Trojan Tub Entertainment

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Saturday Morning I Went to See Thomas Jefferson

As portrayed by an historical interpreter, that is, in Colonial Williamsburg. Colonial Williamsburg, for those who don’t know it, is the premier “living history” district in the United States. It is a full-scale reconstruction of what was, for most of the 18th century, the capitol city of colonial Virginia. Some of the buildings, such as the Governor’s Palace (that’s the British governor) and the Virginia House of Burgesses (the colonial legislature) are reconstructed entirely from plans and drawings, though other buildings, such as the Magazine (where the ammunition was kept—and then snatched by Governor Dunmore when the colonists became too uppity), are restored versions of the original buildings.

Some have complained that Colonial Williamsburg is too clean-swept a version of 18th-century colonial American life (see Colonial Williamsburg’s Wikipedia page for an overview of these gripes). It is, no doubt, more picturesque than its original, and is most certainly designed with the tourist (and his credit card) in mind. But overall I found its commitment to historical accuracy extraordinary. I was most impressed by the way in which Colonial Williamsburg encourages reflection on the deepest political questions of American public life.

The interpreter who gave us the tour of the House of Burgesses, for example—where the scene is set in June of 1776—did a remarkable job at expressing what was at stake in Patrick Henry’s argument for an entitlement to (not mere tolerance of) free religious exercise—an argument still resonating in our own time in the debate over the proposed mosque at Ground Zero. Our interpreter was also excellent at revealing the anxieties felt by colonists at the prospect of going to war with Great Britain, the mother country.

The Thomas Jefferson interpreter, for his part, after a half-hour speech delineating the Jeffersonian understanding of political liberty, fielded questions (in character) from the audience. To the question on many people’s minds—why did you, Jefferson, keep your slaves while in principle you opposed the institution of slavery?—the interpreter offered a strikingly plausible argument, focusing on the gradual restriction of slavery in the colonies followed by the gradual elimination of the entire institution. It was the wrong argument, but it was as compelling an answer to the charge of hypocrisy in Jefferson as one will find, and also one which has some resonance in contemporary debates about how best to eliminate the practice of abortion.

So if Colonial Williamsburg has elements of a theme park—what of it? It is a place of family entertainment, but an entertainment that invites the spectator to think through the foundations of the American experiment—something we often forget to do when we’re absorbed by distractions such as Bristol Palin’s performance on Dancing With the Stars.

Colonial Williamsburg does not caricature our Founding Fathers, or portray them in hagiographic terms. Through the method of historical interpretation, it seeks to portray the emerging American experience in all its philosophical complexity. And for that alone Colonial Williamsburg is a triumph, and well worth the money I spent on imitation 18th-century wine goblets.      


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