It’s 1797, and a high-placed woman is eager to leave “prison.” She feels restricted, bound by rules imposed on her by men loyal to her husband.
It’s 1824, and a French war hero is visiting America amid an outpouring of bountiful praise and hoopla in celebration of his key role in the War of Independence.
It’s 1782, and a well-known lawyer and law professor is pondering Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity and Rene Descartes’ thoughts about motion. The intellectual period of time was the Age of Enlightenment; reason and science countered religious orthodoxy and monarchical fealty.
A stroll through 18th and 19th century America elicits basic truths that still apply to 21st century life, a journey that never fails to captivate my sense of history about a country struggling to find its place as an experiment in democracy.
My classroom was Colonial Williamsburg, a yearly immersion for my wife and me. Our experience refreshes our faith in the wisdom of our gifted nation-builders.
We wonder if American history is still relevant in our fast-moving world driven by social media and non-stop news. Do we stop to consider the context of modern events and global machinations? While change has been cataclysmic since Williamsburg was a hub 244 years ago of revolutionary fervor, lessons learned are bountiful.
Colonial Williamsburg, like other historical museums, is experiencing financial troubles generated by lower visitorship. It’s a shame. I suspect that young families might prefer the excitement of nearby Busch Gardens.
The latter offers fun. Colonial Williamsburg offers lessons in citizenship. The difference is stark.
Our country’s very first First Lady, Martha Washington, is portrayed by Katherine Pittman, an actor-interpreter in Colonial Williamsburg’s nation-builder unit. In an inaugural one-woman performance, Mrs. Washington rails about the stifling restrictions of the President’s residence in Philadelphia and the unfavorable press while collecting her thoughts for a letter she is writing to the incoming First Lady, Abigail Adams, Martha characterizes her life akin to living in a prison.
Mrs. Adams had written to her soon-to-be predecessor and warm friend seeking to know the “rules” of a position that was eight-years-old. In the letter, which resides in the National Archives, Mrs. Washington cited this rule among others: “That the practice with me, has been always to receive the first visits, and then to return them.—These have been repeated (when received) after a considerable length from the seat of government.—“
As is customary for Colonial Williamsburg’s splendid actor-interpreters, they perform “in character” for 20-30 minutes, accept questions relevant to the date and presentation (i.e. 1797) and then go “out of character” to answer questions When asked about criticism of the press, Ms. Pittman said that Mrs. Washington disliked Thomas Jefferson, who secretly (supposedly) published a newspaper critical of President Washington. This paper was delivered to the President’s residence; Washington continued to receive it for fear of causing a fuss by refusing it.
I suspect that many first ladies have experienced the same sort of isolation felt by Martha Washington. They are expected to support their husbands and, in many cases, confine their opinions to themselves or the President—or express only those approved by the President’s staff.
On a triumphal tour of the country’s 24 states in 1824-25 nearly 50 years after the birth of an independent nation, Marquis de Lafayette conducted a tour of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. He pointed to portraits of men whom he knew, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.
A name-dropper of the first order, Lafayette, as portrayed by Mark Schneider, was charming, dapper and effusive about a country that he helped emerge from the oppressive rule of British King George III. His service to the Colonies symbolized the value of an ally during war.
The incredible attention and adulation imposed on Lafayette also enabled the United States to show off its growth and prosperity during the nearly first 50 years of its existence. It would not be the first or last time that the United States and an ally organized public actions that resonated positively and politically in each of the countries. The public display often masks serious foreign affairs policies.
In 1782, George Wythe (portrayed by Robert Weathers) was one of the most prominent and respected legal scholars in Virginia. He had taught and mentored Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary. He rightly considered himself a first-rate intellectual who dabbled in philosophical thought. His subjects often led to dense explanations by Mr. Wythe.
Also a nation-builder, Wythe helped lay a legal foundation for a new country. Weathers, a long-time actor-interpreter, assumed the Wythe role the past September, considering himself fortunate to be chosen for someone he considers one of the most influential men in Colonial Williamsburg. Driven by intellectual as well as ethical arguments, Wythe eventually disavowed slavery and manumitted most of his slaves.
Colonial Williamsburg has a gravitational pull on my wife and me. We sop up the history fed to visitors in a venue that promotes the pursuit of knowledge. This history springs alive in the performances of the talented actor-interpreters.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.