Williamsburg visit is a trip through time Colonial era re-created with new emphasis on family life and slavery

July 26, 1998|By Larry Lipman | Larry Lipman,COX NEWS SERVICE

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - Up at the Capitol - the old colonial Capitol - Thomas Jefferson was talking about property rights.

He was talking about his owning slaves - even though he penned the immortal phrase "all men are created equal" - and about a bill he wants the Virginia Legislature to adopt that would overturn laws passing all property down to the first son - even though he is a first son.

At least he looked like Thomas Jefferson, and this looked like the old Capitol. Actually, neither are the real item, but they're about as close as one can come in the late 20th century to the man and the place that existed in 1780 when Jefferson was Virginia's governor.

Actor-historian William D. Barker, who has portrayed Jefferson on stage, on screen and in such historic settings as the White House, Mount Vernon and Independence Hall, speaks at length, quoting from Jefferson's extensive writings, about issues of the time.

This day he was portraying Jefferson as Virginia's governor during the Articles of Confederation. Other times, he plays Jefferson in debates with Patrick Henry over religious freedom in the new state of Virginia. Even when he is talking with his audience of camera-wielding tourists in shorts and T-shirts he remains in character, speaking to us as if we just rode in from some strange far-off territory.

Barker as Jefferson is what Colonial Williamsburg is all about.

More than a museum

More than a museum or a few historic buildings, Colonial Williamsburg is a living re-creation of what life was like more than 200 years ago - just before and after the American Revolution - in one of the most important cities in North America.

Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until it moved 50 miles west to Richmond in 1780. For the next century and a half if slumbered as a small college town and county seat. So, unlike other famous colonial and Revolutionary cities such as Philadelphia, Boston and New York, it remained little changed from the days when Jefferson, Henry and George Washington frequented its taverns, shops and homes.

In the 1920s, W.A.R. Goodwin, the pastor of historic Bruton Parish Church - one of the city's original buildings - inspired John D. Rockefeller Jr. to restore Williamsburg to the way it was in those Colonial days. It took decades, and the work is still going on.

Covering 173 acres, there are 88 original structures restored to their 18th century appearance. Another 50 buildings are reconstructions in the same place as the originals. Counting all the sheds, slave quarters, barns and workshops, the historic area houses more than 500 buildings as they would have looked around 1774.

The Capitol is a reconstruction of the historic 1704 Capitol that burned down in 1747, was rebuilt, and burned down again in 1832. Even though it's a reconstruction, it's hard to remind yourself that these aren't the actual seats occupied by Washington, Jefferson or Henry.

The people part

The buildings are an important , but it's the people who bring Colonial Williamsburg to life.

After touring the Capitol with Jefferson, we walked down historic Duke of Gloucester Street - which runs from the Capitol to the Wren building on the campus of the College of William and Mary - and stopped at the Colonial post office and printing shop for a chat with Martha Washington about her early days with the colonel. (George Washington had not received his general's commission in the time period Martha Washington was depicting).

It's not just the famous people who make Williamsburg so interesting. It's also the shopkeepers and craftsmen who continue the traditions of two centuries ago.

There are three types of people who work in Colonial Williamsburg: those such as William Barker who portray historic persons; interpreters who dress in Colonial garb and may be involved in some of the crafts or trades of the period but who relate their activities to the modern age, and guides in modern clothing who explain the history and lifestyle of the past.

We experienced all three types of people.

At John Greenhow's store we found Greenhow himself sitting in the back room talking with a fellow colonist about how the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party might affect the price of goods he shipped from England. We told him we were from Alexandria, Va., and he mentioned a historic tavern there that still exists today. Tell him you're from West Palm Beach and he's likely to look quizzical and change the subject.

The wig-maker and the saddle and harness maker treated us as if we were customers interested in buying their goods.

The Revolution and the activities of such notables as Washington, Jefferson and Henry have long been a Williamsburg staple. Recently two new themes have emerged: Colonial family life and the roles of the African and African-American slaves who have been virtually ignored in historical depictions of the era.

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