“My Gawd, They’ve Sold the Town”


Several years before its creator died in 1960, Colonial Williamsburg underwent a certain amount of change. The aged Rockefeller’s sons, John D. Rockefeller III and Winthrop, were far more politically minded than their almost utterly apolitical father. Through publications, celebrations, orientation lectures and films, they gradually reasserted the Goodwinesque side of Williamsburg, which is to say, Williamsburg as the scene of great events leading to a noble revolution. In recent years historical realism, firmly in the ascendancy, has made some alterations in Williamsburg’s physical aspect. The working blacksmith’s costume is appropriately grimy, there is an eighteenth-century brickyard, not very lovely, on the edge of town, and piles of hay in the fields. There is a somewhat rougher edge to the greens, the fences, the houses, and the paths than John D. Rockefeller, Jr., would have approved of.


Yet neither orientation films nor touches of realism can substantially alter Colonial Williamsburg or mend its split personality. Short of drastic and destructive renovation, Rockefeller’s lovely green country town will always whisper subversive thoughts into its visitors’ ears. How can it be otherwise in a place that celebrates a revolution yet enshrines in so masterly a fashion that spirit of order, decorum, and deference that that republican revolution destroyed. This is no petty contradiction but an important historical truth about the American Revolution: It was a revolt not only against British sovereignty but against the spirit of Williamsburg. Virginia’s rebels knew exactly what they were doing when they moved the government out of the town back in 1780.