History Matters?: Musings on the Big “So What?” of Public History

The other night, a rather good friend who covers history and related issues for a local newspaper and I were discussing the many recent changes at Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the place with which I am most closely associated, comparing and contrasting the challenges that its new leadership faces with historic sites in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere.  You might respond to that with a rather trenchant, “Huh?”  After all, CW is the largest living history site on the planet, while the Hudson Valley is littered with dozens, if not hundreds, of small Dutch colonial stone houses, many of which are open for a few months out of every year as county executives and others talk a great deal about boosting heritage tourism (which, for me, remains the single largest untapped economic opportunity in upstate New York) without actually doing anything about it.  So where is the context for the comparison?

Well, as my Contracts professor in law school always said, “follow the money.”  So many of these places, for lack of proper funding and spending priorities, either exist in anonymity, cared for and about by a relative handful of mostly well-meaning locals, or are facing substantial financial problems created by an identity crisis caused by questionable decision-making (A cigar bar at CW’s Chowning’s Tavern? Tut, tut.).  The question about them to which most people can relate, however, is “So what?”  Put another way, as a measure of the meaning of place, my friend and I asked each other “Do these sites matter?” and then started listing one site after another to evaluate what the loss would be, to a community or to posterity, if Historic Site A or Historic House B shut its doors forever?  As Frank Vagnone has explored better than any public historian out there, are there some sites just not worth saving; that really don’t, in a sense, matter?

There are plenty of examples of this.  The one that most readily comes to my mind is the boyhood home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, in Alexandria, Virginia.  I recall visiting it when it was a museum but don’t remember much else beyond the generic information that most historic houses inflict on guests.  One certainly gained very little insight into what was important to know about the early life of one of the most significant figures in American history in the house where he grew up.  But, boy, did I learn about closets being taxed (Not true. Anywhere. Ever).  Failing as a museum, it was returned to being a private home, which it remains today in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in America, Old Town Alexandria.  So, what was lost in that transition, when it shut its doors to the public?  In my view, almost nothing, as it wasn’t serving much of a purpose in providing an anodyne interpretation of questionable accuracy about Antebellum life, peppered with the names of Lee and his family.  But one can still get that from the historic marker on the street in front of the building, rather than spend an admission fee to go inside.  Compare that with a terrific museum almost around the corner in Alexandria, at Gadsby’s Tavern, which does a splendid job of reflecting the cultural experience of the Early Republic, with lectures, dances, and tours that run pretty much year round, which keeps the place alive (my favorite tour there was actually given by a collection of elementary and secondary school children–short on facts but long on charm).  The folks running Gadsby’s certainly understand, when it comes to public history, that creating an authentic experience, which is what most guests are looking for these days, is as important as attention to accuracy.  Maybe even more so, in some cases.

But that brings me back to my friend and I and our talk about CW and local sites in New York, places such as the Kiersted House in Saugerties and the Senate House in Kingston.  What would we — speaking broadly as a historian of Early America — lose if such places went the way of the Robert E. Lee house?  As for CW, the loss would be tremendous, of course.  And that’s not just because more than 2,000 jobs would be gone and the economic disappearance of 600,000 visitors a year could cripple a community.  Or that the survival of irreplaceable artisanal tradecrafts would be at stake, as important as those are.  It’s because CW has the potential to teach us so much about what it has meant to be an American, for better and worse–or, more accurately, what other people wanted being an American to mean, both in terms of Thomas Jefferson’s state-building construction efforts of the 1700s and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s hyper-patriotic nation-building reconstruction project of the 1900s.  Telling that story right, as CW once did, has a tremendously powerful potential for doing good in our modern civic life.  Getting it wrong, on the other hand, can do tremendous damage.  But it is, as my friends across the pond say, early days for the new CEO, Mitchell Reiss, so we will see whether he can right the ship.  I do not envy him as he attempts to keep in the air all the balls he has just been thrown only, knowing the place as I do, to be tossed a new one just about every day.  Again to borrow a British phrase, there’s still all to play for in Williamsburg.

