Friday, June 7, 2013 : Williamsburg


When we get up, we are least sure of one thing. Tropical storm Andrea has really caught us up, which the weather forecast on TV quickly confirms during breakfast. Of the storm itself we skipped the wind, but we get the rain, lots of rain !


Too bad. We will visit Williamsburg under the rain.


Williamsburg is only 45 miles from our hotel. It is the faithful reconstitution of the capital of Virginia when it was a British colony. Virginia has had its capital in Jamestown from 1619 till 1699, then in Williamsburg from 1699 till 1780, then in Richmond from 1780 to the present day.


I already came to Williamsburg as a teenager, I come back and see that the reconstitution has made a lot of progress. Many new houses, shops and other buildings have been added to what I had seen back in 1979.


Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg


As usual, we begin with a thorough visit of the visitor center, as cleverly designed as ever. I chat with an hostess, who talks us off visiting both Jamestown and Williamsburg in the same day, although they are pretty close to each other. Her advice makes sense, we will follow it. There are lots of things to see just in Williamsburg.


There is more than one way to visit Williamsburg. You can stroll on your own in the city, or purchase the Citizen Passport, which gives access to the movie theaters in the visitor center, all buildings, houses and shops, and all animations. We choose the Citizen Passport.


Jamestown, the first true permanent colonial town of Virginia, has also been reconstituted.


We begin with a film about the life of Patrick Henry, planter, lawyer, speaker and politician, who became the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia. This film pretty accurately shows the significant difference between the hot-tempered Bostonian Revolutionaries and the much more wait-and-see attitude of the Virginian elected officials. Indirectly, the Continental Congress, the first true common institution of the Thirteen Colonies, was summoned after the Massachusetts Circular Letter.


Patrick Henry lived the file of a gentleman of the local aristocracy, at first rather accommodating with the colonizer, quite rapidly evolving into a die-hard proponent of outright Independence. This brilliant speaker is remembered for his eloquence and his fiery speeches against the decisions of the British Crown.


After the war against the French and the Indians, the British monarchy found itself with empty coffers, and decided, starting in 1765, to unilaterally tax many resources of the Thirteen Colonies, without consulting the elected local Assemblies. This hated taxation is the base of the rebellion, later leading to Independence and the principle of "No Taxation without Representation", still enduring to this day.


After the film, we take the shuttle. The colonial city is not far from the visitor center, but the pouring rain waters down our enthusiasm.


Colonial Williamsburg, the Capitol, Governor's Council Room

Williamsburg Capitol, Governor's Council room


We get off the shuttle at the eastern end of Duke of Gloucester Street, the main avenue in Colonial Williamsburg. Oriented East-West, it will be our main thread during most of this day. At the turn of the 18th century, the city map was already orthogonal, foreshadowing what later prevailed in most of North America.


Our first visit is at the Presbyterian place of worship, which surprises by its modesty. However, it should be remembered that the dominant religious denomination, the colonizer's, is the Anglican Church. Of course, in a system that has not established religious pluralism yet, other faiths are barely tolerated.


We then visit the Capitol, the Parliament of the Colony, composed of an elected lower house, the House of Burgesses, and and upper house, the Governor's Council, similar to a House of Lords, whose members were appointed by the Crown. At this early colonial period, separation of powers and universal suffrage are unheard of. The colonizer merely reproduces its own institutions at the scale of the Colony.


Delegates were subjected to term limits : on any given six-year period, they could hold office for only three years, thus allowing a more efficient rotation of officials, and a better communication between elected officials and their electors. On both sides of the Atlantic, our modern institutions would be wise to take some inspiration from colonial Virginia.


Only landowners had a right to vote, and women did not vote.


After Independence, the House of Burgesses became the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly, the state-level Congress.


Our guide shows us the room where the Governor's Council met, then the room used by the House of Burgesses. Both houses frequently disagreed. In that case, a common meeting was held in a third room between both houses, compromises were crafted out and new votes were held, until an agreement was found.


Williamsburg Capitol

Williamsburg Capitol


This outside picture of the Capitol precisely shows the two wings, one for the elected Assembly, and one for the appointed Council and, in the bridge between the wings, the room where compromises were worked out.


Needless to say, we are not exactly bothered by the crowd.


All day long, we will take advantage of the many gusts of rain to find shelter and visit closed places. Colonial Williamsburg's rich historical heritage is almost an asset when it rains.


