Judi and I recently visited Williamsburg, Virginia. I did not realize, until we experienced the extraordinary reenactments, the vital role the people of Virginia played in our journey from independent colonies to a united nation. Two events in particular connected me to the 18th century—in different ways.
One afternoon, we found ourselves in a small room of the George Wythe House. Wythe was the first law professor in the United States and noted classical scholar. Since he also enjoyed music, he and a group of friends played together; and spent time discussing and debating ideas; everything from the classical to the current.
When this group decided to add a violinist, they found a talented young student at the College of William and Mary. Likely, the young man attended to the discussions as well as the music. It was, no doubt, a very formative time for young Thomas Jefferson.
I was actually standing in the same room where Thomas Jefferson began to contemplate the future of the New World. As a young man in this place, his ideas were just beginning to emerge; many years before Congress would appoint the “Committee of Five”—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Jefferson—to draft a declaration. How might these United States have emerged differently had this chance meeting between student and mentor never happened? In that moment, I felt a powerful connection to July 4, 1776.
My other connection to that time was similarly powerful, but confusing. The very talented Williamsburg thespians reenacted an event that occurred outside the Raleigh Tavern in 1775. As tempers began to flare over independence, a brash young man by the name of Carter, perhaps after a few too many tankards of ale, decried the folly of the colony’s amateur militia facing the British Army. He was dragged from the tavern and tried on the street. Three townspeople passed judgment following an inflamed prosecution by an angry Captain James Innes of the Virginia Militia. No real opportunity for defense was offered. Even as I stood there, more than 225 years later, I felt how dangerous it would have been to even suggest a more reasonable trial be held at a later date. Carter avoided being tarred and feathered by publicly recanting his beliefs. Nothing less would have satisfied what had essentially become a lynch mob.
I’d like to think we have come a long way since 1775, but I fear we have not. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, I hear too many ideas tried and convicted “on the street” with little opportunity for defense…and it saddens me.