by Al Ashley
I first visited Colonial Williamsburg with my daughter, she was three years old; today she is fifty-two. I loved it then and that love continues. I love its streets, its buildings, its beautiful gardens and above all its history. After all it was here that the very concept of a government of, by and for the people, was given form and substance.
The last time I walked The DOG (Duke of Gloucester Street, the main drag of Colonial Williamsburg) I started at the east end where the Capitol is located. Back in colonial days it housed all three branches of government, legislative, executive and judicial. It was fun wandering through the building and the rooms that housed each of the three. Each authentically reproduced and brought alive by historical interpreters and/or your guide explaining or portraying famous days in history.
On May 15, 1776, the house of Burgesses (our duly elected legislature) passed a resolution not only declaring Virginia’s independence but instructing its delegate to the Continental Congress, Richard Henry Lee, to move independency for all 13 colonies. You actually can picture the scene, the tension in the air as the vote is taken with hundreds of citizens peering in the open windows as history is made. Just think, at the time that resolution was unanimously adopted our fledgling government had no army, no navy, no money and no credit with which to face our Mother Country who had the best army and navy in the world. Would you have voted “Aye” on that fateful day knowing that if we lost the war, shots had already been fired, all those voting in favor would have been, “hanged by the neck until dead” for the crime of treason? Even now, 240 years later, one must revere and appreciate the pure bravery of the Burgesses on that day! On July 4, 1776, just 20 days later, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which in its last lines described the commitment of all who voted for independence when they approved Tom Jefferson’s immortal words:
“We pledge our lives, our fortune and our sacred honor to this cause.”
On this particular visit I skipped both the General Court where all felonies were tried and the Governor’s Council Chamber, a finely appointed room where the power resided. Governors were appointed by the King and they usually didn’t know much about Virginia so, the King also appointed 12 of the richest men in Virginia to advise him. At one time, eight of the 12 were cousins. These Council members also served as judges in the General Court. It is quite evident that power is held by a privileged few. Our forefathers recognized that was a formula for future mischief so they adopted a form of government that separated those powers.
I left the Capitol and turned west on The DOG. In the first block we see both the old and the new. The Palmer House, an original building, the first house on the North side and across the street Charleton’s Coffee House, one of the newest buildings. As I proceeded West I came to the very popular Shield’s, King’s Arms and Raleigh Taverns. As one might expect there are three taverns within one block of the Capitol where the action took place. Today, Shield’s and King’s Arms are working restaurants, but the Raleigh is now an exhibition buildings where you can see how the colonials ate, drank and made merry.
There are also four of the most visited trade shops in this block – the Apothecary, the Peruke (Wig) Maker, The Silversmith and The Milliner. It’s amazing what you learn in those shops. In the Apothecary visitors learn what it meant to pull a tooth without any anesthetic and in the Silversmith shop visitors learn why a silversmith was much like a banker. At the Peruke Maker, visitors find out how wigs were made and who wore them and it’s fascinating to see what was sold at the Milliner in the 18th century.
I ended my recent visit by going into the Raleigh Tavern where Mr. Southall is the proprietor. It’s amazing to look the bill of fare and compare colonial accommodations with today’s hotel. It’s a good thing today’s hotels don’t have to scream “watch out below” to the people on the streets outside!
There is much to see and much to enjoy in Colonial Williamsburg. Watch this blog for further adventures in this Colonial Capital.