The Limits of Cosmopolitanism in Early America

Mr. Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

We live in an age of globalization. Cheap air travel, international markets, and technology have made us into world citizens. The benefits of a cosmopolitan life are available to more people today than they have been in any other era of human history. The great eighteenth-century defenders of world citizenship—Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Paine, and Franklin—would be pleased with our ever-increasing ability to free ourselves from parochial concerns. Indeed, as Thomas Friedman has reminded us, the world is flat.

While this rise in global citizenship can be explained by massive cultural, scientific, and economic shifts over the course of the last several decades, historians know that cosmopolitanism, and the ambition that drives it, has been around for a long time. Bernard Bailyn and other so-called “Atlantic historians” teach us that people have been on the move since the seventeenth-century, if not earlier. Gordon Wood attributes the success of the American Revolution to the intellectual cosmopolitans who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776. Those unable to leave home for foreign locales could always embrace cosmopolitanism in an imagined sense through the printed page. Since the birth of the modern era the Atlantic has been, in a figurative sense, steadily shrinking. So has the Pacific, as many recent studies have shown.

Cosmopolitanism was at the heart of the Enlightenment. In its most ideal form it had a geographical dimension to it. People who were true cosmopolitans were not wed to a particular place in a way that undermined their love for all the people and places of the world. It also had an intellectual dimension to it. Cosmopolitanism challenged local and tribal ways of understanding the world in favor of universal truths that could be applied to all humankind. And it also had a religious (or perhaps an anti-religious) dimension to it. As Margaret Jacob argued last year on this website, people who were cosmopolitan knew that they could not simultaneously embrace universal values and parochial religious beliefs.

But one wonders what kind of eighteenth-century man or woman could possibly live this ideal, especially in America? This was a place where the connection to a piece of earth, not an abstract sense of world citizenship, was the desired end of personal ambition. The British colonies were a place where most people lived in intensely local communities with cultural identities shaped by tradition and custom. Protestantism permeated much of every day life. The German critic 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.”

While scholars have produced some excellent studies of the cosmopolitan impulse, attempts to ground the idea of world citizenship in the gritty realities of everyday eighteenth-century America are few. The project of explaining the Enlightenment cosmopolitanism in the context of ordinary life, away from the salons of Paris or the coffeehouses of London, has a certain oxymoronic quality to it. Where would one find sources for such a study? Where are all those Christian agrarian cosmopolitans in early America?

Yet such a project, I have found, is still worth pursuing. Did the concept of world citizenship affect common people in the British-American colonies? If it did, what did these people gain in the process? Or perhaps more importantly, what did they lose? Could an average British provincial be a world citizen and at the same time have a deep and abiding sense of place that was so intense it led to severe bouts of homesickness? Could a young man in pursuit of cosmopolitan dreams also be serious about his Christian faith? Could a man in pursuit of reason be enslaved to his passions?

These were the questions I began to ask myself as I wrote a cultural and intellectual biography of Philip Vickers Fithian, one of early America’s most cited diarists. Historians who study colonial Virginia know Philip well. The journal he kept during the year (October 1773 to October 1774) he spent as a tutor on Robert Carter’s plantation in Virginia’s Northern Neck is not only a delight to read but also offers one of our most revealing glimpses into the life of the Chesapeake gentry at the time of the American Revolution. If the anecdotal evidence I have collected during the course of this project is any indication, Philip's Virginia diary was a staple of undergraduate and graduate history seminars for two generations of students trained during the Cold War. Today, despite the fact that his name no longer appears with great frequency on college syllabi, more people are exposed to Philip's observations than ever before. One would be hard-pressed to find a book on eighteenth-century Virginia that does not mention him. Thousands of families learn about Philip each year at Colonial Williamsburg, where he is a regular part of its public history program. Tour guides echo his words as they lead visitors through the plantations of the Old Dominion.

Yet, despite Philip's ubiquitous presence in interpretations of colonial Virginia, we still know little about him. His writings are most often used by historians as window dressing for their studies of the plantation Chesapeake. It seems that a quotation from Philip Vickers Fithian is the perfect way to enhance any historical narrative. The lack of detailed attention to Philip's life is somewhat surprising in light of the fair amount of primary source material available to the biographer. Two older collections of Philip's writings are still easily accessible to those interested in learning more about him. In 1900 John R. Williams published many of Philip's personal letters and papers written during his years (1770-72) as a student at the College of New Jersey. Three decades later Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson edited Philip's 1775-76 journals recounting his two short missionary trips to the Pennsylvania and Virginia backcountry and his role as a chaplain with the Continental army in New York. Philip's unpublished writings have been virtually untapped by early American historians. This collection, housed in Princeton University's Firestone Library, includes valuable information on his early spiritual, intellectual, and agricultural life. While Philip did not live long enough to produce the kind of paper trail that the era's great statesmen have left us--he died in his early thirties--such neglect of his story is unfortunate. His life sheds light on the history of colonial New Jersey and Virginia, the development of the early Presbyterian Church, eighteenth-century courtship rituals, and especially the impact of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism on ordinary people at the time of the American Revolution.

Philip’s path toward world citizenship was by no means a smooth one. His passion for "home” frequently got in the way of his attempts at Enlightenment self-improvement. In the messiness of his everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical. However, it is precisely these tensions—between cosmopolitan dreams and local attachments-- that make Philip's story so interesting. The story of this ordinary farmer reveals that a cosmopolitan life was complex and complicated. It 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.

On one hand, Philip is a success story from the annals of the cosmopolitan Enlightenment: the oldest son of a grain grower who turns his back on the farm to pursue a college education and a life of learning. On the other hand, his life reminds us that even the most eager of eighteenth-century Enlightenment hopefuls balanced rational quests for self-improvement with longings that could not be explained by reason alone. Philip's cosmopolitanism was tempered by his multiple bouts with homesickness for his rural upbringing and family farm. His efforts to cultivate human relationships based on sober reason were often undermined by passion, especially when it came to his courtship of Elizabeth Beatty. His personal ambition, self-improvement, and Revolutionary optimism were always understood in the context of his belief in a sovereign God's providential ordering of His creation. Though I cannot say so for sure, it appears that Philip's life is symbolic of the struggles that many young men in the late colonial period faced as they responded to the cosmopolitan spirit of the age.

Philip’s story teaches us that the abstract and elite-centered idea of world citizenship that has captivated historians and theorists alike over the past few decades had a real impact on individual human experience. He struggled with the implications that citizenship in this imagined community might have for his commitment to family, faith, and friends. Throughout his short life, Philip asked not only how he might improve himself but also what might be permanently lost in the process. He rarely acted without considering carefully the answers to both of those queries. Philip knew world citizenship, while a noble pursuit, had its limits. He knew that a cosmopolitan path could sometimes lead one home.

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Serge Lelouche - 5/27/2008

This is awful. Why is H-Net publishing what looks like this guy's rather naive,unlettered, and, yes, un-cosmopolitan dissertation precis?

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