Colonial Williamsburg, Charlton's Coffee House, the boss

Charlton's Coffee House, the boss


Very close to the Capitol is Charlton's Coffee House, catering to the officials and their assistants. The boss describes his activity, his association with another shopkeeper who had settled in Williamsburg before him, and helped bankroll his activity.


When a new settler arrived in Virginia, most of the time he had no capital to invest. Previously installed settlers would lend him money, obviously with interest, or against what would nowadays be called a shareholding in the new business, allowing him to start his activity. Later, he would obviously repay his loan, or pay his "shareholders" a "dividend".


The modern venture capital system seems inherited straight from this colonial financing system.


During our visit at Charlton's Coffee House, we enjoy a snack of hot coffee, prepared right under our eyes with 18th century kitchenware, and a few cookies, all on the house.


Colonial Williamsburg, Duke of Gloucester Street under the rain

Williamsburg, Duke of Gloucester Street under the rain


After Charlton's Coffee House, we walk down Duke of Gloucester Street. Gust after gust of rain, we visit the various shops and houses along the avenue. Although there are very few visitors, almost all places are open.


More than just houses have been reconstituted. On the picture, we can see that the left part of the pavement is made of carefully laid red bricks, like British pavements of the same period. The right part, however, obviously looks much more recent.


Colonial Williamsburg, costumed actress in front of the barbershop

Costumed actress in front of the barbershop


As any other city, Williamsburg has a barbershop. This one caters to a wealthy clientele, both men and women. They also make wigs, a highly popular fashion accessory in the late 18th century.


The lady in period costume under the porch is the barber's assistant.


Colonial Williamsburg, actors showed up, but the parade is cancelled due to the rain

Actors showed up, but the parade is cancelled due to the rain


A day at Williamsburg is supposed to include several parades, and I am kindly offered to take part in one. Unfortunately, the persistent pouring rain puts an end to the willingness of us all.


The two actors on the picture, the piper and the farmer, were supposed to lead the parade. They hope for a break in the rain that will never come.


Colonial Williamsburg, silversmith at work

Silversmith at work


We then visit the silversmith's shop who, as indicated by his name, works on silver. The lady on the picture shows how to shape an object, in this case a small cup.


In an adjacent room, there is a small forge to melt the metal.


The whole production of the workshop, absolutely authentic since it is made right before our eyes, is displayed in showcases and offered for sale. It includes silverware, dishes and jewelry. All pieces are of high quality.


At all the shops we visit, we notice that only late-18th century techniques and tools are used.


Colonial Williamsburg, houses under the rain

Colonial houses under the rain


Some houses, such as the ones on the picture, although carefully reconstituted, are not open for visits.


Most houses are made of wood, with only the fireplace made of bricks. Very few houses are entirely made of bricks.


Colonial Williamsburg, the market and the magazine

The market and the magazine


We are now on Market Square, at the crossing of the two main avenues of Williamsburg, already at straight angle. The weather, as ugly as ever, does not contribute to the liveliness of the market, absolutely deserted. No merchant has showed up today.


Colonial Williamsburg, inside the magazine

Inside the magazine


The magazine, however, is very well stocked. It is not just an arsenal but also a warehouse, which contains everything necessary to equip a local militia. It has weapons, ammunition, powder, tents, uniforms, drums ... everything to support a small army.


It should be noted that, in colonial times, there was no such thing as a common institution for the Thirteen Colonies, not even a self-defense force. The only army belongs to the British colonizer, so the only way to repel an outside attack is to have a local militia.


The first true common institution of the Thirteen Colonies, the Continental Congress, which will later become the Congress of the Confederation, and then the United States Congress, was born only in 1774, predictably against the will of the British occupier. The Continental Army, forerunner of the first true federal army, the US Army, dates from 1775.


Colonial Williamsburg, Justice of Peace courthouse

Justice of Peace courthouse


Colonial Williamsburg had two levels of justice. Serious crimes, such as treason or piracy, were handled at the Capitol by the Governor's Council, whereas the Justice of Peace was in charge of all misdemeanors of daily life.


We are now in front of the Justice of Peace courthouse.


Due to some architectural oddity, the front porch of the courthouse has no columns. Doors open directly into the courtroom, without any lobby or corridors.


