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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. III. The Growth of the National Spirit: 1710–1775

Philip Vickers Fithian

PHILIP VICKERS FITHIAN, whose diary and letters afford one of the most interesting pictures that we possess of the intimate life of New Jersey and Virginia in the years just preceding the Revolution, was born in 1747 of English stock, entered Princeton College in 1770 in the class of Aaron Burr, James Madison, and Henry Lee; studied theology, taught for a year (1773–1774) in the family of Robert Carter at his famous county-seat, Nomini Hall, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, was ordained, served as a frontier missionary in Virginia and Pennsylvania, enlisted as chaplain in the New Jersey militia in July, 1776, and died in October of that year, of camp fever at Fort Washington New York. A selection from his carefully guarded papers was edited in 1900 by John Rogers Williams for the Princeton Historical Association—and from this our extracts are taken by permission. The idiosyncrasies of the writer are retained throughout.

Life at Princeton in 1770.
[From His First Letter from College, Nov. 30, 1770.]

EVERY Student must rise in the Morning, at farthest by half an hour after five; the grammar Schollars being most of them small, & lodging also in Town at some Distance from the College, are, in Winter, excused from attending morning Prayrs.

The Bell rings at five, after which there is an Intermission of half an hour, that everyone may have time to dress, at the end of which it rings again, & Prayrs begin; And lest any should plead that he did not hear the Bell, the Servant who rings, goes to every Door & beats till he wakens the Boys, which leaves them without Excuse.

There are Bill-keepers in each Class, appointed generally by the President, or in his absence by one of the Tutors, who take Notice, & set down those who are absent from Morning or evening Prayrs, & once every week present their Bill to the Doctor, or one of the Tutors, who call each delinquent, & demand their Excuse, which if it is thought sufficeant is accepted, if not they are fined, or privately admonished, & if the same person is found frequently guilty, without good reason, he receives public Admonition in the Hall for Contempt of Authority.

After morning Prayrs, we can, now, in the Winter, study an hour by candle Light every Morning.

We breakfast at eight; from Eight to nine, is time of our own, to play, or exercise.

At nine the Bell rings for Recitation, after which we study till one, when the Bell rings for Dinner——We dine all in the same Room, at three Tables, & so we breakfast and sup:

After dinner till three we have Liberty to go out at Pleasure.

From three til’ five we study, when the Bell rings for evening Prayrs.

We sup at seven; at nine the Bell rings for Study; And a Tutor goes through College, to see that every Student is in his own Room; if he finds that any are absent, or more in any Room than belongs there, he notes them down, & the day following calls them to an Account.

After nine any may go to bed, but to go before is reproachful.

No Student is allowed, on any pretence, Sickness only excepted, to be absent on Sunday, from public Worship: We have two Sermons every Sabbath: One at eleven in the morning, in the Church; & the other at three in the Afternoon, in the College Hall. I am indeed much pleased with Dr. Witherspoon & think his Sermons almost inimitable.

We rise on Sabbath mornings & have Prayrs as usual,…

About seven the supper Bell rings, immediately after which, each Class meets separately in Rooms belonging to one of themselves; The Seniors alone meet in a Room belonging to one of the Seniors; & the Juniors by themselves meet in a Room belonging to one of themselves; & in like manner do the inferior Classes. And one in each Class, as his Name comes in alphebetical Order, gives out a Psalm to be sung, & prays; after which they disperse, and retire to their respective Rooms.

There are upwards of an hundred now in the College including the grammar Scholars: The present Senior Class consists of ten: The Junior of twenty-eight: The Sophimore of twenty-five: And the Freshman of eighteen: In the School there are about twenty-five.

Reminiscences of a College Graduate.
[From the Diary for Monday, Sept. 19, 1774.]

