Tag Archives: Memory

Exploring Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and Yorktown

The past months have given me several opportunities to travel into the Old Dominion State (sorry, that would be Virginia for those not up on state nicknames) and take in several of their historical sites with my family. I thought I’d offer some reflections on the various ways different sites presented their history.

Now, two some caveats. First, I should observe that I’m conflating my trips–although, come to to think of it–if you could manage a historical swing through Virginia that embraced both Revolutionary and Civil War sites you would have plenty to see.

Second, most of the visits were taken with small children in tow. On one hand, I really appreciated being able to expose my kiddos to historical sites and ideas. Seeing their eyes light up with fresh discoveries is terrific. I hope I’m planting some serious historical contexts into their lives. And, at the very least, my 6-year old can now report on the multiple uses of a bayoneted musket on an 18th-century battlefield. On the other hand, this meant I didn’t examine every detail as minutely as I might like. I tend to be a museum completionist, so these visits have altered how I look at things.

Over Spring Break we had the chance to do a three-day stint at Colonial Williamsburg. I was primed to be a bit skeptical, and let’s admit it–there is a faux-quality to trying to reproduce an entire 18th century town while hundreds of 21st century tourists mill around with smart phones. Still, I really enjoyed the experience. I give huge props to the historical interpreters who did great jobs staying in character yet translating for a modern audience who may know very little about Revolutionary Virginia. One woman we saw on successive days in different venues, and she did a fantastic job both times, relating to both children and adults.I enjoyed being able to toss early-America references into my interactions with some of the costumed participants, although I restrained myself from interrogating each of them on how they saw liberalism vs. republicanism motivating their desire for independence.

Our super-interpreter.

Our super-interpreter.

Exploring the town gave a great sense of scale. It only had about 2000 permanent residents at the Revolution–yet it was a key site for Virginia politics. A crowd gathering in front of the capitol or powder magazine could get to the governor’s mansion in a matter of minutes–time for passions to build but not to cool.

The gate to the Governor's Palace

The gate to the Governor’s Palace

The strategy of Colonial Williamsburg might be labelled “living history,” and by doing it well I thought the program allowed an imaginative leap into the era of the American Revolution.

Too much historical reality?

Too much historical reality?

By contrast, the approach at Monticello might be termed a “great man/great house” presentation. Part of the presentation focused on the architectural beauty that is Monticello. Being there to soak in the Palladian structure carries definite weight. The presentation inside the house was quite respectful of “Mr. Jefferson,” which one would expect. Still, the guide was well-read on Jefferson’s world and so was able to contextualize the house’s contents and meanings when asked.

IMG_0291Monticello has also expanded its treatment of slavery at Monticello and worked the Hemings family into the story. I appreciated the archaeological work that had been done to map out the slave outbuildings, which suggested that Monticello was a bustling concern with lots of inhabitants, not only a graceful structure serving a few whites.

Although Jefferson is not my favorite founder (to put it mildly), the site still impresses. I may still appreciate many of the Federalists critiques of Jefferson–o.k., I do. Even so, it was hard not to marvel a little at the level of learning and sophistication that Jefferson had brought to an area pretty close to the frontier. And yes, I would have wanted to be a part of one of Jefferson’s dinner parties when he was in his prime.

Finally, I had an afternoon to visit Yorktown Battlefield. I understand Yorktown has their own living history military encampment, but I skipped it to see the actual battlefield. Managed by the National Park Service, the presentation centered on artifacts and preserved battlefield. Many of the siege lines are still in place.

Here again, space mattered. Yorktown was only a village, and the siege area did not strike me as large. The redoubts which Alexander Hamilton assaulted were perhaps 30×30. By the time Americans got their second siege line up, the British were pinned down just a few football-fields away. The lesson again would be that significant events took place on a very limited scale.

Still, finding the historical heartbeat in the open green-spaces was more difficult. More could have been done with both information and context.

So, seeing three different styles of interpretation can prompt us to think about history can best be presented. I appreciated the semi-immersive sense of Colonial Williamsburg. I’d like to build into my students that sense of a world inhabited by people confronted with American Independence.

For commentators, let me ask–where are the places that history comes alive for you? And, why does it happen there? What are the historical sites you’ve most loved exploring?

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Celebrating Ben Franklin’s Birthday

Last Friday I had an unusual experience–the chance to celebrate Ben Franklin’s birthday in Philadelphia.

Franklin was born in January 1706 in Boston, but of course he’s most associated with Philadelphia. Every year, the city celebrates Franklin’s life.

This year I was able to attend due to the generosity of Paul Kerry and his affiliated research center. It was quite an experience.

The day’s theme was built around the idea of Franklin as a diplomat.

The morning began with two lectures on Franklin’s diplomacy, held at the American Philosophical Society, which Franklin had helped found. Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania suggested that Franklin’s diplomacy blended two streams: idealistic, republican values of openness and diplomacy as serving the entire nation on one-hand and a soft realism that looked to national self-interest. Kuklick suggested that the nation stumbled in the twentieth century when idealistic aims in diplomacy overshadowed and blinded the country to realistic interests. Kuklick handled the past-to-present connections with a pretty deft touch, I thought.

The other lecture was delivered by a scholar of contemporary foreign relations, Edward Turzanski, who drew a few small principles from Franklin’s life before launching into a much more concerted focus on present global realities.

My first observation was that, strangely, the other two significant diplomats from the Revolutionary War–John Adams and John Jay–didn’t get much recognition.

My second was that it’s very difficult to move from historical reflection to contemporary application. Most of the questions from the non-scholarly audience seemed to center around “What would Ben Franklin have thought about this or that contemporary event?” For many, Franklin seemed disconnected from his historical time and place and could offer support for whatever the questioner happened to like in the present.

After the seminar, participants were invited to a procession from the Society to lay a wreath on Franklin’s grave. As an historian, I’ve often read of parades in the streets of Philadelphia–I can now claim to have marched in one. (I was hoping for a session of 13 toasts, which could be reproduced in the newspaper, but was disappointed.) At the grave, we were also introduced to the Franklin reenactor, who would also feature in the rest of the program.

After the procession, we were able to attend a luncheon. The Franklin Society invited former ambassador Jon Huntsman to deliver a key-note address. The talk was rather forgettable, since it still carried traces of all of Huntsman’s stock lines from his recent presidential campaign.

Still, it was an enjoyable day since I got to interact with several scholars and was also able to see Paul Kerry’s recent collection of essays Benjamin Franklin’s Intellectual World. This volume contains essays by Michael Zuckerman, Carla Mulford, Simon Newman, and Lorraine Pangle, among others. It looks to be a great reflection on intellectual currents in the founding era.

Further, it pushed me to think more about connections of past and present and how to communicate this to people who might want to brandish Franklin or any of the other founders as a talisman for a preferred policy.

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