Williamsburg: History, without the warts

Talking with the Marquis de Lafayette

So after spending some time with my family in Cape Charles, VA, I'd planned to swing back home via Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello. As interested as I am in history and as close as I live to both, it was starting to seem ridiculous that I hadn't been to Williamsburg since I was a kid, and had never been to Monticello.

Talking in the apothecary's shop.

I had pretty mixed feelings about Williamsburg. On the one hand, all of the buildings are either fully restored, or painstakingly recreated to look like the city did during revolutionary times. Unlike other historic sites I've been to (save Mystic Seaport), where old buildings are intermingled with the new, in Williamsburg, you can walk around and get an idea of what it was really like during those times. And it's a real site, where real history happened.

Wetherburn's Tavern, one of the historic buildings you can tour.

But something just didn't feel right. I felt it first when I dropped in on "An audience with George Washington," held in an outdoor ampitheater, and the actor they had playing Washington was loudly proclaiming all sorts of things about the revolution. But George Washington wasn't the loud, speechifying type. I felt it more strongly when the crowd of tourists gathered for a reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was read by a trio, each reading parts — a white man standing on the capitol balcony, and a black man and white woman in front of the capitol gate.

I can understand the desire to present a more inclusive front, but let's be realistic, here. Two out of those three people were NOT who the founding fathers were talking about when they said that all men were created equal. When they said men, they really meant land-owning white men. Perhaps if I hadn't read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" shortly before going on my trip, I might have had a different take on Williamsburg. But I did, and the longer I was there, the more I began to feel like they were neglecting real history — particularly slavery — in favor of presenting a Disneyfied front.

Only on one house tour — Randolph House — was slavery a key topic. But plenty of house tours talked about historic preservation. China that was pulled out of a shipwreck, and purchased, to make what we tourists saw on the table as authentic as possible. Painstaking research into the wallpaper and paint on the walls.

I attended one last event, this time an audience with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, a man who hated public speaking so much he submitted his state of the union addresses in written form, was presented in Williamsburg as a clear, confident speaker. There were other, smaller historical nitpicks — Jefferson talked about having just written the Declaration of Independence, when in reality, people didn't know who wrote it for many years. I sat and listened for awhile, and realized — Colonial Williamsburg cares more about getting its wallpaper right than the history that matters.

Capitol building.

In an environment that has so much going for it — a real, authentic looking place where history did actually happen — it's disappointing that Williamsburg doesn't make an effort to actually present realistic, balanced history. It's still a place worth going, but it's also a place where I hope the parents of all those kids running about the place know enough history to explain to their kids what really happened 230-some years ago.


AdelaideBen said...

Just came across your blog... and found your Williamsburg post quite interesting. The problem much of the world suffers now is the attempt to make history relevant to the modern age/demographics/morals etc... and sometimes this is at the expense of reality.

Interesting however... and a good reminder to do research before you visit these sorts of places (unless of course you're happy to have the Disney-version).

Nice blog.

Carrie G said...

Thanks, glad you found my post interesting! I still think places like Williamsburg are worth visiting, but you need to do your own research first, and unfortunately I don't think most people do.