"Amid the history buffs and parents with young children wandering along the crushed shell paths of Virginia's restored colonial city, some noticeably angrier and more politically minded tourists can often be found.
They stand in the crowd listening closely as the costumed actors relive dramatic moments in the founding of our country. They clap loudly when an actor portraying Patrick Henry delivers his 'Give me liberty or give me death' speech. They cheer and hoot when Gen. George Washington surveys the troops behind the original 18th-century courthouse. And they shout out about the tyranny of our current government during scenes depicting the nation's struggle for freedom from Britain."
A short video report is here. This is a fascinating story. So much of the modern Tea Party movement is animated by a willfully distorted vision of the founding era, as Jill Lepore has demonstrated in a recent book and articles (1, 2). Colonial Williamsburg on the other hand tries to faithfully represent the past to the present, though with a lot of compromises. And at the same time, Colonial Williamsburg lives or dies by the number of tourists it attracts to pay the $22.95 q day (winter rate) to explore the recreated Colonial town. It is a classic public history dilemma--what do you do when your visitors don't want historical accuracy? So far the highly-trained interpreperters at Williamsburg seem to be holding firm:
Sometimes, the activists appear surprised when the Founding Fathers don't always provide the "give 'em hell" response they seem to be looking for.
When a tourist asked George Washington a question about what should be done to those colonists who remain loyal to the tyrannical British king, Washington interjected: "I hope that we're all loyal, sir" -- a reminder that Washington, far from being an early agitator against the throne, was among those who sought to avoid revolution until the very end.
When another audience member asked the general to reflect on the role of prayer and religion in politics, he said: "Prayers, sir, are a man's private concern. They are not a matter of public interest. And nor should they be. There is nothing so personal as a man's relationship with his creator."
I did my PhD at William and Mary and have been back to Williamsburg several times since with groups of teachers. I wonder if the influx of Tea-Partiers will change the place?