The guide for our tour through the Randolph House in Williamsburg is sturdy and middle-aged. Delia is African-American, her skin a pale cocoa. Her close-cropped hair is graying and wrapped in a striped kerchief. She wears a loose white muslin dress, tied at the waist with an apron. She is good-natured and funny, and cracks up when I say Dave is my first husband. Awkward. Don’t even know why it came out that way, but she thinks it’s hysterical, and she smiles and shakes her head every time she glances my way.
It is sweltering hot and those of us gathered beneath a shade tree in the yard of this stately eighteenth century house are grateful for the chance to rest and fan ourselves while sitting on rough wooden benches awaiting the start of our tour. “Finish up your snacks and drinks now,” says Delia. “Don’t want any spills inside.”
A young woman in red sneakers sips from a plastic cup. “Can I bring it in if I’m really careful? I just bought it.”
Delia shakes her head. “Finish it up. I don’t think any of these folks will mind if we sit a bit longer.” She’s right: a visit to Williamsburg involves much weary walking and standing. Once the woman chugs down her beverage, we rise regretfully from our perches and follow Delia through the entrance.
She is wise and knowledgeable, and I wonder if she is a history teacher when not impersonating a slave. For that is her role. Like every African-American interpreter in this colonial town, she represents one of the enslaved persons that made up 52% of the town’s population in the 1780’s. “Enslaved persons” is Delia’s preferred term as it emphasizes the state of enslavement and the fact that this individual is not just property, but a person. A person who has been wronged. Our guide wants to be sure her charges understand this: “There was no ‘good’ slavery.”
As we wind past the fine furniture, porcelain ornaments, and china that belonged to the privileged Randolph family, Delia tells us about those who performed the polishing, cleaning, cooking, and laundry. Johnny and Eve were Mr. and Mrs. Randolph’s personal servants, so trusted they carried the house keys and supervised other workers. Yet, when the Randolphs died and their wills were read, Johnny and Eve were items to be disbursed along with the bureaus and beds. “Life was hard work,” says Delia, “and it was also uncertain. An enslaved person could be given as a birthday present or to settle a debt.”
Later in the afternoon, Dave and I trudge down the hot brick sidewalk to the Charlton Stage, plotting our route from the shade of one tree to that of the next. While tourists strive to stay cool in skimpy sundresses, shorts, and sandals, the interpreters we encounter are dressed in multiple layers. I pity the men, especially, in their long–sleeved shirts, waistcoats, overcoats, breeches, and woolen stockings. Woolen stockings! I shudder.
We had arrived in Williamsburg the night before our tour and eaten dinner at the Dog Street Pub. Dave loved the beer and the heavy earthenware mug in which it was served. I loved the creamy Welsh rarebit: a rich cheese sauce with a trace of stone ground mustard poured over a thick slice of toast. I had eyed a gentleman sitting with his lady two tables over. Although dressed in a shirt and slacks much like Dave’s, the man was regal. Something about the angles of his face, the proud nose, and gray hair. I whispered to Dave,” Bet you anything he’s Thomas Jefferson.”
Dave checked him out. “Could be…”
Dave and I had prepared for this trip. He finished Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill a few weeks ago, and at Mercy Learning Center, I’ve been studying the Revolutionary War, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution with my students, Taiwo and Nicole. In our discussions of the founding fathers’ efforts to plan for posterity, to plan for us, I have at times become teary at their foresight, even as Taiwo and Nicole have been wide-eyed with admiration. So, Mr. Jefferson has been on my mind.
Upon reaching Charlton Stage, Dave and I inch down the rows of low wooden benches to take our seats in the shade. Soon Thomas Jefferson – indeed, it is my Mr. Jefferson from the pub – strides down a narrow walkway to the stage. Seemingly impervious to the heat, he wears a tri-corn hat, white ruffled shirt, blue coat, brown breeches, and riding boots.
The stately Virginian slave-owner opens with references to the Declaration, and the self-evident truths of equality and the unalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. He asks us, “Consider, if you will, how do you feel when you do good?”
“Happy,” we, the multitude, dutifully respond.
“And how do you feel if you do something deceitful, something you know not to be right?”
Most mumble the obvious, “bad,” but one thoughtful soul, breaking boldly from group-speak, suggests, “uncomfortable?”
“Indeed,” says Mr. Jefferson. “Uncomfortable. Such acts might keep us awake at night.” And then he makes clear his case that in doing good lies the happiness of which he wrote.
Our speaker asks for questions and parries concerns about a populace that does not bother to vote despite the right to do so, and a government seemingly in the power of a wealthy few. In answering, he swivels on one booted heel and sweeps his arm, hand out, palm raised, in a gesture to encompass us all. “Is this not a government of the people? It is to the people to hold that right and that responsibility firmly. Speak out! Just as you are doing here today.”
And I imagine the collective flurry of thoughts as each of us mentally composes letters to our congressmen demanding change as directed by Thomas Jefferson. For make no mistake, to those of us sitting on these wooden benches in this town of centuries old clapboard and brick homes – having visited coopers and brickmakers, weavers and gunsmiths, having witnessed soldiers recruited for the upcoming battle of Yorktown, and having questioned the quandary of a fight for liberty by those served by slaves – the statesman before us is the Declaration’s author.
Jefferson invites Robert, a young boy of 10 or so, to join him on the stage. Robert has embraced the spirit of this visit to 1781 and wears breeches, stockings, and a tri-corn hat. His mouth slightly open, his eyes wide, it is hard to say if he is star-struck or nervous as he stands before us, face-to-face with Mr. Jefferson. But there is no mistaking his look of lust when Jefferson draws a sword from its scabbard and hands it to him.
“While not known as a soldier, I have had some success with the pen,” Jefferson says with a self-deprecating grace that draws a chuckle from the crowd. He then places a quill in the boy’s other hand. Predictably, he asks, “Master Robert. Which do you suppose to be mightier? Pen or sword?”
The boy pauses and I wonder, would a child this age know the expected response? And much as we Americans have been drilled in that concept and long for its truth, does it still hold in this world rent by war and driven by money?
As one, the audience holds its breath, leans forward, and wills young Robert to respond.
“The pen?” His response is hesitant, a question really, but we burst into relieved applause. Huzzah!
Jefferson smiles and nods, then reaches to retrieve the sword – gleaming, impressive, and undeniably mighty. Robert’s expression is wistful as it disappears into its scabbard, and he is left with the pen. Jefferson pats the child’s shoulder and the rest of us clap as the boy returns to his seat, proud owner of a new feather quill.
Will Robert remember this moment, the regal man and his powerful words peppered with “lest we forget” and “forthwith”? Later, as Dave and I muse at the extremes of inspiration and polarization represented in Williamsburg’s history, I wish I’d asked Mr. Jefferson how his plantation worked by slaves, no, enslaved persons, fit into his concept of liberty.