Thomas Jefferson Sites, Part 2: Williamsburg

Second day, April 20th

I drive down to Williamsburg, where Thomas Jefferson received much of his higher education, read law, and embarked on his political career. It’s a long drive of almost three hours each way, and I take advantage of much of the time to catch up on some research via podcast. (Thank you, inventor(s) of the podcast, I can’t tell you how many of my hours you made fascinating and happy!). The rest of the time, as is my wont, I sing loudly to myself.

Colonial Williamsburg is partly authentic restoration and partly tourist-pandering attraction: at times, it feels just a little more like a historically-themed street in Disneyland than a historical site. Perhaps because it’s a little too clean and tidy, with actors in period costumes incongruously mingling with tourists and very stage-ily reinacting Revolutionary-era colonial Virginia scenes. Many of the buildings are very obviously dedicated to hawking souvenirs.

But oh well, best not to be a hater. In a perfect world, perhaps, the public might fully finance the expensive restoration and upkeep of historic sites like this through taxes or donations. As it’s not a perfect world, ‘ye olde historickal shoppes’ and entertainment help keep the place afloat, and in the end, what matters is that it’s still here to be studied and enjoyed. The souvenir shops are not nearly as obnoxious as many others I’ve seen, the buildings are in excellent repair, the grounds are lovely and well cared for, and on the whole, I’m satisfied.

I make a loop around Colonial Williamsburg after buying maps and a vintage postcard for my mother-in-law (who’s trying her best to instill in me the virtue of thoughtfully sending postcards while traveling. It’s still tucked among my maps and notes. Sighhhh.). I start off with ice cream cone in hand, as it’s fairly hot and muggy for a spring day to a California gal like me. But there’s a nice breeze blowing, and the sky is blue.

I begin with George Wythe’s house.

Wythe was a lawyer and teacher, and instructed Jefferson in the law. He also helped Jefferson get started in politics, and was a co-revolutionary and lifelong friend as well. Like Jefferson, he believed that reason should determine who’s fit to rule, rather than heredity. He may have been, in fact, the single most influential person in Jefferson’s life which he actually met (in other words, not counting those whose ideas he studied), with the possible exception of James Madison.

Not only did Jefferson spend a good deal of time in this house in his years as a young law student in the early 1760’s, he lived in this house with his wife and little daughter for a while in 1776, soon after he drafted the Declaration of Independence, while he served in the Virginia House of Delegates.It’s a simple but handsome house, and I’d like to go inside but it’s a Monday just before the tourist season begins in earnest, and it’s closed for the day.

The Governor’s Palace, however, is open, and I take the tour. It’s a much more decorative building than most I’ve seen, but still made of the inevitable red bricks of native Virginia clay. It was designed and originally built in the early 1700’s.

But this actual building’s a reconstruction: the original building burned down in late 1781, almost 3 years after Jefferson moved into the Palace as governor of Virginia. A little under a year into his tenure, he moved out again, the government having moved to Richmond as a safety measure. The Revolutionary War was raging, the British were bringing the fight ever farther inland, and Jefferson had a young family now to protect.

Though Jefferson only lived in this house for about a year, he had already spent a lot of time here in as a student (he was a member of one of Virginia’s elite families) and later in his years as a lawyer and government official. He loved to play the violin, and Francis Fauquier, governor at the time, was a music enthusiast as well. Along with Wythe and another of Jefferson’s most beloved and admired teachers William Small, Fauquier took the talented young man under his wing, and the four would gather frequently under this roof (well, the original one anyway).Later on, Jefferson made many drawings of the Governor’s palace, ostensibly with the view of remodeling or upgrading it for his own planned tenure there, but the war changed his plans. Jefferson’s drawings would later aid in the reconstruction of the building in the 1930’s.

The gardens in the back of the palace are more formal than I like, laid out in geometric lines and aggressively pruned, but still nice to walk in on this sunny spring day.

I continue on, and make a counterclockwise loop around the town. It’s a lovely walk between the Governor’s palace and the next site I visit: I wander among green fields sprinkled with wildflowers, crisscrossed with paths, and bound with rough hewn fences; handsome old trees with tender young leaves, little bridges over winding streams, and Georgian and Federal style grand homes mostly made of that inevitable red brick interspersed with quaint little wood houses and outbuildings. I forget to take a picture of Peyton Randolph’s house, an imposing dark red brick, long, angular house, startled as I am by a carriage laden with sightseers which passes by me more closely than I would have liked. In fairness to the driver, I was distracted by site-seeking and more unaware of my general surroundings than safety might require. Randolph was a distant cousin and fellow Virginia politician, and Jefferson would surely have visited his house regularly.

Then to the Capitol Building.

