Life in the Colonies

Life in the Colonies

Colonial Williamsburg, the famous open-air museum nestled between the York and James Rivers in Virginia, attracts an abundance of tourists annually.  The attraction gives visitors a glimpse into colonial life through the use of actors inhabiting the colonial buildings and spaces.  A reoccurring theme throughout it is the crucial role that Virginia, and specifically Williamsburg, played in the development of American democracy through revolutionary philosophies.  This is embodied in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s mission statement, “To feed the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.”[1]  If this is the foundation’s and museum’s mission, it is important to explore the manner in which this is being achieved and the gaps in the story the museum tells.  By keeping in line with Edward Said’s concepts outlined in Invention, Memory and Place, this paper aims to evaluate Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction of the history of democracy in the U.S. and how it democracy is practiced today.  More specifically, this paper discusses the manner in  which Colonial Williamsburg reproduces problematic ideas of democracy by portraying a nostalgic and wistful version of the Virginia colony and ignores the complex complications that American democracy faces today.

In Invention, Memory and Place, Edward Said explores the social constructions of memory and how it informs our national consciousness.  If one were to consider Colonial Williamsburg’s mission statement of “To feed the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story”, the memories that come to mind are along the lines of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence, as well as individuals such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  This history is taught in most American curricula and is considered by Said to be a “nationalist effort premised on the need to construct a desirable loyalty to… one’s country, tradition, and faith.”[2]  If schools are the primary mechanism of socialization, then teaching this history is a way to create a collective memory, “in which past events are selected reconstructed, maintained, modified, and endowed with a political meaning.”[3]  Colonial Williamsburg’s depictions of colonial America propagate an idea of a harmonious society with little tension between genders, classes and races.

When one visits Colonial Williamsburg, he or she steps onto a late seventeenth century street that immediately transports him or her 200 years into the past.  Actors in colonial garb walk past smiling and, if one is lucky, he or she may see historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin delivering a speech about the Revolutionary War and American liberty.  In the late 1970s, the Colonial Williamsburg foundation hired several cultural and social historians to paint a more accurate picture of what life in the colonies was like, “[advocating] for the acceptance of a more… critical history that exposed the underside of Colonial Virginia, moving beyond the elite ‘silk pants’ patriots.”[4]  This goal would challenge tourists to examine our national history through an analytical and critical lens, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of how the United States was created through depicting the conflicts that existed in colonial society and how those same conflicts still exist in one way or another.

While admirable and an important task for the foundation to assume, its implementation has failed.  Perhaps one of the reasons underlying Colonial Williamsburg’s attempts to achieve the depiction of a more accurate history lies in the conflict between the business of Colonial Williamsburg and its mission to educate.  Accurate depictions by actors of slavery and the subservient role of women in colonial America would not only be unethical, but also would interfere with Colonial Williamsburg’s goal of attracting the maximum possible number of visitors needed to fund the living museum.[5]  The concepts of constructivism and mimetic realism coexist at Colonial Williamsburg, meaning that “fixed or real facts comprised of an accumulation of facts” and the interpretation of these facts and historical ideas are used “to make the past come alive.”[6]  The issue with this practice is that interpretations of history are portrayed as fact, which means that the history depicted does not necessarily depict the truth.  Because of this, the darker aspects of American colonial history, such as the mass killings of Native Americans and slavery, are often overlooked.  Colonial Williamsburg provides a type of escapism for visitors, in the same way that Disneyland does, by using a benign social history to “comfort visitors’ qualms about social injustice and banish a discussion of it all together.”[7]  While Colonial Williamsburg does, in a way, serve the purpose of indoctrination that Said describes by educating the public about American history through a revisionist lens, it is hardly a conspiracy hatched up by the foundation.  Rather, the foundation has a genuine business need to make the museum as inviting as possible for potential visitors in order to maximize its revenue.

