“Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck”: Halloween and Colonial Williamsburg’s Historical Collision

“If there is one firm guiding and restraining word which should be passed on to those who will be responsible for the restoration in the future, that one word is integrity. A departure from truth here and there will inevitably produce a cumulative deterioration of authenticity and consequent loss of public confidence. Loyalty demands that this principle of integrity be adhered to.”  –  The Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, A Briefe & True Report Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (April 1941).

Because Colonial Williamsburg is so rapidly, even spectacularly, spiraling out of the field of historic sites, and into a new, self-defined realm of history-themed leisure destinations, it was quickly getting beyond my interest as both an academic and a public historian. But I’m beginning to reverse that trend in my thinking given that CW has taken on a fresh role, one with vibrant utility and a seemingly endless production of content for current and burgeoning public historians: As the most glaring cautionary tale of modern times for museums and historic sites.  But yet another piece about the latest Tidewater foolishness–whether the collapse of CW’s commitment to any real educational endeavor, or the fact that it apparently now employs more speechwriters than historians of 18th-century Virginia–would be a waste of anyone’s time. Life is too short. It’s more important to use CW’s almost daily foibles as examples of what historic sites that strive for donor confidence, brand development and protection, and historical legitimacy should not do. In that sense, CW is providing a quite valuable service to the rest of us. So we can let the ice rink and the massive pirate M&M now standing in the Visitor’s Center speak for themselves (perhaps literally, if the M&M talks, which wouldn’t surprise me at this point).

However, when the President and CEO of CW, or maybe his senior speechwriter (a real first for any historic site I’ve ever heard of), or a junior speechwriter, decides to tout the “critical” importance of “[h]istorical authenticity” in a local newspaper–and then proceeds to not only get that history wrong but to defend it, then attention must be paid. Yes, I suppose that CW’s new Halloween programming scratches some Jungian itch, and I appreciate the writer of the piece, whoever it was, for tapping Wake Forest’s terrific Eric Wilson, a respected professor of English whose speciality is the connection of literature and psychology, for his take on Jung. But perhaps he or she should have included the title of one of Wilson’s most illuminating explorations of Jung, which seems more apt to CW’s current situation — Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.

Since the piece brings up a few specific things to defend, as “[f]anciful programming” that “draws nonetheless from a dark chapter in Williamsburg’s past,” let’s take one or two examples of this commitment to historical authenticity out for a spin, shall we? How about, “the actual trial and hangings of Blackbeard’s pirate crew here [in Williamsburg]”? As Hampton Roads’ Daily Press covered just last year, a new book by historian Kevin Duffus, based on a mountain of solid research, reveals that much we had assumed about the fate of Blackbeard’s crew was wrong.  Some of Blackbeard’s crew were held in Williamsburg’s original gaol (only traces of which still exist — the current building is almost entirely a reconstruction), but the Vice-Admiralty Court where they were tried was most likely held in Hampton, where those few who were sentenced to death were hanged and buried, not in Williamsburg. This one might be open to interpretation of the few remaining documents, even if most historians now discount the story that CW seems committed to telling for Halloween and beyond, so let’s call it a foul ball, rather than a swinging strike. Either way, it’s hardly fact and shouldn’t be scored as a hit in the historical box score.

Much more glaring is the upcoming Halloween programming in a town that never experienced it as it is presented this year. Forget “ancient Celtic traditions” (questionable) or imperative Jungian yearnings (laughable), it’s just not true, regardless of one’s interpretation of 18th-century Williamsburg, of an English, Episcopalian town culturally gripped by Enlightenment ideals, in which most inhabitants scorned anything approaching the supernatural. From the period there is only one recorded “ghost story”–that of the mysterious ringing bells of William & Mary’s Wren Building. But the best source for an understanding of Halloween, which apparently neither Mr. Reiss nor his team of speechwriters bothered to read, is CW’s own take on it: A nicely comprehensive and accessible article in the now-defunct but once quite good Colonial Williamsburg Journal, written by historian Mary Miley Theobald, author of the splendid Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, also published by CW. Her assessment could not be more clear:

Colonial Americans didn’t celebrate Halloween. They didn’t have jack-o’-lanterns either, or trick or treat, or costumes, or candy as we know it.   

