginia gentry wandering around the town on a regular basis between 1699 and 1780 how could slaves be ignored?

When Colonial Williamsburg was established in the 1930s the small number of African-American re-enactors were kept in segregated dormitories. In the 1950s Black visitors to the park were only permitted into the town one day a week and could not eat or shop there. Many had a difficult time finding accomodations in the town.

As I toured Colonial Williamsburg this past weekend, I realized that a lot has changed. We did see many slave and free-black re-enactors and there were several programs on slavery and black life in the town. My favorite was the program involving African-American Baptist preacher Gowan Pamphlet. (See picture above). The re-enactor who played Pamphlet was excellent and his conversation with a local militia member and a white Baptist preacher (James Ireland) brought to life the African-American Baptist response to the Anglican Church in Virginia and the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

There could probably be more of a Black presence here (for example, we did not see many slave re-enactors in places like the capitol building or the governor’s palace), but it did seem clear that CW has been working hard at addressing some of these longstanding criticisms.

At Jamestown (both the Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne) slavery is covered in the introductory movie shown to all visitors. One of the movies touches upon the history of Angela, an Angolan woman who was part of the first boat load of Africans that arrived in Jamestown in 1619. (The movies were also careful to point out that it was unclear whether or not these original Africans were slaves or servants). The theme in both of these movies was multiculturalism–the blending of European, native American, and African cultures to form what would later become the United States. The interpreters and historians at Jamestown have certainly taken their cue from the most recent scholarship in early American history, especially Alan Taylor’s excellent introduction, American Colonies.

My only gripe with these movies was the way that they left the viewer believing that Virginia had become a slave society in 1619, the year when this first shipment of Africans arrived. In fact, much of the labor in Virginia was performed by white indentured servants until the 1680s. As a history teacher who tries to get my students to think about the development of slavery over time, the movie enforced the common stereotype that Virginia relied on slave labor from the beginning. (Or at least from 1619).

Of course Virginia was a slave society by the time Philip Vickers Fithian arrived at Robert Carter’s Nomini Hall plantation in 1773. As I argue in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Fithian was less appalled with the institution of slavery (his Uncle Samuel and many friends owned slaves in southern New Jersey) than he was the way in which Virginia plantation owners treated their slaves.


We had a busy day in Colonial Williamsburg. I hope to write about some of the specifics of the trip in future posts (and offer some pictures too!), but for now let me mention a few highlights:

1). We started off the day by attending a Q&A with George Washington. I asked him about his experiences at Manhattan in the days leading up to the Battle of Brooklyn, drawing a lot of my examples from Fithian’s wartime diary.

2). We thoroughly enjoyed the gentleman (a retired music teacher) who led us through the Virginia Capitol. His New York accent gave him away and we swapped stories about life on Long Island.

3). After a presentation on early American religion, I spent some time chatting with the re-enactor who played James Ireland, one of the most persecuted Baptist preachers in colonial America. Ireland was very familiar with Philip Vickers Fithian and after a nice conversation about my book he took me to see the re-enactor who portrays Robert Carter III. The three of us talked for some time about Fithian and Carter and the Fithian diaries. These men confirmed that Fithian only made an appearance at Williamsburg during the Christmas season. (There was great disappointment when we learned this). The Ireland re-enactor invited us to see him deliver (as another character, of course) an Anglican sermon tomorrow at the Wren Chapel at the College of William and Mary.

4). We wandered about outside Robert Carter III’s reconstructed house near the Governor’s Palace. (The house is not open to the public). Fithian never visited this house, but Carter often traveled back and forth between it and Nomini Hall during Fithian’s tenure with the family. We also took a carriage ride in a replica of Carter’s stagecoach. We were pulled by the same horses that pulled Queen Elizabeth during her recent visit.

5). We got a lesson in pew renting at the Bruton Parish Episcopal Church. We got to see the pews that belonged to the likes of George Washington, James Monroe, Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. We were kicking ourselves for not arriving early enough to worship with this active Anglican community.

6). Finally, it was off to the College of William & Mary. I was pleased to see that the college bookstore (Barnes & Noble) was selling The Way of Improvement Leads Home. We did not have time to visit much today, but we did take a tour of the Wren building. (Perhaps we will return again tomorrow for the aforementioned Anglican sermon. Also, I hope I can at least pop my head into the Omohundro Institute for Early American Studies).

We are off to Jamestown tomorrow. The search for Philip Vickers Fithian came to a disappointing end, but there is still much more to do and see. I am sure one of tomorrow’s highlights will be seeing the newly unearthed Jamestown fort. I have heard chief archaeologist Bill Kelso speak about the story behind finding the fort, but I have yet to see it.

The Northern Neck, Yorktown, and the Governor’s Palace

We made it safely to Williamsburg and I have begun my search for the Philip Vickers Fithian re-enactor. After some additional research I have learned that there is a possibility that Philip only shows up during the Christmas season. I am not, however, giving up hope.

I spent the morning in Heathsville, VA doing a book talk to a packed house at the annual meeting of the Northumberland County Historical Society. Almost all of them had actually “heard” of Philip Vickers Fithian and about half of them had read his Virginia diary. It was a very knowledgeable crowd. Thanks to Nancy and Wiatt of the Historical Society for inviting me to speak and to all who helped with the book sale and signing.
I spent most of the afternoon with a park ranger at Yorktown. We got an informative introduction to the battle and did some of our own touring of the battlefield. We spent a lot of time wandering around redoubts 9 and 10–the British earthen fortifications that were captured by the Continental Army and French troops, thus turning the tide of the battle in favor of the Americans.

We spent the evening watching eighteenth-century dancers in the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg. I wish I had seen this performance before I wrote chapter five of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. The dancers brought to life for me the scenes at Nomini Hall when Philip the wallflower refused to dance.

We will be back in Williamsburg tomorrow and I will continue my attempts to track Fithian down. Stay tuned.

Williamsburg and Nomini Bound

I will be blogging this weekend (if I find the time) from Williamsburg, VA. On Saturday, after settling in at the colonial capital, I will be heading over to the Northern Neck to do a lecture and book signing at the Northumberland County Historical Society. This is only a few miles from the site of Nomini Hall, the plantation of Robert Carter III. If you remember, Fithian spent a year there (1773-1774) teaching Carter’s children. The original Nomini Hall burned down, but it was replaced with a new house in 1850. At some point the poplar-lined lane leading up to the house was named “Fithians Lane.”

After the lecture, we will be a few days in Williamsburg. Our goal is to find this guy:
According to the Williamsburg website, his name is Kevin Ernst and he plays (or has played) Philip Vickers Fithian. Kevin, if you are out there please get in touch with me through this blog. I hope we can meet!