Sara in Colonial Virginia

A first-year student majoring in English and public relations, Sara is a Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program. During spring 2014, she is enrolled in the Honors history class “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” The class traveled to Virginia during spring break, with visits to Alexandria, Colonial Williamsburg, Washington, Charlottesville and the plantations of George Washington (Mount Vernon), Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), and James Madison (Montpelier).

Many of the photos on this blog were taken by Lucy, a first-year Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology.

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Meeting Thomas Jefferson

Since we didn’t have to meet as a class until dinner, everyone awoke at various times and met to do different activities. A few of us woke up early to go to an event called “Liberty or Loyalty: In Print.” It sounded like it would provide an interesting take on the Colonial Era. I was actually pleasantly surprised, to tell the truth. As an English major, I was interested, but I wasn’t sure how the information would be presented. But, they had a panel of three actors who read and acted out various readings from newspapers of the time.

One reading in particular that caught my ear was a play on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, basically asking, “to be free or not to be free?” I’m a bit of a Shakespeare buff, so I listened closely to what I heard. The rendition that was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette wasn’t much like the actual speech, but I suppose it was the idea that counted!

All of our ears perked up when the female orator focused on the irony of liberty and slavery. This was, after all, our class subject. Her question to the audience and her fellow panel members was, “Have we thought about them?” But it wasn’t the audience who answered — it was the third panelist. He replied, saying, “I believe we have more important matters at hand than that particularly pressing one.”

Cue my internal cringe. How Jeffersonian of them! The actor portrayed the perfect ideology of his time: yes, slavery is wrong, but gaining the white man’s liberty is more important right now. I wonder, if Britain had remained in control, would American slavery have ended sooner? I suppose we’ll never know.

A group of us met for lunch at the local Cheese Shop, where we had wonderful cheese sandwiches and relaxed for a while. After lunch, we met up with Ms. Spaniolo at a special event in the art museums: Thomas Jefferson was coming to speak! We were all rather excited for this one — it would be the perfect opportunity to use our vast expanse of Jefferson knowledge to grill the actor.

Soon after we sat down in the back of the arena, a hush came over the audience, and I became aware of a tall figure in colonial garb making his way down the stairs of the theater. The man took quite a while to get to the stage, as he kept stopping to shake people’s hands. An eternity passed, but he finally reached the stage. A loud voice came over the speakers, exclaiming, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please help us welcome our honored guest today, George —” There was a pause as the audience cringed. “George Jefferson!” Well, it was a valiant attempt, even if it killed Mr. Jefferson’s regality for a moment. Apparently, the speaker had gotten mixed up with the event from the day before, at which President George Washington had spoken. Ever so charmingly, Mr. Jefferson joked, “Isn’t it nice that a man of my stature and renown can wander around in relative anonymity?” The audience gave a shout of laughter, and the moment passed.

Mr. Jefferson’s manner of speaking captured everyone in the audience. He was the perfect gentleman, well-informed on every topic of importance. He was also the perfect politician, never giving a clear opinion. Whoever this actor was, he knew Jefferson so intimately. My classmates agreed that the information wasn’t very new for us, but it was cool to see someone act out the man we had been studying.

At the end of the program, he gave the audience a chance to ask questions. Hope and Kelly both had their hands raised, struggling to get Jefferson’s attention. They even recruited A.J. to stand and raise his hand, but due to our placement in the back of the room, Mr. Jefferson still didn’t call on us. We were a little bitter, but our problem was solved when Mr. Jefferson offered “portraits” and discussion at the end of the show. Naturally, we were some of the first in line for portraits!

Williamsburg Jefferson

After our pictures, Hope bounced back over to Mr. Jefferson. Flashing a smile, she asked the question we had been waiting for.

“Based upon your commitment to equality, what is your view on slavery, and what do you plan to do with your personal slaves?”

We knew exactly what the real Jefferson would have answered — he would have stumbled through a noncommittal answer, either avoiding the question or saying just what he thought we wanted to hear. We wondered if Hope’s inquiry, so cheerfully delivered, would stump the actor. But he knew his Founder well, and his response was perfectly Jeffersonian: “I have always considered myself to be a lifelong abolitionist. I have not sold a slave but to satisfy my creditors. No one can accuse me of being silent on the subject, and I believe that the greatest way to solve this issue is to do exactly as you have done, which is to offer concern and engage in conversation. Unfortunately, there is no immediate way for me to free my people (for I rarely use the term ‘slave’), as I have accumulated an extensive amount of debt.”

In other words, he was the perfect Jefferson. Even as I rolled my eyes (mentally) at his response, I was extremely impressed. Kudos to you, Mr. Actor — you know what you’re doing!

Later that evening, we went to dinner at the local Kings’ Arms Tavern as a class. They had a lovely turkey dinner prepared for us, and as I tied my napkin around my neck (as was apparently the colonial custom), I noticed that there were no lights — we were eating by candlelight! The meal definitely felt authentic: some of us even ate with our overly-widened knives to complete the colonial feeling.

As we ate, a man in British military garb strolled around the tavern, alternating between playing the pennywhistle and the guitar. The people on my side of the table seemed perturbed that he wasn’t coming to our table, but it wasn’t long before I realized why. You see, it was Andrew’s birthday that day, and we had arranged for a little surprise dessert after dinner! The performer wouldn’t come until we could bring out the cake that Ms. Spaniolo brought and sing to Andrew.

Williamsburg Kings Arms Tavern

Finally, our waiter cleared away dinner. My eyes caught some motion across the table as he laid out extra plates and forks in preparation for the third and final course. Everyone at our table looked up when the Red Coat finally sauntered into our dining area. We watched as he strode to the front of the area, coming to a stop behind Andrew’s chair. I grabbed my camera as he called out, “So, I hear someone has a birthday today?”

A sheepish grin spread across Andrew’s face, and as we all stared at him, he raised his hand. “I do,” he called in his quiet voice.

“How old are you?” the Redcoat asked, and upon Andrew’s response (“19 years old”), he said, “Well, I have good news and bad news for you. Which would you like to hear first?”

Andrew picked the bad news, and with a sly smile, the soldier said, “Well, the bad news is that we can’t sing Happy Birthday to you because it hasn’t been invented yet. The good news is that there is another song we sing that I believe everyone here knows. So if everyone could please join me in singing—”

He strummed the guitar for a moment, then led us all into a chorus of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” while the waiter brought out the Black Forest Cake and homemade ice cream. We all talked and laughed afterwards as we enjoyed dessert. Andrew opened a card from us — and a second one arranged by the restaurant staff! It was a wonderful end of the day and of our time in Williamsburg!

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