Does that mean CW should ignore the modern practice of Halloween? Of course not. It is fun. Guests do like it. Moreover, there are plenty of autumnal, harvest activities in which colonial Virginians did engage that could be both engaging and authentic for guests as part of programming. And shifting the telling of ghost stories on dark nights around roaring fires, which was a Christmas tradition, up two months does not hurt anyone. Similarly, there were real trials of properly nasty people who were duly executed on Williamsburg’s gallows, and their bodies dumped into the nearby ravine, around which to build “spooky” programming.  But even the relatively modern, and wonderfully charming, Christmas programming that has long been beloved by generations of guests has not, at least to my knowledge, been subject to audacious claims of faux 18th-century authenticity, augmented by appeals to subconscious psychological needs (“[N]ow more than ever”? Really?) as accompanies the latest attempt to cover CW’s disengagement with history.

When the board brought on the new regime, I kept an open mind and was crossing my fingers for better things for CW and, more to the point, the fine interpreters and tradespersons and other staff who work there every day. In any case, it doesn’t do to make up one’s mind about things or people too quickly, if at all. But, having literally written the book on the place, I have a soft spot for those whose loyalty is, as CW’s founding visionary, the Rev. Goodwin, had hoped, to the broad view of the institution’s future and, as a public historian, critical, in a constructive sense, of the ways in which it impacts our understanding of the past–even if that impact becomes a negative one. The practice of history, public or academic, is not a popularity contest. So perhaps Mr. Reiss and his team should be true to the reality of their situation and, for that, rely even more heavily on Prof. Wilson. After all, CW is almost entirely the construction of a place that never actually existed, rather than the painstaking reconstruction of one at a particular point in its history. Architecturally speaking, it’s a best-guess mishmash of buildings from different periods and places, some built where others were, some where they were not, some to reflect other parts of the Chesapeake, with beautiful, ornamental gardens where there were actually once stables, cow pens, and pigsties. So no one from the 1700s, should they magically return today, would fully recognize the place. In that sense, if CW’s board is going to allow the new leadership to persist in publicly painting their new approach in the colors of historical legitimacy, perhaps they are being more true to the authentic nature of the place than they know. If so, Wilson’s latest book gives them a mission statement worthy of their apparent vision for it: Keep It Fake.

What Would Henry Clay Do?: History, Partisanship, and the Election of the Speaker of the House

In much of the coverage over the confusion now engulfing the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, history–as is often the case–has been cast aside, even when it might do some real good in helping the majority party get itself together.  Or, at the very least, remind Members of the House why their positions exist at all, and therefore what sort of leadership they should seek. After all, they’ve been at this thing since Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected the first Speaker in 1789, so it should not seem as if it’s a novel question.  Yet, for some reason, it does.

Perhaps that’s because the way in which both chambers of Congress are supposed to do their business–or, more to the point, the people’s business–has changed dramatically over the last century or so.  The question of “What Would Henry Clay Do?” is, in an important sense, a moot one, as the Congress in which he served as the first Speaker of any real influence, beginning in 1811, doesn’t exist anymore. That’s mostly due to the fact that the Constitution is pretty silent about how Congress should work, stating nothing more than that “the House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” [Art. I, sec. 2, cl. 5]  That’s it.  Everything else–the Majority leader, Minority leader, committee structure, committee membership, whose bills get considered and when, etc.–are, in a very real sense, parliamentary fictions, and relatively recent ones at that, created mostly in the 20th century to embed the two-party system in American political life.  The Speaker doesn’t even have to be a Member of the House of Representatives, didn’t serve on a committee of the House until 1858, and he or she certainly doesn’t have to be a product of a partisan system created to, essentially, perpetuate that system.

Harkening back to Henry Clay, or any of the “Founders” or other celebrated historical leaders, wouldn’t do any good to the vast majority of today’s politicians or pundits, who otherwise spend their time fawning over their august political ancestors in print, online, and on television.  That’s mainly because they really don’t know that much about them and, therefore, what guidance America’s historical experience might practically provide. Just look at one of the current candidates for Speaker, Daniel Webster (no, not that one), of Florida, who proposes new rules to return political power to the broader House membership–at least of his own party.  But new rules wouldn’t be necessary if they just got rid of the existing ones that concentrated that power in the first place.  It’s not like he’d be throwing out valued traditions that will one day form the basis of a smash-hit Broadway musical–the rules were created not that long ago, barely a century has passed in the case of the most pernicious ones.  Either way, Clay’s declaration that the role of the Speaker is “to remain cool and unshaken amidst all the storms of debate, carefully guarding the preservation of the permanent laws and rules of the House from being sacrificed to temporary passions, prejudices, or interests,” is awfully nice for elected officials and candidates to repeat, and splendidly gripping for anyone to hear, but that idea–of using cool, unshaken reason to combat passionate, interested prejudice–is just not part of American life anymore, if it ever was, this side of old episodes of The West Wing.

