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Colonial Williamsburg Where The Past Sheds Light On The Present

Fourth of July: think picnics, hot dogs, fireworks. Main Street parades and flags in the breeze. A tradition that rolls into the American calendar as easily as Black Friday shopping and summer road trips.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Two centuries and some change separate us from an audacious piece of paper and the 8 years of insurrection that followed. Eight years of uncertainty. Eight years of hardship. Eight years of violence and espionage and deep, sometimes fatal divisiveness.

On the quiet, tree-lined streets of Colonial Williamsburg, visitors are invited to place themselves in a time when America’s emergence as a separate, sovereign nation was far from a foregone conclusion. Here is a place to ask questions about America’s beginnings, and just as importantly, her present.

I first visited Colonial Williamsburg as a child: it held two of my great loves, history and animals, in plentiful supply. I wandered the streets enthralled by the historical interpreters clad in period clothing and by the horses, sheep, and cattle that were never far away. On a house tour our guide explained colonial cuisine and the practice of keeping pigeons so that the young birds could be harvested and eaten. I was horrified as only a seven-year-old could be, and saw that history could be frightening as well as fascinating.

Still, history was easy for me then. It was easy to see the American revolutionaries as the good guys, and the red-coated British as the bad guys. Over the years, and particularly during the election of 2016, my ideas about America have grown more nuanced. Where better to wrestle with that then the place close to where some of the most powerful ideas about America began?


Walk Colonial Williamsburg and you’ll walk on streets paved with crushed white oyster shells as you stroll beside neat wooden houses and shops, many of them with tidy gardens. It is quiet. It is orderly. It lends itself, if such is your inclination, to reflection. Williamsburg’s streets offer not the indulgence of a beachfront resort, or the pampering of a luxury hotel, but serenity of a different kind.

There is movement, too. There are blacksmiths, printers, gardeners, gunsmiths, carpenters, and coachmen. Shopkeepers sell wares that would have made life in the 18th century more comfortable as well as souvenirs for today’s tourists. A step inside any of the workshops for the skilled trades reveals a technical knowledge and dexterity difficult to conceive of now that so few of us are called to make anything for ourselves, or for anyone else. I look at the roof of a building with new appreciation and think of how in a pre-industrial world, every wooden shingle had to be made by hand. Every turn of the stairway, every pane of glass in the window, every brick in the fireplace.  I begin to calculate the labor hours that must have gone into constructing even a modest home and quickly admit defeat.

Food preparation as well was no small feat. Over a period dinner at the Shields Tavern I’m served hot rolls and curried chicken and a bowl of wine punch that bears more than a passing resemblance to sangria. The other guests and I are entertained by a woman who sings popular tunes of the era, including a funny women’s drinking song, and it takes me a moment to realize why the atmosphere of the room has a stillness to it despite the activity. There are no electric lights. We have daylight, and candles, and I find that they are more than enough.

Beyond the main thoroughfares lie secluded paths, such as those behind the governor’s mansion. A dirt trail circles a pond where a solitary heron fishes, and turtles bask in the sun. The trees are a mix of native species: oak, holly, beech, hemlock, interspersed with a few glossy-leaved magnolias. Here the air smells like a Southern pine forest, of soil and needles and resin. The sulphur of the blacksmith’s forge and the brown scent of manure are only a few streets away, but they have disappeared.

Yet despite the manure on the streets and the stocks in plain view and other less-than-pleasant reminders of the realities of the past, Williamsburg is still a selective slice of history. The narrative is still mainly white, mainly male. And though this was an age when slaves were shipped in chains across the Atlantic, when married women’s property and income belonged to their husbands, when people of different political beliefs could be tarred and feathered, sometimes fatally, such things are rarely visible in Williamsburg. They are indirectly acknowledged; as one interpreter put it, when describing the fact that over half of the colonial city’s population was made up of slaves, “Our history isn’t all positive.”
Sometimes how we choose to remember the past is just as telling as the facts themselves. What gets commemorated? What is left out of the story, and why? Whose stories are being told, and whose are not?

I came to Williamsburg searching for answers to questions about what America was, and what it wasn’t. I found none. But I was reminded that the flawed and visionary people who founded this nation had no answers either, only ideas. From where we stand more than two centuries later, we are left with the same.

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