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.