For, in the first analysis, while America’s political leaders have always touted reasoned deliberation as the key to a functioning democracy–an ideological relic of the pre-1776 British Atlantic world–that’s not actually how the American body politic has perceived itself.  The “blocking minority” of the majority party in the House, the so-called Tea Party fundamentalists, really are the practical, if not necessarily ideological, heirs of the first Patriots, Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their independence-minded colleagues of the Continental Congress.  Could the American Revolution have been avoided if men of cool minds and sound reasoning decided to negotiate and compromise rather than, full of passion and interest, resort to intransigence and insist on independence as the only path to secure freedom?  Of course.  Until then, the British people–including those on this side of the Atlantic–were the freest people in the world and, had not the French Revolution scared the living bejesus out of most reformers, thereby delaying for a bit–but only for a bit–the expansion of that freedom, the worst thing that would have happened is that America would have, over time, essentially become Canada.  And that’s not such a bad thing.  It’s not like the “American Revolution” was a real fight between liberty and tyranny.  George III was far from the demagogue he appears on Schoolhouse Rock and, constitutionally, couldn’t have caused such mischief even if he had wanted to.  Far from it, but that’s what Jefferson, Adams, and Thomas Paine, and others sincerely (for the most part) believed, and they acted on that principle, standing on ground made firm by their own colonial American pride and an increasingly virulent British imperial prejudice.

What does that have to do with Henry Clay and the current kerfuffle over the Speaker of the House?  Not a damn thing.  And that’s my point.  The chamber is no longer that of Henry Clay, no more than the Senate–which was directly elected by the state legislatures, not the voters, until 1913–is that of the other Daniel Webster.  They both of have been transformed beyond recognition by relatively recent rules and practices, heartily endorsed by the likes of Woodrow Wilson, designed to acquire and keep political power, developed as the parties themselves became the institutional behemoths that we recognize today, which the first Founders and Framers–almost each and every one of them–thought was the foremost threat to liberty. (Ironically, the first of the major rule changes were in reaction to congressmen who wanted to use the House’s power of the purse to shut down post-Civil War federal policies with which a vocal minority disagreed.)  That threat was enshrined in America’s governing practices by nothing more than internal congressional rules and the result–of these various attempts to strengthen partisanship but address a blocking minority–is a national legislature that can charitably described as a dysfunctional basketcase.

So what’s needed to address the trouble facing Congress is neither fundamental nor is it complicated.  But it might require something of a revolution, in terms of a return to what once was.  (As an aside, just consider how different the body might be if they repealed the law, passed in 1911, that capped the size of the House at 435 voting Members–again, not part of the Constitution–and, instead, allowed representation to grow, as the Framers intended, as the country grew, instead of effectively shrinking it with every decennial reapportionment?)  If the current Members of the House revere the Founders so terribly much, maybe they need to start showing it by returning the functioning of the House to the one the Founders created, one in which the Speaker was not the head of a party, but the non-partisan overseer of the people’s work.  Then Republicans and Democrats might join together in a vote for someone amounting to a consensus leader–and John Boehner can finally go home and get some sleep.

NOTE: Anyone interested in learning more about the remarkable Henry Clay should join me on Thursday, at 3:00 pm, at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate for a timely conversation with historian Harlow Giles Unger about his new biography — Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman.  You can register for the event here.

Beyond the Suspension of Disbelief: James Getty and the Power of the First-Person Interpreter

Last week I gave a talk to Museum Studies students at my school about the perceived and actual differences between academic and public historians as a way of introducing my course in the spring, The Practice of Public History. During my talk, to a fantastic group, I covered a wide range of topics and ideas, partly driven by my impressions of the implications of recent reports that revealed history-related institutions make up more than half of all museums, yet account for less than a fifth of the total financial resources devoted to cultural and heritage organizations.  I also talked about the importance of evaluating programs and establishing a clear definition of success that included a discussion about fitting different modes of interpretation (first-person costumed, third-person, tech-driven, etc.) to one’s ostensible purpose.  That’s because when done well, first-person interpretation, complete with buckled shoes and frilly shirts, can be a powerful tool of public history, reaching and impacting more people, and shaping their understanding of the past, than might ever read the books written by Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, and Jack Greene (my own mentor), combined.  Conversely, when done poorly, when the facts aren’t straight and the persona is off, it can create enormous damage to an observer’s historical consciousness, and drive more dismissal of the tactic, even of the entire field, by “proper” historians, whether they lecture in an august classroom or muse in a comfortable armchair.


