Yesterday I finished teaching The Way of Improvement Leads Home to my American Revolution class. I wish we had more time.
Over the course of the last two classes we ended up discussing John Witherspoon’s Princeton, David Barton (OK–we got off on a bit of a tangent there), the way in which everyday people like Fithian made a mental “conversion” to the cause of patriotism, and, of course, the topsy-turvy relationship between Philip and Betsy.
As usual, the Philip and Betsy material drew the most discussion. One student was very angry with Betsy for “blowing Philip off.” She said she “felt so bad for Philip” whenever his advances were rejected. Others defended Betsy and felt that Philip’s advances were way too “over the top.” He deserved whatever he got.
I always tell my students to try to understand the people in the past before condemning them for their vices or praise them for their virtues. When some of my students said that they thought Philip was a “jerk,” I challenged them to reserve judgment and try to understand, in the context of the eighteenth century, why Philip would have acted the way he did toward Betsy and others. But the more we discussed this, the more we came to the conclusion that “jerks” might be found in both the eighteenth century and the twenty-first century. In other words, Philip Vickers Fithian may have been a “jerk” for his time as well as ours. At least that is what one reviewer said about him.
Haven’t read The Way of Improvement Leads Home yet? Buy your copy today.
Andrea B. (Red Loper) says
I think your students should realize that we only have letters that were kept between Philip and Betsy. We do not have the ones that were not kept. We also do not know every detail about their personal interactions with each other.
These letters were personal and not meant to be seen by anyone else or published.
I think that discussing my family in this manner is unprofessional. The appropriate manner would be to mention to the students that we as a society have a glimpse into the private lives of those who came before, but we do not have the full story and never will. Therefore we cannot judge their behavior and it is not our place to. It is disrespectful to do this to another human being, much less a Revolutionary War hero.