But what of Hudson Valley sites?  On one side of the river, Dutchess County is chock full of can’t-miss places, where interesting stories are told quite well and something of an absence would be felt if they closed.  My particular favorites are the newly reinterpreted Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage, and the Gilded Age, Downton Abbey-fueled enthusiasm of the interpreters at Staatsburgh State Historic Site.  The other side of the river has not been quite so fortunate in its management of historic resources.  Orange County has tremendous sites, such as Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh and the New Windsor Cantonment, that can make us reconsider just how close the United States came to dying in its infancy, and by American–not British–hands, and the ways in which the memory of that period was (re)shaped by those who came after (Make no mistake, at these places you can learn how George Washington was every bit as important to the founding of America as the history books say he was.  In short, no Washington, no United States.  It’s just that simple, and that’s coming from the guy who constantly preaches that history is never simple.).  Those are matters of critical historical analysis that would be lost, to the clear detriment of our collective historical memory, if closed.

In Ulster County, there is probably only one historic site that rises to the level of registering more than a blink of the national eye if it shut down, which is the Senate House in Kingston.  Although open for only a few months each year as it is, and even then interpreted in a way that I can only say seems like a missed opportunity, it might be the most important historic site, in terms of the sweep of Early American history, between New York City and Albany, and that includes places like West Point.  That’s because, like at Williamsburg, only there can the story be told of the transformation of a colony into a state, and of (some) subjects into citizens, and why that makes a difference.  In 1777, Kingston went from being the capital of British New York, where the provincial convention last met, and the new constitution was written and first read (aloud, in the center of town), to the capital of an independent government — hence, the Senate House, where met the upper chamber of the legislature created by the first New York constitution.  There can be told the important story of the process of establishing independence, of letting go of the British (and Dutch) past, through the lives and experiences of the people who made it happen, and those whom opposed it, of the people whom embraced it and those whom feared it.  Those are the sorts of questions that could be put to guests–and not just New Yorkers–to make up their own minds about and wonder, a historian like me might hope, what all the fuss was about and, more to the point, was all the sacrifice worth it?  After all, Kingston was more or less burned to the ground by the British later in 1777, although the extent to which the considerable damage caused can be wholly attributed to the patriots’ enemies is debatable.  The “Burning of Kingston” still puts a nice bookend on that particular chapter in our nation’s history.  And think–only 13 places in America can claim that mantle, so Kingston should not lose its chance.

Of course, reasonable people will and should differ about these things.  After all, this post just represents my humble, even though informed, opinion.  But the broader point that I hope people ask whenever they drive by or walk into one of the legions of historic sites in America, or are asked to become a trustee or a volunteer or a donor, is threefold: 1) What line to the story of our nation’s history does this place contribute? 2) Is it actually being told there? 3) What would be lost if it disappeared? In other words, ask the big historical question, one that I encourage students to engage: “So what?”  Your answer will be the real measure of whether a historic site matters.

“I will not force my daughter to marry utterly against her will”: A Governor, A Planter’s Daughter, and the Perils of Passion

The signature of Francis Nicholson.

Most people will probably agree that Francis Nicholson (1655-1728), by the time of his second go-round as Virginia’s resident governor in the early 1700s, was, to put it mildly, a complete basket case and in the midst of the crisis of his life in the winter of 1702-1703.  In the language of the 18th century, he became “undone.”  And that’s saying quite something for the 47-year-old former army officer whom had served in the abandoned English garrison at Tangier and then been booted out of the short-lived Dominion of New England in 1689.  The cause?  His, by all accounts, uncontrollable passion for 19-year-old Lucy Burwell of Fairfield Plantation, in Gloucester County, the daughter of Lewis Burwell, a major Virginia planter and member of the Governor’s Council.  Nicholson’s conduct in the case, which included begging Lucy and threatening almost everyone else, was so offensive to the sensible nature of Virginians at the time that it reached the coffeehouses of London, where friends overheard the gossip and pleaded with Nicholson to just calm down and forget about her.

I find the episode of endless interest because of what it says about the dynamic social character of the British Atlantic world at the time, when Augustan sense–meaning politeness and moderation–was just beginning to dominate the broader culture, setting the parameters for acceptable discourse.  Nicholson was, however, oblivious to those expectations when it came to Lucy.  The subject is worth a much longer piece that considers it in a different context than most historians have placed it, as the episode, in the end, cost Nicholson his job.

Fairfield Plantation
Pre-1897 image of Fairfield Plantation in Gloucester County, Virginia.

