American history 2022: The establishment versus the American people

For those wondering about my absence from these pages, I'm on vacation.  The theme of this trip is the American Revolution, and by the time I return home in ten days, I'll have visited some of the most storied places in Revolutionary America, from historical towns to Founders' homes to important battlefields.  Because the leftist encroachment on Jefferson's and Madison's homes (Monticello and Montpelier, respectively) has been in the news lately, I thought I'd share some impressions with you about three places: Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Mount Vernon.  At all those sites, the American spirit is intact.

Colonial Williamsburg is the meticulously restored onetime capital of the Colony of Virginia as it existed in the mid-18th century.  Hundreds of employees wear historically accurate dress, speak in 18th-century terms, and provide insights into life in a southern colony on the eve of the Revolution.  Visitors can see historically accurate representations of functioning blacksmiths, shoemakers, milliners, wigmakers, silversmiths, apothecaries, and so much more.  I highly recommend it.

I was last in Williamsburg in 2015, and, aside from a few newly restored buildings, the biggest change was the obsessive and obsequious references to "enslaved people."  Some of it was historically appropriate; some was transparent white guilt and virtue-signaling.

A street in Colonial Williamsburg.

All of it reminded me of something very silly we used to do when I was at law school in Texas.  Back then, whenever we read a fortune cookie, we'd add the words "between the sheets" at the end of the fortune.  A fortune such as "You'll be successful" benefited from the added phrase.  However, if the fortune was "In business affairs, the wise man is honest," the added phrase was just meaningless noise.  Eventually, the phrase "enslaved people" worked that way, alternately enhancing historical information or just being pointless noise.

What struck me most was what happened when about 25 people were gathered in the county courthouse building to hear about the judicial system.  The presentation was reasonably interesting, albeit a bit dry.  At the end, however, the man giving the talk suddenly veered into praising the Founders as great men and visionaries who gave us a splendid system that we need to preserve.  The audience spontaneously awarded him with loud and enthusiastic applause — a unique experience in my three days at Williamsburg.  It felt like a polite protest against the subliminal emphasis on America's failures.

At Yorktown, where Cornwallis's surrender signaled the end of the Revolutionary War (although battles continued in South Carolina for another two years), the National Parks museum asked people to share their thoughts about liberty.  Three people — all of whom I imagined as disgruntled teenagers dragged along by their parents — fussed about Roe v. Wade and "transgender" rights.  The rest, though, were enthusiastic about America's blessings and believed that they must be defended.  I took pictures of a representative sample:

Finally, Mount Vernon suffered from the same Tourette's-like obsession with "enslaved people" as Colonial Williamsburg, whether relevant to the topic at hand or not.  This picture from the museum is representative.  The phrase was extraneous because every bit of material surrounding this particular sign made it patently clear that the "household" extended beyond the family to all who lived there:

Aside from little things like that, though, the museum kept its focus on Washington, had a great 4D video about his war triumphs, and generally gave a balanced, positive view of a specific time and place in American history.

In the gift store, there were about six built-in bookshelves, each with around seven shelves.  The very first shelf was dedicated to books about slaves.  However, the books weren't Ibram X. Kendi–style racist fare.  Instead, they were serious books about life for Blacks in the American South.  The remainder of the shelves were dedicated to equally serious books about Washington, his peers, and the Revolution.  The order was a bit wonky, but there was absolutely nothing untoward or inappropriate about the content.

Overall, from beginning to end at Mount Vernon, the site managed to strike a balanced tone, acknowledging the huge, enforced contribution in labor and practical knowledge that Blacks contributed to the site while focusing on Washington and his greatness as America's indispensable man.  Again, I highly recommend a visit there.

America, like all countries, is imperfect, and her past reflects the struggles of a nation emerging from the pre-modern period into modernity.  If you're interested, I tried here to put that struggle into context by looking at the way Americans' understanding of "equal" and "liberty" evolved.

I'll try to keep you posted about my upcoming visits to Monticello and Montpelier.

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