Thinking back to high school and American History 101, most of us learned about the American Revolution and the reasons it came about. Our teachers and textbooks dealt with much of what led up to our forefathers’ decision to break free from Britain…but as a teenager, it was tough for me to envision what they went through and were feeling at that moment in time.
Looking at the image of Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries gathered in Independence Hall, I really wasn’t able to fully grasp the moment. Although I was most likely bored by it then, I am intrigued by that illustration now. What did their voices sound like? Which ones were overly passionate and who among them were the voices of reason? What was the chatter in the corners of the room? Most certainly there were those that were ready to fight for independence, while others quietly wished they were somewhere else. At just shy of 60 years old I have lived one fourth of the United States’ lifespan, yet I feel light years removed from this group of guys wearing those funny clothes and wigs.
Diana and I have been fortunate to be able to visit many of the places where our nation was built. Standing in the actual room in the painting above we were enveloped within the surroundings, but we still needed to concentrate to feel the founders’ presence over the sounds of modern Philadelphia outside of the rooms’ windows. Piece by piece over time, we’ve heard stories of these men. Familiar ones like Benjamin Franklin, who was asked by a woman as he left the proceedings whether they decided upon a monarchy or republic. His reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” And lesser known men like Caesar Rodney of Delaware who, while sick with cancer, rode 70 miles on horseback through a thunderstorm to cast his vote for independence. He walked into the room with his spurs on, damp and dirty. That ride is depicted on the back of the Delaware state quarter. Sorry folks… that ain’t Paul Revere on that horse.
So on our trip up the East Coast this year, Williamsburg, Virginia, was high on our list of places to visit. We had been here previously, back in 1993. The town was the capital of Colonial Virginia up to and through the American Revolution. When the seat of power was moved inland to Richmond at the end of the war, the once bustling community became a sleepy borough. By the 1920’s this place that was also home to the College of William and Mary was getting a bit run down. A local minister, W.A.R. Goodwin, was dismayed at what Williamsburg had become. He was concerned that a big part of American history was being lost to decay and/or modernization. He quietly convinced John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to support a project to restore the community to it’s 18th century heyday. Rockefeller secretly bought up most of the historic part of town in 1926 and worked to restore it over many, many years. He was still working on it when he died in 1960. The vision included the use of costumed reenactors. Not only could we see many of the buildings from that time…either original or recreated…but we could also see people assume the roles of some of the key players from that era.
Walking the streets of Colonial Williamsburg…refereed to by the locals as CW, there are plenty of reminders that you are in the 21st century. Paved streets, electric lights, and a solid cell signal are but a few of the conveniences of today. But watch where you step, so you don’t end up with horse poop in your Nike treads. 🙂
We lucked out and were there while the gardens were in full bloom. Sights like this were common throughout the community.
Craftsmen were working in every shop at CW. This woodworker was demonstrating his foot-powered lathe. One gentleman we spoke with in the blacksmith shop had worked there over 20 years. Those career lengths seemed to be more the rule than the exception, so you know the foundation must be treating them right. They follow the steps from apprentice to master craftsmen and women. Some even enjoy the benefit of living onsite, with their children being required to dress as and play the role of 18th century youngsters when they are outside of their homes.
This building is the Governor’s Palace. Remember, this was a British colony at the time, so the ruler had to exhibit a level of dominance over the commoners. And if the exterior dimensions of the building didn’t achieve that…
…perhaps the interior decor would get the point across.
One thing to note about touring CW is that it is totally free to stroll the streets. To gain access to the buildings and to be a part of the reenactments, you have to buy a ticket; something we recommend. When we arrived on April 28 we purchased a three-day pass at $50 and some change each, which was a bargain in our minds. The only thing we paid extra for above that was food. Military and veterans enjoy special benefits and discounts, including their own lounge, thanks to the generosity of the Home Depot Foundation.
Our ticket even included a tour of the Rockefeller home.
While CW was being restored, John and his wife Anna lived here. Everything is left as it would have been when they were in town. Even the radios were playing music from the 40’s. 🙂
This building is the Capitol. It is a second recreation, as the original and its replacement both burned. We toured the building, and later took part in an audience participation production that included several of the rooms. Very impressive, to say the least. We followed that up with a tour of the Raleigh Tavern, where the Virginia delegation secretly gathered to decide whether or not they were going to part ways with England. On that private tour, we met with an enslaved minister reenactor. He stood across the table from where we were sitting and explained his role in the community. He was very animated and actually had us sinking into our chairs as his rich baritone voice rose. Think James Earl Jones speaking directly to you and you kind of get the picture. When he looked at us and asked if he could have an ‘Amen!”, we gladly obliged!
We also attended two talks with CW’s ‘nation builders’.
Martha Washington told a bit about herself and her life while George was off to war. She would go visit him and his men, personally tending to their wounds. She also insisted on being given the smallpox vaccine so she could do so. The end of the talk was opened up to questions, which was very interesting to hear her responses to a 21st century audience while still in character.
We attended a talk with young Thomas Jefferson later that day. CW has both an old and a young TJ. This version is played by Kurt Benjamin Smith, a professional actor who jumped at the chance to take on the role. To label him as merely ‘inspiring’ is a gross understatement. If you ever go, make it a point to see him. We’ve spoken with a few people since, and ‘young Thomas Jefferson’ ended up being mentioned as a high point of their visit. During his presentation, he continually asked his audience questions at what was needed to make our democracy work. When he asked how we would achieve an informed electorate, I softly mouthed my response to myself and he saw me do it. Over 10 or so rows between us, he motioned upwards to me with his hand and said “be heard!” Louder, I gave my response of “free public education”, to which he agreed. He also talked about slavery, which can be a touchy subject…especially for Thomas Jefferson. In fact, we found that CW as a whole did not shy away from discussing the complicated issues of owning slaves. We were often reminded that even though Jefferson aspired to the ideal of “all men are created equal”, the reality was that only white, property owning, Protestant men were making the decisions. Luckily, the U.S. Constitution was designed to be amendable.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Colonial Williamsburg. The people who take on these roles of our ancestors accurately portray when the men of Virginia decided to become independent from British rule. Our forefathers could have been hung for treason, yet they banded together and pushed forward with the American Revolution. Americans have a lot to be thankful for as a result of their efforts.
And I now have a better appreciation of what those guys in the painting were feeling.