- Historic Sites
“My Gawd, They’ve Sold the Town”
How the happy combination of a millionaire and, a parson gave us Colonial Williamsburg, a place of surpassing loveliness—and a continuing reminder of what a truly bold enterprise our Revolution was
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Colonial Williamsburg, as everybody knows, is the monumental historic re-creation of the onetime capital of colonial Virginia, the place where young Thomas Jefferson listened at the door of the House of Burgesses while Patrick Henry denounced the Stamp Act, the place where Virginia patriots took giant strides toward revolution at an inn called the Raleigh Tavern, the place where George Washington mustered America’s multinational forces for the final battle at Yorktown, eleven miles to the southeast.
Yet when I first set eyes on Colonial Williamsburg not many months ago, what struck me was not the enchantment of Williamsburg’s glorious past nor the sense of being transported two centuries back in time. What struck me with astonishing force on a late afternoon in early spring was the sheer loveliness of the re-created capital city. It was William Penn’s dream of Philadelphia come true: “a greene country towne”; a neat and decorous community made green by woods, glades, and pastures that come right up to the sharp edge of town, by the extraordinarily spacious gardens behind every gabled house, by fine public squares and fine tree-lined streets. All of this bewitching greenness was set off by regular rows of houses, by whitewashed fences, straight little footpaths, and one broad thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street, named in 1699 in honor of the son of the then future Queen Anne.
I had walked around entranced for nearly two hours when, like the stern voice of conscience, an unwelcome thought intruded. Perhaps it was prompted by the British flag flying atop the capitol. In any case it suddenly dawned on me that the wonderful re-creation was a most subversive re-creation indeed. It seemed to be rendering, at each pleasant turning, a quietly adverse judgment on the American Revolution, which officially, of course, it ardently celebrates. This well-bred loveliness, the green country town seemed to be saying, is what Americans recklessly cast away when they cut their ties to the British crown and set sail on the turbulent seas of republicanism. So subversive a historical judgment seemed especially worth investigating since it is not and never was the avowed judgment of anyone associated with the Williamsburg restoration.
It was emphatically not the view of the Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin as he stood on the eastern edge of pre-restoration Williamsburg on March 29, 1926, awaiting the arrival of a man worth half a billion dollars. It is safe to say that William Goodwin, rector of Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church (founded in 1674) was waiting by the roadside impatiently. He was a man so bursting with restless energy that when he talked to people he hopped from one foot to the other. Besides, the fifty-seven-year-old minister was in the grip of a passion and possessed by a vision. For years he had been in search of a philanthropic Croesus as passionately devoted to restoring old things as Goodwin had been since boyhood when he first read a book called Hidden Cities Restored . Goodwin wanted his Croesus, as yet undiscovered, to buy up the entire town of Williamsburg and transform it, lock, stock, and barrel, into the old colonial town of Williamsburg. He conceived the transformation as a living monument to the American Revolution, one that would, in his words, “tell of how patriotic spirits wrought here to erect an enduring spiritual temple to liberty.” Turning an entire town back 150 years was so utterly unprecedented that the most generous estimate of the cost would prove too low by a factor of twenty, or more specifically, the ratio between the estimated $5,000,000 and the $100,000,000-plus that Colonial Williamsburg would eventually cost.
What made Goodwin’s grandiose dream slightly less than impossible lay in the fact that eighteenth-century Williamsburg, like Washington, D.C., was an artificial city with no life but political life and no occupation save government, except for what tepid business flowed in from the College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, or seven years before the space adjacent to it was made the capital of Virginia by act of its General Assembly. By that act of June, 1699, a total of 220 acres east of the college were reserved for the future metropolis, and even in Williamsburg’s hectic heyday, 220 acres pretty much sufficed for a permanent population that never rose above eighteen hundred people inhabiting some three hundred houses.
Williamsburg’s floating population was another matter entirely. Twice a year when the General Court was in session (and with it. usually, the colonial legislature) a couple of thousand Virginians would descend on the city for business, gambling, and pleasure, including the most profligate spenders (and gamblers) in all of British North America, namely the Tidewater tobacco planters with their limitless credit in England, their hundred-thousand-acre estates, and their virtually complete control over the politics of Virginia. It was this semiannual invasion—known as “The Publick Times”—that supported little Williamsburg’s numerous taverns, its smart retail shops, its silversmiths, jewelers, milliners, and wigmakers, not to mention lawyers, actors, and dancing masters. “On these occasions,” wrote an English visitor in 1760, “there are balls and amusements; but as soon as the business is finished, they return to their plantations and the town is in a manner deserted.”