That being said, it is important to understand what life in the colonies was like and the claim in the Declaration of Independence that America would guarantee “liberty and justice for all” was intended for white, landowning men only. Life in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Virginia was far different than what is depicted through reenactments at Colonial Williamsburg.  The first English ship arrived on the shores of Virginia on April 26, 1607 carrying 143 Englishmen.[8]  Originally, the English intended to build a military fort and commercial trading post and, unlike the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts, the men who found themselves in Virginia were interested in making fortunes for themselves.[9]  While Colonial Williamsburg markets Virginia as the birthplace of American democracy, the reality lived by the majority of Virginia’s citizens was anything but democratic.

For women and African slaves, specifically, Virginia society was oppressive in its strict hierarchical structure.  The Virginia colony began when the English shipped young men to the area to cultivate the land in the early 1600s.  The migration of the English and the establishment of the Jamestown colony nearly twenty years prior to the colonization of Massachusetts by the Puritans.[10]  This vision of the Virginia colony soon evolved into “a permanent colony of families whose labor would support a diversified agricultural economy.”[11]  In order to achieve this, Virginia needed “honest laborers” who were married with children to “keep them from the dangers of idleness.”[12]  It was assumed that relationships with honest women was what kept laborers honest, “wives capable of turning men into hardworking, permanent settlers.”[13]  In 1620, the English began to ship women to Virginia with the hopes that it would inspire men to start families and the dream of a sustainable colony would be finally realized.[14]  Even with the import of Englishwomen, the ratio of men to women in Virginia was severely skewed (it was approximately 4:1), which made the courting process extremely competitive.  Initially, the House of Burgesses passed a petition that allowed husbands to grant shares of their lands to their wives to attract more women to migrate to the colonies, but that practice appears to have been not widely practiced and to have been short-lived.[15]

In England, it was not unusual for women to assist in agricultural labor, but by the mid-seventeenth century in Virginia, women were expected to tend to indoor chores.[16]  While women without servants were more likely to assist in agricultural labor, women of a higher status tended to spend their days cooking for their families and travelers passing through.[17]  The opportunity to move to Virginia and become a wife and mother became both a marketing technique for the Virginia Company and a form of asserting one’s place in a highly stratified society, “they offered them a degree of power and status in a colony in which two other arenas for female self-assertion—markets and city streets—did not exist.”[18]  During the Revolutionary period, however, women did have the important task of assuming the role of Republican Motherhood, meaning that it was the duty of the mother to teach her sons about the importance of American patriotism.[19]

African American life in colonial Virginia was brutal and bleak.  A study examining the colonial Virginia legal code reveals a number of statutes passed that were key in the institutionalization of slavery in the colony.  The great irony of Virginia was that for all of the revolutionary thought it produced, “Virginia was also a leader in the gradual debasement of blacks”, excluding them from the formation of the democratic American narrative.[20]  In 1659 African and Caribbean immigrants were directly referred to as slaves in Act XVI,  which provided financial incentives to those participating in the slave trade.[21]  In 1669 an act entitled An Act About the Casuall Killing of Slaves legalized, for all intents and purposes, the killing of one’s slaves by allowing owners to mutilate and beat what they deemed to be their property, “This 1669 statute indicated that Virginia was prepared to exploit the slave labor force to the maximum degrees possible.”[22]  A 1691 statute provided that if one were to free a slave then he would have to pay for the slave’s transportation out of the country, which made it difficult for masters to free their slaves due to the economic burden.[23]  This statute also made it clear that Virginia found emancipated slaves in society undesirable and their only function was to provide labor for their white owners.  Most subsequent legislation further restricted the economic opportunities of non-whites in society.

Between 1750 and 1774, the importation of slaves exceeded all other imports into the colony.[24]  Ship logs taking inventory of those onboard show that a disproportionate number of children and teenagers were brought into Virginia, “… those involved in the Virginia slave trade recognized the value of adolescent Africans, ‘men-boys and ‘women-girls’.”[25]  Furthermore, along with the slaves’ responsibilities as either household servants or working the lands of a plantation, they were also expected to procreate to create a new generation of slaves for their owners.  Most female slaves were approximately eleven years old when they were sent to plantations with this expectation, “[the] region’s planters could expect them… to be contributing to the natural increase of the black population within six to seven years.”[26] In fact, data obtained from slave auctions demonstrate that some plantation owners slowed their buying habits because the slave population of their manors were reproducing themselves.[27]

The difficult experiences and expectations of women and slaves in Williamsburg, as well as Virginia and the thirteen colonies as a whole, are typically sugarcoated if not completely overlooked at Colonial Williamsburg.  Classical political philosophy posits that democracy is a system of government ruled by the demos, or the masses.  Colonial Williamsburg portrays the history of democracy as a sunny one, with all residents, women and slaves alike, somehow factoring into the creation of and participation in American democracy.  True American history could not look more different.

