Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Reader Feedback: "Was Philip Vickers Fithian a Pompous Ass and a Schlemiel?"

People have become regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home at various different points in the history of the blog.  Many of our new readers often browse past posts to get up to speed on what we are trying to do here.

For example, Kent W. from East Lansing, Michigan recently wrote us to comment on Andrew Shankman's book review of my The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I wrote about Shankman's review in a post on September 23, 2009 under the title "Was Philip Vickers Fithian a Pompous Ass and a Schlemiel?"  

Now, over six years later, Kent has written to tell me how unhappy he was with Shankman's review.  A taste of his e-mail:

John, I am afraid I don’t share your light-hearted response to most of Andrew Shankman’s review of your treatment of Rev. Philip V. Fithian’s Journals.  Mr. Shankman mistakenly assumes that Mr. Fithian’s Journal was in fact something it was not, namely a treatise on social justice. 

Mr. Shankman seems to have missed that Mr. Fithian lived in eighteenth century British colonial North America and that he wrote his Journal on the very eve of the American Revolution. Fithian can perhaps be forgiven for not being all consumed by the social justice agenda of the 21st century in light of his primary concerns with his new role of minister of the Gospel.

Since young Mr. Fithian had no involvement in, or likely impact upon establishing, modifying, or repealing British law, he may have failed to recognize that he would one day be held to account for a lack of obsession with the subject of that form of slavery with which he had no hand in creating, administering, or fostering. 

I, for one, admire those, like Mr. Fithian who placed themselves in harm’s way at the onset of the great American Revolution thereby challenging with one’s life, the very political institution responsible for establishing a common law right of property as concerns the Africans brought to North America by the Dutch, French, English, Spanish and Portuguese.  Mr. Shankman rightfully points out that “Many enlightenment thinkers wrestled with the problem of slavery in an age of revolution.”  Mr. Shankman wrongfully concludes, by inference, that Mr. Fithian’s brief Journals contain all that was of concern to Mr. Fithian, which seems to me to constitute a fairly weak case for indicting a man’s character so harshly as he does. 

It is axiomatic that it is not generally reasonable to judge a man using novel standards of a vastly different time and place.  Mr. Fithian was admittedly concerned, in the main, with the two areas for which he had recently prepared himself at Princeton, that is the ministering of the Gospel for the saving of men’s souls, and education.  It seems entirely reasonable therefore that he was not consumed with the agendas of nineteenth century New England abolitionists, nor with twentieth century Marxist-Leninists.,.

My thanks again to you for your most enlightening book, and to Mr. Fithian, posthumously, for giving posterity an important look-see into an earlier and important time and place.

Thanks for the feedback Kent. And for reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home and Andy Shankman's review of it so carefully.  I think you make some good points here about historical thinking.