Four Centuries

The most important revelation has been the true location of the colony’s original 1607 fort.

Colonial Williamsburg is famous for its holiday celebrations, especially at Christmas, but I was more than content with a visit in early November, embellished by autumn’s shafts of golden light and free of crowds. Take it at a leisurely pace and you’ll find serendipitous moments as pleasurable as any scheduled event. Rounding a corner, I came upon an outdoor stage that occupied the site of the first theater in English America, dating from 1716. A hefty actor, not your usual Hamlet, performed “To be or not to be” to shouts of “huzzah, bravo, encore,” from onlookers. Later I watched a dozen black schoolchildren playing in a small park on the very spot where two African-American preachers had held outdoor services for free blacks and slaves sometime in the late eighteenth century. By 1818 they occupied a wooden church here. Now there is just grass and a marker.

In a garden behind the Governor’s Palace, I encountered Patrick Henry, Virginia’s great patriot and first governor, as portrayed by one of the costumed interpreters, Richard Schumann. With mounting passion he presented “a few remarks on the present state of affairs of 1774.”

“All is not well,” he began. “An ill wind blows from Massachusetts Bay. There are armed British mercenaries in Boston, and the rest of us can expect the same rough treatment.” Truck traffic that occasionally rumbled by on the main road just behind him did nothing to shake Henry’s eighteenth-century persona, as he accused Thomas Jefferson of “spreading lies tainting my reputation for generations” and admitted “it is with considerable shame that I am drawn to the owning of slaves.” Schumann, who has been portraying Henry since 1998, says that he’s now convinced this was “the greatest American patriot who ever lived. His heart was with the American people and American liberty first and last.”

By the time of Jamestown’s 1807 bicentennial celebration, Henry had been dead for nearly eight years. But other members of the Revolution’s Greatest Generation concluded the festivities with a dinner at Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern (burned in 1859, rebuilt in 1932). When they offered up a toast, they surely looked back over the 200 years. But I wonder if they spared a thought for us.

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