Browsing "Virginia"
Dec 15, 2012 -

Colonial Williamsburg, Part Six: The Capitol

The Capitol was my favourite part of my day in Colonial Williamsburg. I was the only person on the tour, so the interpreter and I had a discussion rather than a canned talk since I had more than enough knowledge about that part of history to do so.

It was here that American history finally came into a North American context for me. Until 1776, the U.S. and Canada had a shared history through their shared governance. The capitol feels like any legislative building in Canada because it was like a mini parliament.

It’s fascinating to see how the U.S. broke away from that British governance while Canada has stuck with it. Who our respective peoples are today and why we are the way we are makes so much more sense to me. I really don’t get people who do not find history relevant. We cannot understand our present selves without understanding how our histories shaped us.

The interpreter was refreshing. Rather than spewing a lot of American propaganda that you hear over and over in schools, she told history like it was, that Virginia was the original colony and the crucible of an independent United States, not Massachusetts and all that Plymouth Rock nonsense.

She even brought up the Quebec Act and asked for a Canadian perspective on it (which is pretty much the American perspective). I did one better and gave her the French-Canadian perspective, and that launched yet more discussion about oppression in all its manifestations at the time our continent’s political future was borne and how the echoes resonate today.

I won’t bore you with all that we discussed, but we kept being kicked out of whatever room we were in until we reluctantly had to part ways when she was told she had to take another tour. I wish I had gotten her name. She really made my day.

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Dec 15, 2012 -

Colonial Williamsburg, Part Four: The Peyton Randolph House

From the Wythe home, I headed across the palace green to check out a few more outlying buildings before moving to the main street. I came across the Peyton Randolph home, a prominent Virginian politician at the time.

This tour ended up being my least favourite moment of the day. The focus of the tour was about slavery in 18th century Virginia, a time when all but the poorest whites had a few slaves. We didn’t learn that much about the house or Peyton Randolph, and we were expressly forbidden from asking questions about those topics!

Moreover, our guide was a little too deep in character and almost utterly unintelligible. He spoke very quickly in a very heavy accent laced with period words and euphemisms. Most people spent the tour with a ‘HUH?!’ expression on their face and the children were terrified of him.

Finally, I did not like the atmosphere of the house. The Wythe home felt very bright and cheerful. I could imagine children laughing in that home, people relaxing and playing games, and slaves being well treated. The Peyton Randolphe home felt very severe. I never did find out if Randolphe treated his slaves as badly as we were told many slaves were treated, but the impression that he did definitely coloured the tour.

What I took away from this tour is just how uncertain life was for the slaves. After Randophe died, his wife got to keep her slaves, but after she passed, the slaves would be sold. We were also taught about the punishment for disobedience (going as far to cutting off limbs or tongues!).

After all of this education, we were asked to debate whether, as slaves, we would have chosen to run away, accept our fates as slaves, or be conflicted. I think that was a nearly impossible debate to have with your 21st century point of views colouring our judgment. I said that I would run away “because nothing could be worse than this.” The next person said, “I’m staying because if I do as I’m told, I have food and clothing.” The kids chimed in also, with one making us all laugh when he said, “I don’t like being bossed around, so I’m leaving!”

All in all, this was a worthwhile tour and I do not begrudge the half hour or so I spent on it, but I think it could be refined.

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Dec 15, 2012 -

Colonial Williamsburg, Part Three: The Wythe House

After the governor’s palace, I wandered over to the first house that had a flag. There was a waiting period for the tour and the lady out front told me that I was much better off getting in line to view the Wythe house across the street as it closes at 1:00 and there were only a couple of tours left.

This is because the house is one of the few period buildings remaining and it even still has all the original 18th century woodwork, including the floors. Of greatest importance to most guests is this is the house where Thomas Jefferson studied law, so you can actually walk on the same floor and through the same doors as he did.

George Wythe was the first American law professor and a prominent opponent of slavery. The Wythe house was a wedding gift from his second wife’s father. They had no children, but they did received nieces and nephews regularly, as well as the Jeffersons.

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