But it also is a fascinating reflection on the social perceptions of the Virginians, whom were as culturally English as if they lived in the Home Counties.  The correspondence that flew back and forth between Nicholson and Lucy Burwell and both of her parents is extraordinary for the social and cultural assumptions that are packed into them.  Nicholson, for his part, appears to have honestly assumed that Lucy had no choice in the matter of a husband, that it was entirely up to her father whom she married.  And it followed, at least to Nicholson, that Lewis Burwell must have some personal reason for not bestowing his daughter’s hand on the governor, especially after Nicholson, according to Philip Ludwell, Jr., who was quite close to situation, had sent Lucy, her parents, and friends presents worth 500 pounds in order to sway them all to his way of thinking.  Ludwell, however, knew that Nicholson was stretching the truth a bit: “All the things that she had received were 3½ yards of dirty point lace and a purse containing 8 stone rings and a small seal, which he put into her hand wrapt up in her handkerchef, and rid away.”  According to Ludwell, “She sent them back.”  But that didn’t stop Nicholson, whom returned the gifts to Lucy, which caused Ludwell to personally take them back to Nicholson’s house, “whereat the Governor violently abused me.”

Wine bottle seal of Lewis Burwell.
Wine bottle seal of Lewis Burwell.

Lewis Burwell behaved rather differently and seems to have been guided by the hardening rules of politeness, deference, and reason that became so familiar later in the century to influence, if not determine, the relationships between people of different sorts.  But everyone has her or his limits.  After a particularly virulent epistolary tirade from Nicholson in December 1702, Burwell had just about had enough.  On the day after Christmas, he complained to the governor about his treatment, but their social standing being so different, between that of a royal governor and a mere private gentleman, Burwell’s options were limited.  Nicholson charged Burwell with thoughts and behavior that Burwell did not deserve and “which I could easily clear my self of were our circumstances alike, but since they are so different that I cannot answer for my self in such words as I think I aut to do were we on even grounds.”  Therefore, it must suffice for Burwell to say that he is “a loyal subject, an honest man, and one that hath always endeavoured to do my duty to the utmost of my power.”  Nicholson did not respond in kind.  He pleaded with Burwell, “for God sake Sir,” choose him for Lucy and “doe it before it be too late.”  Nicholson continued to heap invective on Burwell for months thereafter, bringing the business of the colony almost to a halt and alienating every planter who disagreed with him, but Burwell would not budge, mainly because Lucy’s hand was not, in fact, his to give.  As Burwell wrote to Philip Ludwell, Sr., in London, “I am daily alarmed with threatening messages of ruine, for what I know not, unless it be because I will not force my daughter to marry utterly against her will, which is a thing no Christian body can do.”

The curious affair continued for several months and the correspondence it generated is, frankly, some of the most entertaining of the period to read.  As I stated, it eventually led to Nicholson’s replacement in 1705 by the utterly reasonable, but unfortunately short-lived, Edward Nott, as even Nicholson’s friends could no longer save him from the rumors that reached London that Nicholson could no longer govern his own passions, and so could not be trusted to govern a colony.  At least not until he remembered himself.  But he did recover and was later appointed royal governor of South Carolina.

The site of Fairfield Plantation today.
The site of Fairfield Plantation today.

As for Lucy, her story does not have a happy ending.  She chose to marry 37-year-old Edmund Berkeley in 1703, a neighbor in Gloucester County.  They had 13 years and five children together before she died during a measles epidemic in 1716, at the age of 33.  In March 1717, Philip Ludwell, Jr., wrote to Nicholson, then back in England, that the “measles hath been epidemicall amongst us this winter, it hath run quick thro my family tho I thank God I have lost none…but poor Mrs. Berkeley dyed of it.”  One can only imagine Nicholson’s thoughts and feelings on reading those final words about the woman he had once so desperately wanted–and whom generated a passion in Nicholson that cost him so much.  As for the historical record, the affair is one of those that make the 18th century of such endless fascination as men and women attempted, with widely varying degrees of success, to come to terms with a rapidly changing world.  And it also reminds us that history is almost always better–and stranger–than fiction.

“A Powerful Change”: “Common Sense,” Patriot Politics, and Newspaper Editing in a Revolutionary World

Alexander Purdie's 2 February 1776 edition of the Virginia Gazette.
Alexander Purdie’s 2 February 1776 edition of the Virginia Gazette.

