Fithian was reared in New Jersey and attended the College of New Jersey in Princeton, receiving his degree in 1772. Before entering the Presbyterian ministry, he followed the advice of President Witherspoon of Princeton and became a tutor in the family of Robert Carter at "Nomini Hall" plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia. The reactions of the somewhat austere young man to the rich, warm life of a Virginia plantation are always instructive and often amusing. The Carters and their seven children were a fascinating family, liberal in their sentiments and deeply interested in books and music. Fithian sets forth truthfully, yet with lively touches, the family's assessments of the society in which it moved, the institution of slavery, and the dispute developing with the mother country. Throughout his experiences Fithian remained true to his "fair Laura"—Elizabeth Beatty in far off New Jersey.