Public History & Memory

Colonial Williamsburg's Unified Revolution

By Lacey Hunter / May 25, 2017

Colonial Williamsburg's Unified Revolution
Lacey Hunter

At the historic site of Colonial Williamsburg, actors welcome visitors to the capital of Virginia as it would have existed in the late eighteenth century, recreating the bustling atmosphere of colonists at work. From coopers and wheelwrights to lawyers and justices, the site buzzes with the trades and daily activities of urban colonists, bringing history to life. Militiamen guard the Magazine and fire muskets, men and women act out typical scenes of courtship, and carriage drivers steer teams of horses through the crowded streets. Women spin and weave at looms and run small businesses, showing the multifaceted nature of women’s work in the late eighteenth century. A blacksmith sweats from the heat of the forge as he makes iron tools by hand. In the courthouse, male actors reveal the typical roles and duties of particpants in the county legal system, as bystanders gather to witness any unruliness in the court and collect the latest town gossip. These performances not only entertain visitors but also provide an informative portrait of daily life in the colonial tidewater.

Left: Actors recreate a bustling eighteenth-century British town at Colonial Williamsburg. The site fails to illustrate the diversity and complexity characterized by this colonial settlement, however, ignoring the existence of loyalists and emphasizing ideological uniformity, thus portraying the Revolutionary War as unanimously supported. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Colonial Williamsburg provides an interactive experience of eighteenth-century British North America, yet it fails to emphasize the diversity and complexity that characterized this colonial settlement and the surrounding area. This colonial site accurately reflects the lifestyles of artisans and wealthy patriots who flocked to Virginia’s capital seeking wealth, but it ignores the existence of loyalists who played a crucial part in the history of the colonial tidewater region. Given the diversity and ideological conflict prevalent throughout British North America, inclusion of the loyalist experience would have made the site more nuanced and historically accurate. In stressing the ideological uniformity of the middling class townspeople and politically elite patriots, the site depicts the American Revolution as unanimously supported, ignoring internal debates within  Williamsburg itself.

Colonial Williamsburg primarily portrays loyalists—especially John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore—as symbols of the British excess and neglect against which colonists rebelled. As Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore resided in the heart of Williamsburg on the eve of the Revolution. The site includes Dunmore to present a sense of unanimity and inevitability in rebellion against the Crown. The guided tour of the Governor’s Palace emphasizes his strong connections to the Crown and claims that many Virginians viewed his luxuries with disdain, as they believed that they were being unrightfully taxed for the most basic of items, such as newspapers. He is portrayed as the symbol of the acts of Parliament that colonists came to hate. The tour guide speaks of silverware, sugar, and Chinese bamboo chairs as luxuries that only Dunmore and his two daughters would have possessed. The guide does not acknowledge that wealthy Williamsburg men like Peyton Randolph and  George  Wythe owned similar luxury goods. The tour guide emphasizes that Lord Dunmore  was  inaccessible  and  apathetic  toward  the  colonists, noting that any colonist who entered the Palace would have been affronted by hundreds of arms adorning the parlor walls and would have been addressed by a secretary, rather than Dunmore himself, in only that front room. The looming crest of King George III hangs among the weapons on the parlor wall, symbolically connecting Dunmore to the Crown’s ultimate authority. By employing Dunmore as a symbol of ostentatious royal power, Colonial Williamsburg creates the impression of unanimous opposition to British rule and class-based tyranny.

Left: Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia. The guided tour of the Governor’s Palace at the Colonial Williamsburg site emphasizes his strong connections to the Crown and claims that many Virginians viewed his luxuries with disdain. In reality, Dunmore was not unpopular among the colonists. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

While the Governor’s Palace tour draws vivid connections to the colony’s mother country, it portrays the colonists as a unified body that desired nothing less than independence from Britain’s tyrannical rule. In reality, there was no agreed upon goal to declare independence from Britain in the colonial era. The tour guide mentions neither the strong connections between Dunmore and upper-class colonists nor the general desire for compromise with the Crown. However, in discussions after the official tour, the guide revealed that George Washington was a regular attendee of Lord Dunmore’s balls. He also mentioned that the people did not condemn Washington for this, but always held him in  high regard.1 It is clear that powerful Virginians, such as law professor and Williamsburg resident George Wythe, had connections with the governor, yet the Palace tour fails to mention the wide range of sentiments toward the British government.

The people of Williamsburg did not feel antagonistic toward Lord Dunmore for most of the time that he served as governor of Virginia. It was not until 1775, when he seized the gunpowder and armaments from the Williamsburg Magazine, that people began to rally in protest. However, there were still those who never supported the patriots’ cause.2 Dunmore’s Proclamation calling for the emancipation of slaves also created uproar and fear. These two events did not occur until April and November of 1775, respectively—the former coinciding with Lexington and the latter less than a year before the Declaration of Independence. The Palace tour does not mention this crucial timeline, which reveals the short period of resentment toward Lord Dunmore prior to his expulsion from the town. Instead, the guided tour portrays the people of Williamsburg as eager to separate from Britain after the Boston Tea Party, with “unified colonial support.”3 Not only does the tour narrative overlook the nuances in colonists’ viewpoints, but it also ignores the diversity of colonial America. While Bostonians were dumping tea into the harbor, the people of Williamsburg left room for reconciliation with Great Britain.