There can be no doubt about the impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense on the character of the American Revolution.  Charles Lee wrote to George Washington in January 1776 that “I never saw such a masterly irresistible performance.”  Although others found in it some serious weaknesses–Landon Carter, in a dispute with Richard Henry Lee, noted in his diary that “I gave my opinion freely as to the nonsense instead of Common Sense advanced”–sufficient evidence exists for historians to conclude that Paine’s pamphlet paved the way for people below the level of the elite, ruffled-shirt types to embrace independence from Great Britain. But how did those people read it, especially in Virginia, where the patriot movement had not yet caught sufficient fire amongst the sorts not named Henry, Jefferson, or Madison?  They certainly didn’t read it as most people today do, as a complete work, purchased in a single volume from his or her local bookseller.  Most people read it in drips and drabs of excerpts printed in their local newspapers.  But how many of Paine’s words were included, the ways in which they were arranged, and whether they were printed at all, were editorial matters entirely in the hands of colonial printers–or at least almost entirely. In early 1776, there were three newspapers in Williamsburg, Virginia, published by Alexander Purdie, John Pinkney (for the benefit of the children of the recently deceased Clementina Rind), and William Hunter, all called the Virginia Gazette (much to the confusion of generations of historians).  Purdie’s press was located where the Tarpley, Thompson & Company store is today, Pinkney printed his paper on the first floor of the Ludwell-Paradise House, and Hunter–whom had learned his trade from none other than Benjamin Franklin–pushed out his paper at the site of the current reconstructed print shop. It was Alexander Purdie who first got his hands on a copy of Common Sense, and in no way was that by chance.  It appears, from an unpublished letter rediscovered only in 2013, that John Page, then head of the Virginia Committee of Safety, received a copy of it from Richard Henry Lee almost immediately after Paine’s work was first printed in Philadelphia in January 1776.  Within weeks it was mysteriously dropped off with a letter to Page by “an invisible hand” who then “disappeared.”  Page was instructed to make sure it was published as soon as possible.  But by whom?  Page’s first, and perhaps only, choice, for a variety of reasons, was the stalwart patriot Purdie, although even he needed some convincing, as it took Page two attempts to secure Purdie’s assistance. This was high political communication, however, in the dangerous days of the early independence movement, so Page took no chances as to what would appear in the paper, not even with Purdie.  According to Page, he took an evening, sitting in a Williamsburg tavern, and went through Paine’s work, judiciously selecting the paragraphs to be printed and–almost as crucially–the order in which Purdie and his assistants would print them.  What resulted was Page’s version of Common Sense, one quite unlike that read today.  Page selected 14 paragraphs–mostly those that addressed the rational, political issues–and rearranged them to appear in a more more logical order, even shifting individual sentences from one place to another, so that the constitutional argument for independence would appear clearest to those whom most needed to hear the message and stand the greatest chance of being rightly, in Page’s opinion, persuaded by it. And so, on this date — 2 February — in 1776, there appeared on the first page of Purdie’s newspaperExtracts from a pamphlet just published in Philadelphia, entitled COMMON SENSE, addressed to the inhabitants of America.”  Pinkney soon followed suit, but with different, less carefully selected and arranged, excerpts, perhaps to gain some ground on his competitor just down Duke of Gloucester Street.  Hunter, already showing signs of his committed loyalism, refused to print it at all.  In fact, his press printed a lengthy rebuttal to it in his paper, hoping to stem the tide of the movement towards independence. So thanks to Richard Henry Lee in Philadelphia, John Page in Williamsburg, the trusty Alexander Purdie, and that “invisible hand,” Paine’s words could reach and penetrate the minds, and not just the hearts, of Virginians.  And it worked.  Just over a month later, Fielding Lewis could report to Washington that “The opinion for independentcy seems to be gaining ground. Indeed most of those who have read the Pamphlet Common Sence say it’s unanswerable.”  Washington himself credited Paine’s arguments with converting the hearts and minds of Virginians to the patriot cause: “I find common sense is working a powerful change there in the Minds of many Men.”  How much of that powerful change was directly worked by Page’s pen and Purdie’s press is arguable, but it is likely that, without them, Virginia’s road to independence would have taken a rather different path.