THIS Day begins the examination of the Junior class at Nassau-Hall. Every time I reflect on that Place of retirement & Study, where I spent two years which I call the most pleasant as well as the most important Period in my past life——Always when I think upon the Studies, the Discipline, the Companions, the Neighburhood, the exercises, & Diversions, it gives me a secret & real Pleasure, even the Foibles which often prevail there are pleasant on recollection; such as giving each other names & characters; Meeting & Shoving in the dark entries: knocking at Doors & going off without entering; Strowing the entries in the night with greasy Feathers; freezing the Bell; Ringing it at late Hours of the Night——I may add that it does not seem disagreeable to think over the Mischiefs often practised by wanton Boys——Such are writing witty pointed anonymous Papers, in Songs, Confessions, Wills, Soliliques, Proclamations, Advertisements &c.——Picking from the neighbourhood now & then a plump fat Hen or Turkey for the private entertainment of the Club “instituted for inventing & practising several new kinds of mischief in a secret polite Manner”——Parading bad Women—Burning Curse-John—Darting Sun-Beams upon the Town-People Reconoitering Houses in the Town, & ogling Women with the Telescope——Making Squibs, & other frightful compositions with Gun-Powder, & lighting them in the Rooms of timorous Boys, & new comers——The various methods used in naturalizing strangers, of incivility in the Dining-Room to make them bold; writing them sharp & threatning Letters to make them smart; leading them at first with long Lessons to make them industrious——And trying them by Jeers & Repartee in order to make them choose their Companions &c. &c.

A Virginia Sunday in 1773.
[From the Diary for Monday, Dec. 13, 1773.]

… I observe it is a general custom on Sundays here, with Gentlemen to invite one another home to dine, after Church; and to consult about, & determine their common business, either before or after Service——It is not the custom for Gentlemen to go into Church til Service is beginning, when they enter in a Body, in the same manner as they come out; I have known the Clerk to come out and call them in to prayers.——They stay also after the Service is over, usually as long, sometimes longer, than the Parson was preaching——Almost every Lady wears a red Cloak; and when they ride out they tye a red handkerchief over their Head and face, so that when I first came into Virginia, I was distressed whenever I saw a Lady, for I thought she had the Tooth-Ach!——The People are extremely hospitable, and very polite both of which are most certainly universal Characteristics of the Gentlemen in Virginia——some swear bitterly, but the practise seems to be generally disapproved——I have heard that this Country is notorious for Gaming, however this be, I have not seen a Pack of Cards, nor a Die, since I left home, nor gaming or Betting of any kind except at the Richmond-Race. Almost every Gentleman of Condition, keeps a Chariot and Four; many drive with six Horses.
July 10th, 1774.

A Sunday in Virginia dont seem to wear the same Dress as our Sundays to the Northward——Generally here by five o’Clock on Saturday every Face (especially the Negroes) looks festive & cheerful——All the lower class of People, & the Servants, & the Slaves, consider it as a Day of Pleasure & amusement, & spend it in such Diversion, as they severally choose——The Gentlemen go to Church to be sure, but they make that itself a matter of convenience, & account the Church a useful weekly resort to do Business——I am told, for I have not yet been to Church since my Return, that all the Sermons are in the forensic Style, & on political Subjects.

William and Mary College in 1774.
[From the Diary, Feb. 12, 1774.]

AFTER having dismissed the School I went over to Mr. Carters Study——We conversed on many things, & at length on the College of William & Mary at Williamsburg. He informed me that it is in such confusion at present, and so badly directed, that he cannot send his Children with propriety there for Improvement & useful Education——That he has known the Professors to play all Night at Cards in publick Houses in the City, and has often seen them drunken in the Street!——That the Charter of the College is vastly Extensive, and the yearly income sufficient to support a University being about 4.000 £ Sterling.——That the Necessary Expence of each Scholar yearly is only 15 £ Currency. Two of the officers of the Institution, Mr. Bracken, & Mr. Henly Clergymen are at present engaged in a paper War published weekly in the Williamsburg Gazette’s.

A Virginia Planter’s Mansion.
[From the Diary, March 18, 1774.]

… Mr. Carter has chosen for the place of his habitation a high spot of Ground in Westmoreland County at the Head of the Navigation of the River Nomini, where he has erected a large Elegant House, at a vast expence, which commonly goes by the name of Nomini-Hall. This House is built with Brick, but the bricks have been covered with strong lime Mortar; so that the building is now perfectly white; It is seventy-six Feet long from East to West; & forty-four wide from North to South, two Stories high; the Pitch of the lower story seventeen Feet, & the upper Story twelve——It has five Stacks of Chimneys, tho’ two of these serve only for ornaments.