Like the Governor’s Palace, the building that now stands is a meticulous reconstruction from the 1930’s, of the original building as it would have looked in Jefferson’s time and earlier. The British used it for military purposes during the Revolutionary War, since the government of Virginia had moved inland to Richmond, and the building fell into ruin from subsequent disuse. I really like its design, with its rounded ends and archways; it’s a refreshing break from the nearly unrelieved squareness of the rest of the architecture I’ve seen around here.

The original Capitol building witnessed many scenes of immense historical importance to the American colonies. Patrick Henry’s speech against the Stamp Act was greatly inspiring to Jefferson, who attended debates at the Capitol while still a law student, and who continued to admire Henry as an orator, if not as a serious intellectual or lawyer, for the rest of his life. Jefferson also spent a lot of time there as a member of the House of Burgesses, and with George Wythe, George Washington, and other leaders, debated and discussed issues related to the growing tensions with Britain, and how a possible split from the mother country could be brought about.

Then down the street to the Raleigh Tavern, this one a clapboard affair, and a reconstruction of the original.
As I arrive, I see a performance in progress, of several costumed ‘townspeople’ debating political issues of the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. I pick my way among the crowd and get as close a look as possible. Again, to my disappointment, it’s closed at the moment.

The Raleigh Tavern, like the Capitol building, also hosted many historically fraught scenes. Virginia and other colonial leaders met there regularly; George Washington frequented it often. Jefferson spent a lot of time there too: not only studying, lawyering, and politicking, but also wooing one of his earliest love interests. He was a romantic and a man of healthy sexual appetite, evidenced not only by the frequency of his wife’s pregnancies (which helped bring about her early death in 1782, at age 33) and his decades-long affair with Sally Hemings, but also the number of his romantic interests. At age 20, he danced there with Rebecca Burwell, where she rejected his (self-described) awkward declarations of love and devotion.Then onward along the square and across the row of pubs (which I note for future reference) to the Wren building at the College of William and Mary.

Jefferson enrolled here in 1760, a few days before he turned 17, to study moral philosophy, natural philosophy (as science was known then), and mathematics, until he went on the study law under (the aforementioned) George Wythe (William and Mary Colleges’ first law professor). He lived and studied in the Wren building itself. Ten years after he graduated, Jefferson drew up plans to improve and expand the Wren building, but as was the case with the Governor’s Palace, the Revolutionary War intervened, and the building looks like it did when Jefferson was a student, and not as Jefferson the architect imagined it.

The classrooms have a cozy or closed-in appearance, depending on your taste or mood, with dark, heavy wood paneling, lined with benches. Jefferson acquired much of the education he valued most highly at William and Mary under the instruction of his dearly loved teacher and friend William Small. In later years, he was sometimes admiring of, and sometimes critical of, the college in his writings. He thought it among the best educational institutions American parents could send their children to, because it had such excellent professors as Small and Wythe. Yet he was critical of the addition of its school for Christianizing Native Americans, and thought its location and resources insufficient for providing adequately for the intellectual and physical well-being of its students. As he critiqued William and Mary, he formulated plans for an institution of higher learning which he would later realize (more in a later post about that).

For all its Jefferson-described limitations, this college boasts many of the most famous graduates in early American history (as you can see from the Wren building’s proudly displayed plaques pictured below): Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Payton Randolph, George Wythe, and Edmund Randolph, among others.

After touring the central rooms of the building, open to the general public even though classes are in session as I explore, I leave the Wren building and William and Mary grounds and return to the row of pubs I had passed a little while ago. I choose the Trellis Bar and Grill, since the charmingly named Dog Street Pub with the cute sign isn’t seating people outside at the moment; they seem to be setting up for the dinner beer garden. The Trellis serves a favorite ale of mine (Ommegang Hennepin saison) and after all, one can’t visit a college town and not have a beer, right?

I cool my throat with the tasty cold brew and relax my slightly achy traveling feet as I edit my photo roll and write up some notes of today’s trip.

The breeze, having turned into a gusty wind, bring clouds and a few drops; the air feels soft and velvety and seems to indicate a coming storm. Time to make the long drive back to Takoma Park, where I’m staying, at the north edge of D.C. On the way home, I witness the most spectacular lightning storm I’ve seen in years (we don’t see those much in California) and a fairly brief yet dramatic hail-and-rain-and-wind-storm. Though I’m a little nervous as the wind shakes my tiny little rental car around and the rain renders me a little blind, I’m enjoying it more than not as I take shelter in a fast-food barbecue joint (kinda good, kinda gross, as you might expect), and feel it’s been an excellent adventuresome day.

To be continued…

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration: 

“Capitol (Williamsburg, Virginia).” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.,_Virginia%29

Colonial Williamsburg, website of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Jefferson: Writings. Compiled by The Library of America, New York: Penguin Books.

Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.

‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life’. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.