The example I used of first-person interpretation at its best was Bill Barker, who portrays one of the more difficult–because tremendously complicated–historical figures, Thomas Jefferson, at Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and elsewhere.  As I know quite well, having once been his neighbor and chief annoyance at CW (which almost resulted in the burning down of an historic structure, but that’s a different story), Bill is not only an expert on his subject on a level at, or even greater than, many Jefferson historians of my acquaintance, he also knows what that ill-defined, undifferentiated mass we call the “public” expects from him as Jefferson, complexities and all.  And he does a tremendously good job of bridging the exceptionally problematic gap between Jeffersonian fiction and fact, which is saying quite something because there is quite a bit of the former and nowhere near enough of the latter when it comes to the tall Virginia redhead.  Bill knows his craft and the impact it has on his audience, whether they have met him for the first or hundredth time, and he takes that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.  That’s because he is fully aware of the trust he assumes whenever he takes on the persona of Jefferson; he has the power to inspire and engage, but along with that comes the potential to disappoint and derail.

homeimageI wasn’t thinking of Bill, though, when I actually got up to talk last week.  I was thinking about another interpreter of an American president, one perhaps not as well-traveled as Bill, but one just as professional and every bit as influential, and who I, sitting there in a Harvard lecture hall, had just been informed by my niece had passed away at the age of 83: James Getty.  For almost 40 years, Getty portrayed Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for much of that time at his studio on Steinwehr Avenue, “A. Lincoln’s Place.”  And it was there, on the evening of September 27, 1978, that an eight-year-old from Baltimore, who before then had spent more time on horseback than in a library, became an historian.  To avoid the risk of turning this post into a maudlin personal memoir (“too late,” you might say), I’ll just relate that my parents and grandparents, wanting to nurture my nascent interest in the past, arranged a “private audience” for me with Getty as Mr. Lincoln.  And for a time, I was enthralled by his kindness and his knowledge.  For an hour or so, 1978 turned into 1863 and there was no one IMG_0008else in the world but me and the 16th President of the United States, with my family playing the role of an indulgent audience to what must have seemed an odd discussion between a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy in a striped shirt and a tall man with a black beard and a stovepipe hat.  I was never the same after that evening.  I devoured works on Lincoln and the Civil War, returned countless times to Gettysburg and other battlefields, and then moved on to study the American Revolution and the ideas behind what happened “Four score and seven years” before my ostensible meeting with Mr. Lincoln.  I also continued to carry with me the tremendous gift that he had given me, of being able to suspend one’s disbelief to become, even briefly, a time traveler, and thereby, as an historian, better grasp the perspective of people I’ll never really know but can attempt to understand on their own terms, as people in their own world, one much different, in many but not all ways, from our own.

And that, in a nutshell, is the power of the first-person interpreter, and also the responsibility that accompanies it should a public history groupprogram developer or individual interpreter choose to take on such a role.  The clothes do not make the historical man or woman.  As I became more educated about Lincoln, I became more impressed over time with what I remembered about James Getty’s portrayal and how much he got right.  I also recognized what I do not remember: Whether his boots were the right cut or his buttons the right size.  What was more important, and just as Bill Barker accomplishes as Jefferson every day, James Getty created an authentic historical moment as Lincoln, even for one otherwise unremarkable little boy.

In that sense, costumed portrayals, whether as a famous or forgotten person of the past, come with a high cost in terms of education and training about both the subject and, critically, the ethics of it.  I personally tutored CW’s James Madison (the splendid Bryan Austin) for several grueling months before we let him interact with guests, because we knew what could happen when the first-person experience goes awry, in turning off guests or, worse, miseducating them about the past.  And that is perhaps more important today, when candidates and pontificators increasingly attempt to use history as a tool to further their own political or ideological causes.  The people, therefore, need to be forearmed with their own knowledge about the past, if, for no other reason, to use as a shield against those who would attempt to take advantage of ignorance to influence behavior.

And, on a much more personal note, had not James Getty accepted his calling with such alacrity and integrity, Harvard Yard would be home to one fewer historian today, which would be a shame, indeed.