Roots of rebellion
May 21, 2008
|A visit to Colonial Williamsburg - Wednesday, May 21
We woke to a bright, sunny day - a good day for visiting Colonial Williamsburg.
If you’ve never been to Williamsburg it’s a place every American should visit sometime before we cash in our chips. Not only is it a loving restoration of one of the pivotal places in American history, but it’s staffed by knowledgeable and fascinating people, some of whom make this their life’s work. There are artists and craftsmen proficient in every 18th century skill, and they are accessible and friendly. You can talk to them while you watch them work, and it’s a rare opportunity to learn first hand about the richness of our past.
The first thing offered before you leave the Visitor Center is a movie about the events leading up to the American Revolution. We thought it would be a good place to start but Madolyn thought she heard the girl say it lasted two hours. We debated whether or not to stay, but figured we could always leave early if we wanted to. So we stayed and we were very glad we did. Ten minutes into the movie we were so engrossed in the people and the issues we would have gladly stayed for two hours. Fortunately (or unfortunately) it was only half an hour, and all too soon we were on the shuttle that takes you to the historic village.
We got off at the first stop, which is at the Capitol, a magnificent red brick building that served as the seat of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and is still the gateway to the east end of town. This is where eight signers of the Declaration of Independence served in the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the Virginia Legislature which was then modeled after the British Parliament. The upper house was made up of royal appointees, and both houses were presided over by the Royal Governor. It was here that the issues of the day came to the meltdown that resulted in war.
All the staff is dressed in period clothing and they are exceptionally knowledgeable about colonial times. The various people who guided our tour of the Capitol were great, using humor as well as history to make the time come alive. This technique seems to have been perfected here and we were to encounter it many times during the next two days.
From the Capitol it was a short walk to the gunsmith’s cottage, one of over 80 original 18th century structures that are still standing and protected. The gunsmith was in the process of rifling the bore of a long gun, and another man was working on another gun in the back room. It was quite realistic, and they make the firearms in the painstaking traditional way.
From there we entered Duke of Gloucester Street, the main street of town. There were a lot of other visitors but the street is four blocks long and it didn’t seem crowded. Unless you encountered one of the many visiting school groups that is - but even then it was fun to watch the kids and hear their questions.
We passed a structure that looks like a ruins being excavated, and that is exactly what it is. They believe it to be an old Coffee House which unlike the Inns did not serve alcohol or rent rooms. There is a roof over the brick remains but it is open on the sides, and behind it is a natural amphitheater built into a hill where some of the reenactment scenes are done.
Interspersed with the shops along the street are colonial vintage homes, many restored originals and the others recreations. They are the private residences of some of the people who work here, just as they would have been in the day. Many of the homes and businesses had gardens in the back, and some of them were open to the public. They were a combination of flowers and the most healthy looking vegetables you’ve ever seen. Some of the homes have small streams flowing right through the yards between them. Life may not have been easy, but still it was attractive.
All day long there are horses and carriages of various types, clip clopping up and down the streets. The streets are closed to modern transportation during the day. We visited the bakery, and the apothecary, and then the millenary shop where we joined a class full of teen aged kids with their teacher. It was interesting to hear the kids questions, especially the boys. The young man running the shop was a tailor and only makes men’s clothes, but he was very knowledgeable about women’s clothes and the accessories of the time too.
He explained that milliners' were not clothes makers but specialized in clothing accessories, and he explained the difference between the words ’gown’ and ’dress’ as they were used in the day. He said a full set of men's clothes, i.e. breeches, waistcoat and a frock (coat), would have cost about a pound. A tailor made about 50 pounds a year, so the suit would have been a week’s wages.
A visit to the courthouse proved interesting. A very knowledgeable and witty man was giving a talk on how the court system functioned in colonial times, and he pointed out the ‘bar’ and the ‘bench’ which in those days were really what the name implies. The judges sat on a hard wooden ‘bench’ (they didn’t want them falling asleep) and you couldn’t cross the ‘bar’ unless you were a judge or a lawyer.
In a jury trial of your ‘peers’ they would be your neighbors and people who knew you. The judges were the gentry and were not knowledgeable about the law. The court clerk was the law expert and would advise them if a question arose. There were no hung juries. You were presumed innocent and for the jury to find you guilty it had to be unanimous. Juries were put in a room ‘without food, drink, fire or candle’ until they reached a verdict. If they could not unanimously agree you were guilty then the prosecution had failed to prove it’s case and they had to find you not guilty. If you were found guilty of a felony the sentence was usually hanging, which was carried out within 30 days. A tough system.
Each afternoon they do reenactments of events that took place here, and each day there is a different revolutionary theme. Today’s theme was Citizens at War. The activities began at the Capitol, where British General Benedict Arnold and his soldiers have occupied Williamsburg. When we reached the Capitol the reenactment was already in progress. Benedict Arnold (now a British General) was speaking to a crowd and trying to persuade them that separating from England was a bad idea. The crowd, still angry at him for his betrayal, was not buying his arguments. From time to time someone would shout, “Traitor!” and he was becoming increasingly frustrated.
He rode back and forth on his horse as he spoke, and it was very real and dramatic. Visitors were mixed right in with the crowd of ‘colonials’ and it made you feel a part of the scene. The man who played Arnold spoke with such heartfelt conviction, and did it so naturally that it was extremely well done. Over and over here the issues are made real, and shown not to be easy ones to resolve.
The next reenactment was two slave women arguing about whether or not to trust the British and go with Arnold when his army left Williamsburg. The tall one was trying to persuade the short one that it was in their best interests and would lead to freedom. The other woman was countering every argument she made with the fact that it was the British who had made them slaves in the first place. How could they be trusted to do what was right when they’d gotten what they wanted?
They were obviously friends, and there was a lot affection between them, but the skeptical one spoke with the cynical wisdom born of experience, and you could see her sadness at knowing her friend’s hopes were doomed by reality. It was a very poignant moment.
Following the reenactments we headed for the Kings Arms Tavern where we had dinner reservations. The dinner was good and ‘colonials’ strolled in and out playing music and telling jokes. After dinner we had tickets for a play titled Papa Said, Mama Said, so we hurried along to the theater.
The play is about stories slave parents told their children to teach them how to protect themselves in coping with the white ‘masters and mistresses’. The cast was five black people, two men and three women. They started off by telling us we were ‘family’ and the woman in the yellow skirt singled me out as her ‘cousin’. The stories were funny and moving and filled with wisdom and the experiences of a hard life. A hard life, but one they had survived without losing their warmth or their dignity or their humanity. It was a wonderful experience, and the perfect ending to a memorable day.