There is a beautiful Jutt, on the South side, eighteen feet long, & eight Feet deep from the wall which is supported by three tall pillars——On the South side, or front, in the upper story are four Windows each having twenty-four Lights of Glass. In the lower story are two Windows each having forty-two Lights of Glass, & two Doors each having Sixteen Lights——At the East end the upper story has three Windows each with eighteen Lights; & below two Windows both with eighteen Lights & a Door with nine——

The North side I think is the most beautiful of all; In the upper Story is a Row of seven Windows with eighteen Lights a piece; and below six windows, with the like number of lights; besides a large Portico in the middle, at the sides of which are two Windows each with eighteen Lights.——At the West end are no Windows——The Number of Lights in all is five hundred, & forty nine——There are four Rooms on a Floor, disposed of in the following manner. Below is a dining Room where we usually sit; the second is a dining-Room for the Children; the third is Mr. Carters study; & the fourth is a Ball-Room thirty Feet long——Above stairs, one Room is for Mr. & Mrs. Carter; the second for the young Ladies; & the other two for occasional Company. As this House is large, & stands on a high piece of Land it may be seen a considerable distance; I have seen it at the Distance of six Miles——

At equal Distances from each corner of this Building stand four other considerable Houses,…

Virginia and New Jersey Contrasted.
[From a Letter to John Peck, Fithian’s Intended Successor, dated Nomini Hall, August 12, 1774.]

