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January 02, 2019

An Invaluable Lesson in Colonial Williamsburg

In Colonial Williamsburg our grandchildren Jack (10) and Lily (9) learned that even the most important arguments have two sides. They also learned a lot of American history.

We went to an enactment called “Trial of a Patriot”. The assumption of this trial was that the British had won at Yorktown and reestablished rule over the rebellious colonies. The Patriot had been an officer in the Virginia militia which fought both the British and those Virginians who remained loyal to the crown; he was being tried for treason by the victorious British. The judge was the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, who returned from his exile in New York City after the British victory. We, the audience, were a jury of sorts and allowed to ask questions if we were properly respectful to the Governor and the British Crown.

“God save the King,” said the bailiff as he called the Court to order. “All rise for his excellency Lord Dunmore.” We did.

“This court has no proper authority,” shouted the defendant as he was brought in, bound and somewhat wild-eyed.

“How do you plead?” asked the Judge.

“The charges against me have no validity. I am an officer in the Virginia militia.”

“There is no longer a Virginia militia,” said the judge with a sneer. “You have no right to question the validity of these charges. You must plead guilty or not guilty to the facts alleged against you.”

The Patriot pled not guilty but kept ranting against the authority of the court and the crown. He was gagged and restrained.

A parade of witnesses testified to the Patriot’s guilt. First was a former slave of his who’d spied on him for the British and alleged that he was plotting revolution even before the war. Grandson Jack asked thoughtfully if she had been in a position to hear accurately what the Patriot said. The Patriot, who was his own lawyer, didn’t help himself by treating her as if she were still a slave. He was gagged again.

We heard from loyalists whose possessions he’d seized. He pointed out that he was acting under the authority of the Continental Congress. The judge said that the Continental Congress had no authority so this was no excuse.

The judge instructed us jurors that our duty was to consider only whether or not the facts in the allegations were true in light of the evidence. “Your excellency,” I asked, “if we are not to consider whether the charges themselves are proper, in what venue is the defendant allowed to question their validity?”

“He is charged with treason so has no right to challenge the charge nor the authority of the court.”

But, your excellency, you have stated that he is innocent until proven guilty so surely….”

Both the judge and the rest of the jury were growing tired of my argument. “The jury will proceed to a verdict!”

An overwhelming majority of the jury voted guilty as charged. My grandkids were with the majority. They had taken the instructions seriously.

Lesson one, but not the most important lesson of the trip, was that the losers of a revolution can expect to be treated as traitors.

The next day we went on a tour of the House of Burgesses, the other half of the building where the Governor had held his court. The docent was an articulate spokeswoman for the revolutionary cause. She explained that, as Englishmen, Virginians had a right to expect that taxes would only be levied on them by their own representatives, the Burgesses.

But the British Parliament had ignored these basic rights and imposed the onerous stamp taxes on the colonies. The Burgesses responded with a resolution of condemnation and drafted a letter of complaint to the King as loyal subjects should. Governor Dunmore, he whom we’d seen the night before as judge, suspended the House of Burgesses. He denied Virginians their basic right of self-rule.

Later he allowed the Burgesses to reassemble. They passed a resolution protesting the mass punishment of Bostonians by the British for the Tea Party. Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses. They went down the street to a tavern and met behind a sign which said “former House of Burgesses”. Among them were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. It wasn’t long before they were delegates to the Continental Congress.

The docent explained in the stirring terms of the Declaration of Independence that the British left the Virginians no choice but revolution if they were to defend their rights as free Englishmen.

“Can we change our vote?” Jack and Lily asked.

Thank you, Colonial Williamsburg.

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