In reality, many loyalists lived in coastal Virginia in the colonial and Revolutionary eras. English and Scottish Virginians enlisted in loyalist militias, including the Queen’s Loyal Virginia Regiment, led by  none other than Lord Dunmore. The Royal Governor was able to raise these loyalist forces in the fall of 1775 through the ideological support of many Virginia planters and merchants who believed that the colonies needed the control of the Empire.4 In Williamsburg, for example, a wealthy lawyer named John Randolph remained loyal to the king and served as the king’s attorney for the colony, while his brother Peyton Randolph exemplified patriotic fervor. In his pamphlet “Considerations on the Present State of Virginia,” John Randolph supported the supremacy of English rule and advised his disgruntled fellow colonists to reconcile with the Crown.5 The Queen’s Loyal Virginia Regiment and Randolph were only two examples of loyalist behavior—there were countless more in Virginia. At Colonial Williamsburg, the few acknowledgements  of  loyalists  suggest  that their actions were treasonous and cowardly in the face of the American Revolution. The site fails to discuss the historical presence of loyalists in the town and the colony overall.

Many people in Britain and in the colonies saw the “loyalists” as rightfully supportive of their home country and empire, and believed that the men portrayed as “patriots” at Colonial Williamsburg, and American institutions in general, were traitors to the Crown. The loyalists did not turn their backs on the empire that had been their provider for so long, and they were willing to fight against rebels who sought to undermine the Crown’s authority. The meanings of the terms “loyalist” and “patriot” can shift upon viewing the narrative from the British perspective, rather than that of the successful Americans. These labels are based on the fact that the Whigs, or the “patriots,” were successful in gaining independence, and subsequently wrote the history of the Revolution. Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites lack consideration of how history would have deemed the patriots had their cause failed.

Left: The Colonial Williamsburg site features many performances and reenactments. Here, tourists are encouraged to “participate” in the revolution. The site depicts only urban patriots and paints them as fiery and unwavering in their hatred for British rule, but the reality was more complicated. (Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center.)

The site’s one-sided portrayal of the American Revolution has shaped public opinion and general historical knowledge. It is clear that the representation of unanimity against Britain was a calculated decision by the creators of the site. Colonial Williamsburg is inextricably linked to American exceptionalism—the notion that the country was destined to exist based upon democratic principles. Restored in the 1930s, Colonial Williamsburg has had an influence on the way that hundreds of thousands of people have learned about the American Revolution. However, it has done so in a way that skews its reality. In recent decades, scholarship in the field of US history has emphasized the fact that the creation of the country was not inevitable, yet Colonial Williamsburg has stuck to its historical interpretation. The site’s maintenance of an outdated interpretation is an effect of American exceptionalism and a lack of popular realization that the colonies could have remained a part of the British Empire. At Colonial Williamsburg, the majority of visitors expect to see and hear a version of history that matches their preconceived notions of the nation’s founding. The curators of the site likely recognize that it would be controversial   to challenge or complicate the master narrative of the Revolution, as challenging the inevitability of the revolution’s success would be akin to challenging the legitimacy of the country itself. Colonial Williamsburg preserves this dated, one-sided telling of history as a cause, as well as an effect, of American exceptionalism.

Visually characterized by a picturesque charm, Colonial Williamsburg represents the bustling capital and center of  Revolutionary  Virginia. The site teems with living history, making it one of the most memorable historical sites for tourists to experience the War for Independence. Yet, Colonial Williamsburg fails to reflect the complexity of sentiments about the rebellion harbored by the people of Virginia. The site depicts only urban patriots and paints them as fiery and unwavering in their hatred for British rule, in order to coincide with popular sentiments of American exceptionalism. Many colonists remained reluctant to declare complete independence from the British. Ignoring the population of loyalists  that resided in the colony, the site portrays the American Revolution as unanimous.

Endnotes

  1. Governor’s Palace Tour Guide, Colonial Williamsburg, October 30, 2016.
  2. "Dunmore’s Proclamation: A Time to Choose,” Colonial Williamsburg, accessed November 9, 2016,  http://www.history.org/almanack/people/african/aadunpro.cfm.; Woody Holton, “‘Rebel Against Rebel’: Enslaved Virginians and the Coming of the American Revolution,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 105 (1997), 157-192.
  3. Governor’s Palace Tour Guide, Colonial Williamsburg, October 30, 2016.
  4. Adele Hast, Loyalism in Revolutionary Virginia: The Norfolk Area and the Eastern Shore (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 71-73.
  5. John Randolph, “Considerations on the Present State of Virginia,” The Library of Congress, Nicholas Robert (New York: C.F. Heartman, 1919).