Colonial Williamsburg, the judge inside the Justice of Peace courtroom

The judge inside the Justice of Peace courtroom


As we enter, we are welcomed by a guide who proves an expert in his field. He first shows us the judge's office and the deliberation room. Back in the main courtroom, we play a short scene supposed to figure a hearing. The guide plays the part of the judge, and I am the defendant.

  • Did you go to church on Sunday ?
  • Er ... no, your Honor.
  • Well, 2 shilling's fine. Next case, please !


As we can see, hearings were very short, and punishments quite predictable. In the case of a real dispute, I have a hard time to imagine each party asserting their point of view in a true contradictory debate, in such a short format.


The justice of those times looks significantly faster and rougher than ours.


Colonial Williamsburg, the shoemaker at work

The shoemaker at work


We then visit the shoemaker's workshop. As shown on the picture, everything is done locally and, as earlier with the silversmith, all the production is offered for sale. We can see boots, satchels, gloves and hats.


No modern tools are used, not even to cut the pieces of leather. All the work is executed with tools and techniques that were already in use in the colonial times. I respectfully admire the preservation of such craftsmen's skills.


Colonial Williamsburg, the Play Booth open air theater

The Play Booth open air theater


Continuing our stroll in Colonial Williamsburg, we pass in front of the Play Booth open air theater, essentially a piece of lawn with a stage, a cloth canopy and a few wooden benches. It is of course not worth waiting for any show today. Everything has been cancelled because of the rain. Too bad.


This place is a reconstitution of the very first open air theater in Williamsburg. Later on, a permanent building was erected, to shelter actors and spectators alike from bad weather.


Colonial Williamsburg, Governor's Palace, the dining room

Governor's Palace, the dining room


At the end of this avenue is the Governor's Palace, which we visit with a friendly guide. This palace is, in a way, the seat of the Executive Power of the Colony, represented by the Governor, directly appointed by the King of England. It is also the Governor's residence.


With some variations, Governors have exercized their power with a more or less firm hand, most often pretty much in agreement with the local population, even though the latter was not formally consulted.


Some Governors even never came to Virginia but governed by delegation, appointing lieutenant Governors in charge of representing royal authority. At times, local power was de facto exercized by the House of Burgesses.


It is only after the 1765 Stamp Act, which aimed at refilling the Crown's coffers, that major disputes began to appear between the local population, firmly kept away from power, and the Governor, appointed by the King. Subsequent Governors exercized their power in a much more authoritarian way, ignoring or putting down with brute force even the most minor dissent.


As we know, this ended in the Revolutionary War.


Colonial Williamsburg, Governor's Palace, the ballroom

Governor's Palace, the ballroom


After visiting the Governor's office on the first floor, we go upstairs, where all formal rooms are located. We are here in the main ballroom, where the Governor would entertain his most important visitors. A reception would often end with a large ball, where all the prominent people of the Colony would meet. Being invited to those receptions was a highly coveted way to show your social status.


The portraits at the back of the ballroom are those of King of England George III and his wife Queen Charlotte of Mecklemburg-Strelitz.


Colonial Williamsburg, rain on the terrace of the visitor center

Rain on the terrace of the visitor center


After visiting the Governor's Palace, we take the shuttle back to the visitor center. Storm Andrea is at full intensity, and I'm wondering how streets can evacuate so much water without being entirely flooded. The walk from the palace to the shuttle stop is about 500 feet and, despite our raincoats, we make it there absolutely soaked ! Marie's morale has taken a blow, it's getting late for more visits, we decide to spend the rest of the day at the visitor center.


We try our best to dry ourselves. Marie curses all together air conditioning blowing too cold, the wind and the weather. Resigned, I kill time watching the exhibitions in the visitor center, now almost deserted in this late afternoon. Quite expectedly, the only place still with some animation is the shopping area.


We take a few pictures on the terrace, including this one, showing the many sponsorships that are an absolute necessity to financially support Colonial Williamsburg and rebuild the many houses we have visited. The Rockefeller Foundation enjoys a prominent status amongst the generous donators.


We then take Interstate 64 back to Richmond. Back at the hotel in due time for dinner, our shoes are still soaked wet and we have absolutely no desire to go out, so I order food on the phone. Pretexting various errors, the delivery guy takes more than an hour to show up. I have had ample time to upload pictures and update the blog.


The lasagna curse is still with us. Here as well, it proves impossible to get any.


The day has nevertheless been very interesting for the historical reconstitution. Too bad the weather kind of spoiled it. It is yet another place where we definitely have to come back, hopefully on a sunny day !

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