Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum, a reconstructed freezeframe of life in the 18th century. Employees wander about the town clothed in appropriate attire or situate themselves as silversmiths or bookbinders, teaching skills long dispelled from modern memory. Many of the houses are open for tours that explain their significance or that of their former residences.
But while visitors will leave with knowledge of British history and what life was like during the 18th century, they won’t hear much about the accomplishments of those who led the American Revolution. Lost is a clear articulation of Williamsburg’s story, of what happened there, and how it fits into the great American story.
Colonial Williamsburg delivers much in the form of tours and artistic performances, with a wide range of content. The sheer volume of programming is impressive, and many of the offerings alter with the season. This analysis focuses on what the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation recommends for the first-time visitor: touring the Governor’s Palace, the Capitol, exploring at least four trades, meeting at least two nation-builders, experiencing diverse voices, taking a carriage ride, seeing two performances, exploring the archeological sites and art museums, and going to an evening program. Presumably these are the experiences the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation thinks most essential and most actively promotes.
Colonial Williamsburg is both a historic site and a tourist destination, meant to entertain and educate. Some of the evening programs, like the haunted ghost tours or concerts in the palace, are artistic presentations. The archeological sites remain active, not yet locations of completed exhibits open for analysis. Its art museums house a vast collection of musical instruments, pottery, silverware, weapons, portraits, furniture, and other items.
The Governor’s Palace stands as it would have looked when Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, and his family, resided in it. Guides discuss the popularity of Lady Dunmore and the weapons, portraits, wallpaper, and other objects in the house. Much of the tour focuses on Lord Dunmore’s deeds. Following his success during Dunmore’s 1774 War, a conflict between Virginia and the Shawnee and Mingo American Indians, Dunmore soon lost popularity with the colonists. He stole gunpowderfrom the Williamsburg magazine and later fled the city amidst protests. In 1775, he issued Dunmore’s Proclamation, which offered freedom to enslaved people in exchange for fighting in the British army.
Tours of the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace are held consistently throughout the day and last approximately 20 to 30 minutes. As with any tour, the information presented varies from guide to guide. Overall, these tours are evenhanded, well-executed, and mainly focused on British history.
The Capitol is a reconstructed reminder of the structure of government in Virginia under British rule. The courthouse, Governor’s Council, and House of Burgess were all situated in the same building. There was no separation of church and state in Virginia. Only 16% of the town’s residences could participate in government; to qualify, an individual needed to be free, white, Protestant, male, own property, and be over the age of 21. At the end of our tour, the guide quoted the Declaration of Independence and asked a provocative question of visitors: Did the Founders form a “perfect union?” If not, what we can do to further that union today?
One of Colonial Williamsburg’s specialty performances, “Draw the Line,” focused on the signing of Dunmore’s Proclamation. It was held twice a week and featured Dunmore, an inferior officer, and an enslaved man, giving all three an opportunity to voice their perspectives on the Proclamation. During the Q&A portion, cast members noted that Colonial Williamsburg’s programming has evolved and that certain depictions should make audience members uncomfortable. According to another visitor, on a separate occasion one of the character actors asserted, “This country is here because of fear of black people getting their liberty.” There’s no historical basis for such a claim, which echoes the most discredited elements of the New York Times’ problematic “1619 Project.”
Experiencing Diverse Voices
Visitors can “experience diverse voices” by attending a plethora of tours and performances that focus on African Americans, women, slavery, and Native Americans. On a given day, many of the events hosted in Colonial Williamsburg fall into this area.
The Paradox of Freedom tour is an hour-long walking tour held up to six times per day. It begins at the Randolph House, which was home to the Randolph family and 27 enslaved people. Guides discuss the contradiction of revolutionaries, like Peyton Randolph, who presided over the First Continental Congress, advocating for freedom while keeping others enslaved. They detail how tobacco was grown and how the invention of the cotton gin revived the institution of slavery in America. In front of the courthouse, guides discuss important legal cases pertaining to the perpetuation of slavery, including those involving James Somerset, John Punch, and Elizabeth Key.
“Created Equal” is a “theatre exploration of African American perspectives on the Declaration, the revolutions it inspired, and the ongoing struggle for equality and freedom in America.” Actors point out that the phrase “all men are created equal” did not include everyone. They then devolve into more radical avowals, apparently borrowed from the “antiracist” canon: They maintain, for instance, that the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for a crime” … quickly “became an avenue for the re-enslavement of black people, men in particular, through the prison system: slavery by another name.” The actors conclude by referring to the Declaration and stating, “Now is the time for us to fulfill the promise of those words and create an equitable society. By any means necessary.”
In 2019, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation established a Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Committee, and in June and October, their specialty programming includes LGBTQIA content. Ladies of Llangollen, for example, is a play about two women who eloped. An article on their website, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” elucidates why this content was created:
If a person is not dead until their name is spoken for the last time, then this is a revival. Acting as a resurrection for one forgotten. One that was deliberately silenced and buried. One that was desecrated and censored in an act of purposeful soul murder … LGBTQIA stories have long been ignored and untold, making the work of Colonial Williamsburg’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Committee so important.
The authors further contend that gender is a social construct, distinguishable from sex.