Furthermore, from a Said-ian outlook, Colonial Williamsburg acts as a nationalist tool to tell a specific version of American history.  It is easy for a visitor to leave Colonial Williamsburg with the impression that the democratic values formulated in the American colonies were wholesome and all-inclusive and exist without challenges and debates over its efficacy.  The reality, however, is that now, more than ever, Americans are revisiting what American democracy entails and what it means to be active in American democratic processes.

Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump at President, there has been a marked shift in American perceptions of democracy.  In Restoring Meaningful Subjects and “Democratic Hope” to Society, Susan Saegert writes that “Democratic practices and institutions are more hopes than assured realities”, meaning that they are maintained by the faith of those who participate in democratic systems by practicing what it means to participate in a political society.[28]  Democracy is significantly more complicated now than it was in 1776; the introduction of technology into politics has created dramatic polarization on both sides of the political spectrum and has facilitated the creation of a space where fabricated news stories proliferate.[29]  As a result, one of the most important tenets of a democratic society, the shared understanding of an agreed set of objective facts, has been severely undermined.  It may be worth revisiting the original democratic values our country was built on, but with the knowledge of how to expand those values to include and elevate all Americans.







Baker, Paula. “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920”. The American Historical Review, 89, no. 3 (1989).


Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1995.


Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2012) 76.


Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Mission Statement. 2016.


Heinemann, Ronald L. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008


Higginbottom, Aloyisus Leon. The Matter of Color: The Colonial Period, Volume 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.


Morgan, Phillips and Michael Nicholls. “Slaves in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1790. The William and Mary Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1989).


Saegert, Susan. “Restoring Meaningful Subjects and ‘Democratic Hope’ to Psychology” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 397-402, New York: Routledge, 2014.


Said, Edward, “Invention, Memory, and Place” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 361-365 New York: Routledge, 2014.


Shaffer, Marguerite S. “Selling the Past/Co-opting History: Colonial Williamsburg as a Republican Disneyland” American Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1998).


Sunstein, Cass R. “Polarization” in #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, 59-97. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

[1] Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Mission Statement. 2016.

[2] Edward Said, “Invention, Memory, and Place” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, ed. Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 361-365 (New York: Routledge, 2014), 361.

[3] Said, 364.

[4] Marguerite S. Shaffer. “Selling the Past/Co-opting History: Colonial Williamsburg as a Republican Disneyland” American Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1998), 877.

[5] Shaffer, 877.

[6] Shaffer, 878.

[7] Shaffer, 879.

[8] Ronald L. Heinemann. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 1.

[9] Heinemann, 1.

[10] Francis J. Bremer. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1995), 3.

[11] Kathleen M. Brown. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2012) 76.

[12] Brown, 80.

[13] Brown, 81.

[14] Brown, 81.

[15] Brown, 80.

[16] Brown, 85.

[17] Brown, 85.

[18] Brown, 86.

[19] Paula Baker. “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920”. The American Historical Review, 89, no. 3 (1989), 625.

[20] Aloyisus Leon Higginbottom. The Matter of Color: The Colonial Period, Volume 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). 19

[21] Higginbottom, 34.

[22] Higginbottom, 34.

[23] Higginbottom, 40.

[24] Phillip Morgan and Michael Nicholls. “Slaves in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1790. The William and Mary Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1989), 219.

[25] Morgan, 220.

[26] Morgan, 221.

[27] Morgan, 222.

[28] Saegert, Susan. “Restoring Meaningful Subjects and ‘Democratic Hope’ to Psychology” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, ed. Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 397-402, (New York: Routledge, 2014), 397.

[29] Cass R. Sunstein. “Polarization” in #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, 59-97. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 59.

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