Colonial Williamsburg: A Culture War Report

“What do you think of when you hear the word colonial?”

That was the question posed to me and others by a Black interpreter, a title that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has chosen to use over the more popular “historical reenactor.” It’s also one I had asked myself in the months leading up to the one-week vacation my spouse and I would be taking in Williamsburg, Virginia. To be perfectly honest, my answer before visiting didn’t amount to very much at all. Leftist internet circles and the odd Key & Peele sketch had helped me arrive at the conclusion that the Founding Fathers were a problematic bunch, but having eschewed American History in high school my familiarity with them was limited to binge-listening to Hamilton.

In spite of, or maybe due to, the level of my ignorance, I was excited to take a trip back to the 18th century in what I would later learn was the first permanent English colony in the Americas. While the City of Williamsburg owns the public streets that the restored Colonial-era buildings can be found on, buying tickets allowed the two of us to enter several of them and join walking tours. (Lifehack: teachers receive a 25% discount, so either marry one or finish a years-long education degree to save a little money!)

The interior of the Governor's Palace, with portraits of Queen Charlotte and King George III bordering the doorway.

The interior of the Governor’s Palace, with portraits of Queen Charlotte and King George III bordering the doorway.

With the preamble out of the way, let me be clear: I loved every moment. When pondering how exactly I wanted to write this post my primary concern was that it would result in a several-hundred-word #ad because I am not someone who creates sponsored content for free. I also didn’t want this to be a beat-for-beat travelogue, as that didn’t strike me as being worth writing or reading. Sure, I could recount the way the master tailor waxed poetic when answering a simple question about a bolt of leopard print fabric, not only schooling us on its methods of creation going all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia but even revealing the storied etymology behind the English word “giraffe,” but what would be the point? In many ways the experience was like attending multiple college lectures, but I didn’t regurgitate lessons onto this blog during my school days and I’m not about to start now.

Instead what I want to focus on is Colonial Williamsburg’s absolute commitment to their credo, that the future may learn from the past. Although I read that mission statement on a banner while we waited in line for tickets, I never expected the exact form that ethos might take. After all, doesn’t it come across as a pithy phrase that can be further boiled down to “learn history it’s important”?

For the true standout of our time, a one-hour walking tour called Freedom’s Paradox, it appeared in constant reminders of humanity. Focusing on slavery’s role in the foundation and everyday life of the colony, from the very top the interpreter implored us to keep our minds open, and to consider that all of the men and women we would be hearing about were as fallible as any of us. Even when recounting the wealthy white landowners who chose to free their enslaved people she noted that we might not think they did nearly enough, but to remember that we were judging them by our own contemporary standards. 

Outside of the focus on the 1%, the interpreter also broadened our knowledge beyond the dichotomy of plantation slavery and house slavery, as depicted in such films as Django Unchained. It was news to me that many poorer families had a single enslaved person who worked alongside them on their plots of land and even slept under the same roof. (Less surprising, maybe, when you consider that at the time Williamsburg’s population was roughly 50% Black.) We were challenged to consider the emotions the different types of slavery might elicit, both between varied members and between them and those who deemed them property.

In closing she insisted that we take care not to condemn the Founding Fathers to the depths of hell, but on that same note not to prop them up on a pedestal. They were people, she reminded us. The most responsible way to exist in what the 18th century considered the future is to look back on its members not as a monolith or mere products of their time, but as individual decision-makers of varying degrees.

The Capitol building, the two halves of which held the Council of State (Lower House) and House of Burgesses (Upper House).

The Capitol building, the two halves of which held the Council of State (Lower House) and House of Burgesses (Upper House).

Perhaps most shocking in considering the past, especially when it believed a “jury of one’s peers” to be solely white Protestant landowners, is that in some ways things were better. There is of course a not insignificant portion of the population who longs for what they deem the “good old days” but this might be a particularly hard pill to swallow for those among us who are BIPOC or queer or women. How is it possible that anything might have been better than it is today? Isn’t our society, broadly speaking, the most tolerant it has ever been?

The walking tour of the Capitol, as seen above, provided a thorough rundown of the colony’s government, taking care to shine a spotlight on the two houses’ ability to find compromise, all the more impressive considering how things are going today. There was also the surprising revelation that court cases (though obviously faulty due to the aforementioned jury thing) were presided over by as many as five judges, the reason for that being that a single judge’s biases might prevent them from giving an impartial ruling. It, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, really makes you think. When considering the countless number of cases where a single robed person has carelessly meted out prison (or even death) sentences it feels like we’ve taken steps backward.

Finally, the motto presented itself in the idea that while the modern reality of the United States as a nation is a divisive one, the basis was sound. I’ve read countless screeds rightly skewer the US (and Canada) for the unforgiving colonial mindset it was founded on, but the interpreter who guided us through the historical reconstruction reminded us that that it was also founded on the very concept of freedom. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he quoted, “that all men are created equal (…) endowed (…) with certain unalienable Rights.” He framed that line from the Declaration of Independence as being an active goal for every citizen, and one the country both grows nearer to and farther away from with each passing year. The interpreter pointedly asked how free we can be when some of us don’t even have freedom over our very bodies-

When I think of the word “colonial” now what comes to mind is not solely the stark reality of chattel slavery, but the circumstances under which it existed and the myriad ways it continues to impact the present. I have a much more thorough understanding of an admirable dream crafted by imperfect men and clumsily executed over and over again for almost 250 years. Moreover, I’m struck by the sobering knowledge that the same way so many of us denigrate those who came before us might be the same way people three centuries from now sneer in their classrooms. Are we all of us doomed to be products of our time?

Anyway go to Colonial Williamsburg you won’t regret it.

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