The “Nation Builders” performances are monologues by actors portraying individuals like George and Martha Washington, James Madison, Gowan Pamphlet, and Patrick Henry. In touring any building at a historic site, time is frequently devoted to relaying information quickly forgotten by visitors, like the authenticity of the wallpaper and the positioning of the furniture. Having each character actor discuss the accomplishments of the individual he or she is portraying is a way of getting a straight shot of substantive history. These well-attended performances are offered once or twice a day, last approximately 30 minutes, and who appears that day is a matter of chance.
James Madison and Gowan Pamphlet were both stellar depictions. Madison’s portrayer gave an accurate overview of Madison’s accomplishments with arresting and unfaltering confidence. Likewise, the actor who played Gowan Pamphlet, the first ordained black preacher in the country who helped found Colonial Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church, employed charm and humor in his soliloquy explaining why Pamphlet was a significant historical figure. He discussed the significance of the Great Awakening, a religious revival during which preachers traveled about the colonies to evangelize, as well as the importance of freedom of conscience. This is a notable aspect of Williamsburg’s history, as the preeminent Reverend George Whitfield began his tour at Williamsburg, and Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, was its governor and attended neighboring William & Mary.
Young George Washington (there is another interpreter who portrays the general in his later years) spoke for approximately 20 minutes, mostly about the logistics of agricultural life. He discussed the problem of disease during the winter and farming at Mount Vernon: growing tobacco vs. wheat, crop rotations, and the economy surrounding tobacco. When asked about Washington’s main accomplishments during the French & Indian War, the interpreter discussed Braddock’s defeat and the number of troops Washington lost. Still, as an aide to Braddock, Washington “helped save the British and provincial troops from total destruction.”
While it is true that Washington was a proud farmer and not given to talk about himself, this choice of focusing on farming seems idiosyncratic. For many visitors, such depictions will be their only opportunity to learn about the exceptional character and contributions of America’s founding general.
Where Are We Headed?
Some of the Colonial Williamsburg guides and interpreters have an obvious activist bent, desiring to engage visitors on political and emotional questions, which raises concerns about the trajectory of Colonial Williamsburg. This impulse goes to the highest levels. When introducing a panel on Juneteenth, for example, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation vice president, stated that we need to commit ourselves “to the unfinished work of eradicating systematic racism.” The panelists discussed police brutality, making Juneteenth a day of activism, promoting Critical Race Theory (CRT), and incorporating CRT into Juneteenth commemorations.
For the most part, the visitor experience is devoted to learning history through the lens of a group identity (women, African Americans, etc.), various trades (jewelry making, forging, etc.), folk art and antique museums, and British history. The absent element at Colonial Williamsburg is an emphasis on the accomplishments of the American Revolution and a cohesive explanation of the significance of Williamsburg.
Patriotic firebrand Patrick Henry, famously credited for exclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” was Virginia’s first elected governor and he delivered his Caesar-Brutus speech against the Stamp Act in the Williamsburg Capitol. In that same building, discussions took place about the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Thomas Jefferson, who became Williamsburg’s second governor, introduced a bill for religious freedom there. Several of the Virginia Conventions, during which Americans debated separating from Britain, occurred in Williamsburg, with Peyton Randolph often serving as president. In 1781, George Washington assembled the Continental Army in Williamsburg in advanced of the battle of Yorktown, the final effort that secured America’s independence.
These events and achievements are mentioned mostly in passing, and often without proper explanation of their significance. Unless they appear as the Nation Builder on a given day, Henry and Jefferson are absent and barely discussed. Tours that could explore these events in detail focus on other subjects. The emphasis during the tour of the Randolph House, where Washington headquartered his troops and Peyton Randolph resided, is on slavery (separate from the Paradox of Freedom tour summarized earlier). While the tour of Raleigh Tavern mentions the Burgesses convening the First Virginia Convention and the signing of nonimportation documents, the focus is primarily on the tavern itself and local tavern laws.
Slavery certainly must be taught, but when tours are consistently about something besides the Founders, it is the American Revolution that will be lost.
In 2020, the Commonwealth of Virginia established The American Revolution 250 Commission, “to commemorate the 250thanniversary of the American Revolution, the Revolutionary War, and the independence of the United States.” The president & CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is one of its members. (Curiously, Mount Vernon, which stringently upholds historical standards, details Washington’s accomplishments, is even-handed and balanced, and receives one million visitors per year, is not represented.)
Approaching that celebration in a spirit of gratitude will foster individual citizen dignity and offer justice for what is due. We may acknowledge the humanity, shortcomings, and contradictions of the Revolutionaries who formed America while still emphasizing their remarkable contributions to the cause of human freedom. The decision to focus on that fosters not a glorified ego but a justifiable sense of collective pride, developing citizens that are united and unburdened by the smallness and discouragement of resentment.
As Americans, we have much to turn to in gratitude. Ours is the character of George Washington. We claim James Madison, who sat at his desk at Montpelier and imagined the Constitution, as our most influential political philosopher. And, like Abraham Lincoln, we give “all honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Preserving our historic sites is about perpetuating the principles upon which America was founded, so that we may preserve ourselves as a self-governing people.