… WHEN you have thought of removing, for a Time, out of the Colony in which you was born, & in which you have hitherto constantly resided, I make no doubt but you have at the same time expected to find a very considerable alteration of manners, among your new acquaintances, & some peculiarities toto Cœlo different, from any you have before been accustomed to. Such a thought is natural; And you will if you come into Virginia, in much shorter time than a year, be convinced that it is just. In New-Jersey Government throughout, but especially in the Counties where you have any personal acquaintance, Gentlemen in the first rank of Dignity & Quality, of the Council, general Assembly, inferior Magistrates, Clergy-men, or independent Gentlemen, without the smallest fear of bringing any manner of reproach either on their office, or their high-born, long recorded Families associate freely & commonly with Farmers & Mechanicks tho’ they be poor & industrious. Ingenuity & industry are the Strongest, & most approved recommendations to a Man in that Colony. The manners of the People seem to me, (probably I am overborn by the force of prejudice in favour of my native Soil), to bear some considerable resemblance of the manners in the ancient Spartan Common-Wealth——The Valour of its Inhabitants—was the best, & only security of that State against the enemy; & the wise laws of its renowned Legislator were the powerful cement which kept them firm & invincible——In our Government, the laborious part of Men, who are commonly ranked in the midling or lower Class, are accounted the strength & Honour of the Colony; & the encouragement they receive from Gentlemen in the highest stations is the spring of Industry, next to their private advantage. The Levil which is admired in New-Jersey Government, among People of every rank, arises, no doubt, from the very great division of the lands in that Province, & consequently from the near approach to an equality of Wealth among the Inhabitants, since it is not famous for trade. You know very well that the Lands in a small township are divided, & then again subdivided into two & three Hundred Separate, proper, creditable estates; for example Deerfield & Fairfield two Townships, or Precincts, in which you & I are tolerably well acquainted, in the former of which, are the Seats of two Judges of the Sessions; & in the latter resides one of the representatives in General Assembly for the County; But if 16000£ would purchase the whole landed estates of these three Gentlemen, who are supposed to be the most wealthy in the County, if we rate their Land at the Low Consideration of 4£ pr. acre, with all conveniences, each would have 4000 Acres. Now you may suppose how small a quantity many must have when two or three hundred Landholders reside in each of these small Precincts; Hence we see Gentlemen, when they are not actually engaged in the publick Service, on their farms, setting a laborious example to their Domesticks, & on the other hand we see labourers at the Tables & in the Parlours of their Betters enjoying the advantage, & honour of their society and conversation——I do not call it an objection to this, that some few, who have no substance but work like Slaves as necessity drives them for a few Months in the year; with the price of this Labour they visit Philadelphia; & having there acquired a fashionable Coat, & a Stock of Impudence, return home to spend the remainder of the year, in idleness & disgrace!——But you will find the tables turned the moment you enter this Colony. The very Slaves in some families here, could not be bought under 30000£. Such amazing property, no matter how deep it is involved, blows up the owners to an imagination, which is visible in all, but in various degrees according to their respective virtue, that they are exalted as much above other Men in worth & precedency, as blind stupid fortune has made a difference in their property; excepting always the value they put upon posts of honour, & mental acquirements——For example, if you should travel through this Colony, with a well-confirmed testimonial of your having finished with Credit a Course of studies at Nassau-Hall; you would be rated, without any more questions asked, either about your family, your Estate, your business, or your intention, at 10,000£; and you might come, & go, & converse, & keep company, according to this value; and you would be despised and slighted if you rated yourself a farthing cheaper. But when I am giving directions to you from an expectation that you will be shortly a resident here, altho you have gone through a College Course, & for anything I know, have never written a Libel, nor stolen a Turkey, yet I think myself in duty bound to advise you, lest some powdered Coxcomb should reproach your education, to cheapen your price about 5000£; because any young Gentleman travelling through the Colony, as I said before, is presumed to be acquainted with Dancing, Boxing, playing the Fiddle, & Small-Sword, & Cards. Several of which you was only entering upon, when I left New-Jersey; towards the Close of last year; and if you stay here any time your Barrenness in these must be detected. I will, however, allow, that in the Family where you act as tutor you place yourself, according to your most acute Calculation, at a perfect equidistance between the father & the eldest Son. Or let the same distance be observed in every article of behaviour between you & the eldest Son, as there ought to be, by the latest & most approved precepts of Moral-Philosophy, between the eldest Son & his next youngest Brother. But whenever you go from Home, where you are to act on your own footing, either to a Ball; or to a Horse-Race, or to a Cock-Fight, or to a Fish-Feast, I advise that you rate yourself very low & if you bett at all, remember that 10,000£ in Reputation & learning does not amount to a handfull of Shillings in ready Cash!——One considerable advantage which you promise yourself by coming to this Colony is to extend the limits of your acquaintance; this is laudable, & if you have enough of prudence & firmness, it will be a singular advantage——Yet attempt slowly & with the most Jealous Circumspection——If you fix your familiarity wrong in a single instance, you are in danger of total, if not immediate ruin——You come here, it is true, with an intention to teach, but you ought likewise to have an inclination to learn. At any rate I solemnly injoin it upon you, that you never suffer the Spirit of a Pedagogue to attend you without the walls of your little Seminary. In all promiscuous Company be as silent & attentive as Decency will allow you, for you have nothing to communicate, which such company, will hear with pleasure, but you may learn many things which, in after life, will do you singular service.——In regard to Company in general, if you think it worth your while to attend to my example, I can easily instruct you in the manner of my Conduct in this respect. I commonly attend Church; and often, at the request of Gentlemen, after Service according to the custom, dine abroad on Sunday I seldom fail, when invited by Mr. & Mrs. Carter, of going out with them; but I make it a point, however strongly solicited to the contrary, to return with them too——Except in one of these cases, I seldom go out, but with a valuable variety of books live according to Horace’s direction. & love “Secretum Iter et fallentis Semita Vitæ.” Close retirement and a life by Stealth. The last direction I shall venture to mention on this head, is, that you abstain totally from Women. What I would have you understand from this, is, that by a train of faultless conduct in the whole course of your tutorship, you make every Lady within the Sphere of your acquaintance, who is between twelve & forty years of age, so much pleased with your person, & so satisfied as to your ability in the capacity of a Teacher; & in short, fully convinced, that, from a principle of Duty, you have, both by night and by day endeavoured to acquit yourself honourably, in the Character of a Tutor; & that, on this account, you have their free and hearty consent, without making any manner of demand upon you, either to stay longer in the County with them, which they would choose, or whenever your business calls you away, that they may not have it in their Power either by charms or Justice to detain you, & when you must leave them, have their sincere wishes & constant prayrs for Length of days & much prosperity, I therefore beg that you will attend literally to this advice, & abstain totally from Women. But this last precaution, which I have been at some pains to dress in the plainest language, I am much inclined to think, will be wholly useless in regard to you, notwithstanding it is founded in Honor and Equity which is on all hands allow’d to be due from one Sex to the other, & to many of your age, & Standing would be entirely salutary. Because the necessary connections which you have had with the Fair, from your Puberty upwards have been so unfavourable & ill-fated, that instead of apprehending any danger on the score of your fondness, I am fearful your rancour has grown so inveterate at length, as, not only to preserve you, in thought & practice, pure of every Fleshly foible, but has carried you so far towards the other extreme, that you will need many persuasions, when your circumstances shall seem to require it, to bring you back to a rational & manly habit of thinking & acting with respect to the Sex; which yet, after all (& eternally will continue to be, tho’ it is so much courted & whined after) if considered in the fullest manner, & set forth to the best advantage, never rising above its divine definition Viz “The weaker Vessel.” But without detaining you any longer with a matter merely depending on accident or Circumstance I pass on to the second General Head; in which “Ludis atque Jocis amotis” I shall offer to your consideration and recommend for your practice several Rules concerning the management of the School….

