Journals and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian

A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion
1773 - 1774
Edited by: Hunter Dickenson Farish

History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors.

These days, it seems that history is not just written but re-written as the demands of the times warrant.

I continue to be shocked how much "the story" changes from one generation to the next, depending upon who is in favor, and who is out, both in a scholarly sense and a political one. Take The Crusades, for example. What you "know" about them depends upon your politics, age, religion, and general outlook on life, rather than anything we know or don't about those times. And of course, because it is so far back in time, the story is even more hazy than something that occurred 10-30 years ago. Even then, my mom is fond of saying, "Wuz you there, Charlie?" I'm not exactly sure who originated the expression, but at least in my family it means, "I lived during that time, and you didn't, so don't presume to tell me something I know to be false."

It will be interesting to see what happens to "history" going forward, given the ubiquitousness of cell phone cameras, video tape, and Internet publishing. (More about this subject of what is "real" in video will be dealt with in my computers and technology column for this month!)

I have a friend who studied (for reasons I will never quite understand) "old" Spanish, translating texts from a Medieval form of the language to modern English, and learning about the history of Spain from, as it were, those who "wuz there."

And in truth, for me, this is the only way to read history: from those who were writing about their own lives and times.

Granted, we all carry with us the prejudices and biases of our native country, language, social class, and other factors - and even though you may be reading something written at that time, it may still have a slant. But it's as close as we're likely to get to "what really happened."

In this case, the "story" is the diary of a young man who, upon completing is own education, accepts a position as a tutor to the children of a wealthy Virginia planter. The year is 1773-1774, just before the Colonies declared independence from England. And, in fact, one of the more interesting parts of the volume is that it contains little to nothing about the brewing anger and rebelliousness of the Colonials. What it does deal with in great detail is the young man's life, times, and fortunes. As he relates them, he reveals a great deal about the times. (And perhaps, the fact that the simmering rebellion is not mentioned is telling in an of itself.)

Young Philip Frithian is not exactly a fun sort of young man - and a good deal of that is explained by the fact that he is quite religious, and is only interrupting his study for the ministry with his brief sojourn as a tutor.

Philip has studied Latin (Lattin, occasionally) and Greek; he knows mathematics and rhetoric and music - all the things a well-brought-up young man of his era should, and, as he is studying for a life of prayer and preaching, he is in a position to impart some of his learning to his young pupils.

The young people in question are both boys and girls, ranging in age from 6 or 7 to the teens. They live in Virginia on a wealthy plantation, to which place Philip travels, noting his expenses (very specifically) and accommodations along the way.

Before leaving his hometown of Deerfield, Philip dithers about taking the position: it will delay his entry into the ministry; he will have to leave his "Laura," a young woman who has caught his fancy;  he is not certain he will like the less sophisticated life on a southern plantation; he is not certain he likes or wants to be engaged in tutoring young people at all.

Finally, he agrees to test the waters, and sets out on his adventure.

Travel at that time isn't for sissies. Time on the road is dirty, disagreeable, uncomfortable, and evidently, no cheap. (Money is still accounted for in the old English system of pounds, guineas, and pence, and Philip takes great pains to keep a record of how much and to whom he must pay: oats, bed, meal, drink, ferry boats, and so on.)

But the inducements of the job are significant: he isn't a man of great fortune or family, and like his female counterparts (well brought up but not wealthy) he finds he must do something to earn his keep (women typically became governesses if they needed to support themselves in a genteel manner). The position allows for a room and meals, a horse "kept," as well as pay - which, despite most of his physical needs being cared for, he must piece out to servants and tavern keepers, launderers and haberdashers.

What else do we learn from Philip's diaries?
 - Ill health was not uncommon, and people fretted over even a slight cold, as anything could lead to a mortal affliction;
- People kept hours not unlike ours - he "arises" at 6 or 7, and "to  bed" at 10-11;
- Meals were not like ours either in terms of when (breakfast might be a 9-10, even after arising at 6 or 6), and dinners were often late; or what: they seem to have been a bit larger than what we are accustomed to now - but then, people walked and rode (horses) great deal more than today, and even dressing was a chore;
- Entertainments were often supplied by the family itself for one another, and one of Philip's jobs is to help especially the young ladies with their musicianship;
- Letter writing was a common employment - and again, not as easy as it would be now if we still wrote letters, as pens had to be sharpened and in came in wells rather than disposable pens;
- Church going was along the lines of an entertainment, with Philip often remarking on the quality of the sermon, and the rather lack-luster sermons of the Southern preachers as compared to the hell-fire of the North;
- Young men could be intrigued by a pretty face, though ultimately a young lady's fortune and manners were the deciding factors when choosing a wife;
- Weather then, as now, took up a significant amount of people's interest and time.

There is a great deal more, though another thought that occurred to me while reading this work was how boring life must have been then as compared to now - we have so many things to distract us, while these people whiled away hours walking, in conversation, playing cards, and reading books.

As noted, Philip doesn't seem to be much taken up with the political scene, nor with the chance of a rebellion - even when he is in Virginia, where young George Washington had a plantation himself.

He comments on manners; behavior (one of his charges is a very spoiled and willful young man) and the necessity for chastisement of his young pupils; music; health and weather; clothing and appearance; Godliness; and to whom he dedicates his toasts (usually one of the better looking young ladies). He details visits to and from others in the area, both for an evening or for a week or more: having new company and conversation was very important in a life lacking in much in the way of diversion.

He also mentions the "Negro" slaves, a thing he disapproves of, being a Northerner, yet comes to accept as he finds they are not ill-treated in general, or at least, on this particular plantation. And he adjusts to the idea that a measure of a man's wealth is partly displayed by his servants and how well he treats them.

It is in these passing details that one discovers the history of a time - learning how something as heated as the subject of slavery was to become, and continues to this day to be, was tolerated and even somewhat ignored by the wealthier classes. How religion figured so much more in the day to day life of a Northern man than a Southern one (Philip learns that skipping Church on Sunday is not nearly as much of a social error as it would have been in Deerfield). And how arbitrary spelling was - almost as arbitrary as spell-check is today.

This is, of course, a "sipping" book - meant to be read in small doses daily rather than a page-turner that will keep you up at night. Nothing much happens. The joy of it is strictly in the ordinariness of the details that teach us how people lived, what mattered to them, and through what lenses they observed the world around them.


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