Whig History at Williamsburg

Historians tend to be critical about a lot of things. I often drive my non-historian friends and family members crazy by pointing out the problems with how people use the past in public discourse. So you can imagine how much I drove my family crazy this past weekend during our trip to Williamsburg.

Since it has been a while since I visited CW, I expected to be overwhelmed by what is called a “Whig” interpretation of early American history. Whig history tends to see the past as a constant progression toward liberty, freedom and the Enlightenment. As I try to teach my students, a Whig approach to colonial American history tends to treat the period predominantly for the way it provides a link to the American Revolution. Whig historians will focus their attention on various parts of colonial American life that might serve as a precursor to Independence. As historian Brendan McConville has recently shown, such an approach to the colonial period fails to address the deep sense of Britishness that pervaded American life between 1680 and 1765.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Colonial Williamsburg has not entirely fallen prey to Whig history. For example, our guide through the Virginia colonial capitol building made it clear that the government, especially the House of Burgesses and the Royal Governor, showed very little signs of the political order that was to come after 1776. (In other words, there was no “democracy” in colonial Virginia). A re-enactment of Benedict Arnold’s raising of the British flag over the capitol building (with patriot colonials booing him in protest) was also a clear sign to those in attendance that Williamsburg was the capital of a very British colony.

But throughout the course of our visit, Whig ideas did tend to rear their ugly heads. This was especially the case during our tour of the Governor’s palace. At first, our guide made the point that the palace, especially during the rule of Lord Dunmore, was meant to exemplify British power. One could not miss the muskets and swords that decorated the walls of the rooms. She was right. This was a British building meant to exude a sense of British glory.

And then the train got off the track.

As our guide began explaining the picture of George III on the wall of the foyer, she noted that most people in England believed that the Hanoverian line, and George III specifically, ruled by divine right. This fact was certainly true, but her interpretation of this fact fell head first into the Whig quagmire. “So you can see,” she noted, “how this view that the King ruled by divine right, and the picture of him hanging here, would have angered the colonists and caused them to start thinking about independence.” (How many ordinary Virginians would have actually entered the foyer?)

This of course led me to wonder aloud to my poor wife why this tour guide assumed that eighteenth-century Virginia’s minds would have immediately jumped to independence when they thought about George III’s claim to divine right? No, it seemed that the natural way of thinking when exposed to the picture of George III would have been a reflection on how much they were part of a great British empire ruled by a King who had God’s favor. The picture would have triggered Britishness and not some nascent sense of American independence.

This is why Whig history can be dangerously ahistorical.

We ran into other examples of this throughout the day, but I think I will stop there and give you some time to feel sorry for my wife and kids after a day in Williamsburg with me!