First, let me extend my greetings to the readers of the Front Porch Republic. I have been following conversations here at FPR since it launched earlier this year and find myself resonating with its mission. So needless to say I was quite flattered when Jeremy Beer asked me to take a turn as a guest blogger.

I am guessing that part of the reason I was asked to join this impressive group of writers was because my book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), touches on themes near and dear to the heart of this on-line community. On one level, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is a traditional academic monograph. It is being reviewed in all of the important scholarly journals and, as a contribution to eighteenth-century historiography, it offers a new way of thinking about the Enlightenment in America and its relationship to Christianity, the Revolution, and everyday life. I argue against the predominant view in my field that “rural Enlightenment” is an oxymoron. By examining the life of an ordinary eighteenth-century farmer—the prolific New Jersey diarist Philip Vickers Fithian—I show how ideas permeated the hinterlands and influenced grain-growers in remote locales.

On another level, I have been pleasantly surprised that The Way of Improvement Leads Home is finding a readership among those interested in questions related to place and community. This book tells the story of a young man of great ambition who embraced the new opportunities that Enlightenment progress and self-improvement had to offer. Fithian drank deeply from the well of modernity, but his “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one. Modern opportunity often conflicted with his strong and abiding passion for “home,” a term I use broadly in the title to describe his longings for his family farm on the banks of New Jersey’s Cohansey River, his desire for friendship with his future wife, his love with those he called “friends and relations,” and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety.

In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical. It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain. Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism. However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting. His attempt at easing them is the focus of my book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”

My study of this ordinary farmer argues that a modern life could be lived locally—even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

I thus hope that the moral argument of this book might shine through some of my more academic historiographical musings. Philip Vickers Fithian reminds us that cosmopolitanism, that “great” product of modernity, has always existed in compromise with local attachments. Fithian was a member of the republic of letters and a citizen of a particular place. If true republicans were also true world citizens, then Fithian’s cosmopolitan spirit was nurtured within the context of his Cohansey River home, complete with the social networks of friends, relatives, and loves that came with it.

I hope this was an appropriate way to begin my one-month stint at the Front Porch Republic. In a world of cosmopolitan ambitions that lead to social mobility, geographical mobility, and a general sense of placelessness, my hope and prayer is that sometimes the “way of improvement” might lead us “home.”


  1. As a book with a good title is usually good inside, I look forward to reading this one of yours, Mr. Fea. Thank you for joining us.

    I would quibble with only one part of this your introductory article. There can be no world citizenry, at least not until we have world government, and in that case we individuals among the billions will have so little say in our government that any historically understood meaning of “citizen” won’t apply.

    I imagine you mean that your diarist was engaged and interested in ideas from far-off places, and while he may be have been very engaged indeed, that is a different matter. The term “world citizen” has so expanded and exploded the idea of citizenry as to have no political meaning–hence my objection. The term can have a use as propaganda, though I’m not accusing you of that–but hence my objection again. All good wishes to you.

  2. Welcome Mr. Fea. I look forward to reading your subsequent posts. The last sentence of this article has made me wonder. When people in our mobile, placeless society, more to a new location, they generally look for a place to live that is safe, has good schools, has conveniences of various services, and is aesthetically pleasing. I was wondering what you think “home” possesses in addition to these features?

  3. A Great Eureka to you Mr. Fea and your identification of “tension” as an biding force in post-Enlightenment America. This tension is what spurred us onward into the successes of the 20th Century and it is the lack of a similar tension that likely taints the current confused decline of the lapsed-Republic. Government and the larger affairs of the people are now polled relentlessly in order to smooth off and rub down the tensions of our polyglot society. In order to maintain interest within the ongoing Superbowl of conventional wisdom, we get “issues/identity politics” and a great Hee Haw Kabuki display of choreographed knumbskullery that would shock the men and woman of Mr. Fithians day. There is no fundamental tension because their is no intellectual and spiritual contest at work.

    Well, ok, I relent, there is the little matter of the Neo-conservatives and perhaps there is some tension at work there, if however rudimentary. After all, they are the great leaders of the Think Tanks and NGO’s and so called intellectuals and so there must be some tension at work because they are frequently professed to be people “of faith”. Perhaps it’s that tension which exists when one is trying to sell watered down milk.

    Can’t wait to read the book.

  4. Empodocles: You ask about what might be the characteristics that people look for when they search for a new home. Great question. It seems to me that most of us look for the very things you mention when we think of “home”–good schools, close to shopping, a nice neighborhood, and safeness. These are all reasonable things to want in a home. But I wonder, when does the place where one lives truly become “home?” Is “home” really possible in such a geographically mobile society, or are we all destined for some degree of homelessness? It seems to me that finding a “home” requires an investment in the people of a particular community. It requires showing love to neighbors, civic engagement, even loyalty. It requires not only showing up at the high school girls basketball games, school plays, PTA gatherings, community picnics and zoning board meetings, but really wanting to be there. In other words, having a home takes time…and work. It is something that might even take generations to cultivate. I have lived in the same place for seven years and I am not there yet, but I like to think I am getting close.

  5. Katherine: I could not agree more with your point about “world citizenship.” It seems the very term is an oxymoron. But that does not stop many intellectuals from celebrating it.

    Yet, in the context of the eighteenth-century, most educated men (think of Ben Franklin or Tom Paine) sought to deliberately cultivate membership in a transatlantic and imagined community of letters. World citizenship, as defined by the Enlightenment, was more of an imagined citizenship, although there were a select few (like Paine or Franklin) who could physically travel the “world.” Philip Vickers Fithian wanted membership in this imagined “Republic of Letters,” but it would mean sacrificing his passions for home–something he has a very hard time doing. Homesickness and local attachments were, of course, a sign of parochialism–ideas that many self-professed cosmopolitans believed (and still believe) were imcompatible with world citizenship. In other words, all of this makes a bit more sense, I think, when you think about terms like “world citizenship” in the context of the eighteenth-century past.

    I am not yet ready to throw out the term “cosmopolitan,” as long as you define it as someone who is liberally educated and thus interested in news and ideas from around the globe. I do think, however, that cosmpolitanism must flow out of a sense of rootedness in the sense that our understanding of the world and our engagement with it and in it, must stem from our primary commitment to the local. I would thus prefer a “cosmopolitan rootedness” over a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” My eighteeenth-century friend Philip Vickers Fithian would have preferred the same.

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