When you enter among a people, & find that their manner of living, their Eating, Drinking, Diversions, Exercise, &c, are in many respects different from anything you have been accustomed to, you will be apt to fix your opinion in an instant, & (as some divines deal with poor Sinners) you will condemn all before you without any meaning or distinction what seems in your judgment disagreeable at first view, when you are smitten with the novelty. You will be making ten thousand Comparisons. The face of the Country, The Soil, the Buildings, the Slaves, the Tobacco, the method of spending Sunday among Christians; Ditto among the Negroes; the three grand divisions of time at the Church on Sundays, Viz. before Service, giving & receiving letters of business, reading Advertisements, consulting about the price of Tobacco, Grain, &c. & settling either the lineage, Age, or qualities of favourite Horses. 2. In the Church at Service, prayrs read over in haste, a Sermon seldom under & never over twenty minutes, but always made up of sound morality, or deep studied Metaphysicks. 3. After Service is over three quarters of an hour spent in strolling round the Church among the Crowd, in which time you will be invited by several different Gentlemen home with them to dinner. The Balls, the Fish-Feasts, the Dancing-Schools, the Christnings, the Cock fights, the Horse-Races, the Chariots, the Ladies Masked, for it is a custom among the Westmorland Ladies whenever they go from home, to muffle up their heads, & Necks, leaving only a narrow passage for the Eyes, in Cotton or silk handkerchiefs; I was in distress for them when I first came into the Colony, for every Woman that I saw abroad, I looked upon as ill either with the Mumps or Tooth-Ach!——I say, you will be often observing & comparing these things which I have enumerated, & many more that now escape me, with the manner of spending Money time & credit at Cohansie: You are young, &, (you will allow me the Expression) in the morning of Life. But I hope you have plann’d off, and entered upon the work which is necessary to be performed in the course of your Day; if not, I think it my duty to acquaint you, that a combination of the amusements which I have just now mentioned, being always before your Eyes, & inviting your Compliance will have a strong tendency to keep you doubtful & unsettled, in your notions of Morality & Religion, or else will fix you in a false & dangerous habit of thinking & acting, which must terminate at length in Sorrow & despair. You are therefore, if you count anything upon the value of my advice, to fix the plan in which you would spend your life: let this be done with deliberation, Candour, & precision, looking to him for direction, by fervent Prayr, who is the “Wonderful Counsellor”; & when you have done this, let no importunity of whatever kind prevail over you, & cause you to transgress your own Limitations. I have already exceeded the usual bounds of an Epistle. But you will easily pardon a little prolixity, when I assure you it flows from a heart deeply impressed with a sense of the many difficulties which you must encounter, & the dangers which will surround you when you come first out from the peaceful recess of Contemplation, & enter, young and unexperienced, into the tumultuous undiscerning World. I submit these hints to your consideration, & have nothing more than sincere & ardent wishes for your present & perpetual Felicity.
I am, Sir,
To Mr. John Peck,yours,
on going to Virginia inPHIILIP V. FITHIAN.
Character of a Tutor.