“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley
When a waiter at the King’s Arms tavern told us we should have brought our own cutlery to eat with, and that salt and sugar would be an extra charge, we realized things were not the same.
When we asked George Washington about the thirteen colonies and he said we had miscounted (did we not mean the thirty-six British colonies in the Americas?), we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
No, I was not involved in a historical reality show or transported by a time machine to a different era. My husband Gregory and I were in Colonial Williamsburg, a restoration of the eighteenth century capital of Virginia.
It is a living history museum where visitors can see restored houses, re-constructed buildings and original artifacts to get a hint of what life in colonial Virginia may have been like.
But because objects can only tell us so much about historical life, it was very informative to interact with the interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. I began to see that people in other eras had different frames of reference than we do now and had to grapple with difficult issues of which they didn’t know the outcome.
It was the actor-interpreters, in particular, who pulled us into the past and made us re-consider how people at that time might have thought. Each interpreter assumed the role of a historical person who lived in a certain year (usually 1775 before the American Revolution) and reacted to all questions according to that time period, feigning ignorance of anything in the future.
On a tour of the George Wythe House, we met the prominent lawyer himself, who allowed us to interrupt his experiments in natural philosophy (now known as science). He asked our group where we hailed from, and a visitor answered: “Tennessee.” Wythe said jokingly that he thought it very wise to say he was from the Southwest Territory rather than admit he came from the colony of North Carolina. (Tennessee did not become a state until 1796.)
When asked whether he would free his slaves, Wythe replied that, although he did not approve of slavery, there would be no point in freeing his people. They would just be picked up by others and re-enslaved. So, instead, he would keep them and treat them well. (Although attempts were made to limit slavery practices in the eighteenth century, federal abolition would not be proclaimed until 1863.)
After a few more encounters like these with other historical personages, we got into the habit of seeing the world through eighteenth century eyes. So, later, when an interpreter asked us whether we would choose loyalty or liberty in the upcoming conflict with Great Britain, the answer did not come as easily as it might have done before visiting Colonial Williamsburg.