One of the most interesting spots in Virginia is Williamsburg, second capital of the Colony of Virginia, where at present many historical shrines are being restored through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Williamsburg had its inception in a meeting held by the colonists in 1699, when it was proposed to move the capital from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, to escape the dreaded malaria and mosquitoes that plagued the island. Middle Plantation was renamed Williamsburg by Colonel Francis Nicholson, proponent of the change, in honor of King William III. The new site was described by him as a place where “clear and crystal springs burst from the champagne soil.” From this date until 1779 when the capital was moved to Richmond, the town of Williamsburg was the center of social and political life in America.
Prior to its selection as the capital, Middle Plantation had figured in the affairs of the Colony. In 1676 Bacon held his famous convention there to decide upon plans for rebellion. A year later it was the scene of a peace conference between the colonists and the Indians, which was convened by Governor Jeffrys. There, in 1676, met the General Assembly after Bacon had burned the State House at Jamestown. There also, in 1693, was founded the College of William and Mary, second oldest college in America and the first institution of its kind to be established by royal patronage.
Colonel Nicholson laid out Williamsburg anew when it became the capital. He at first thought of planning the streets in the monogram form of W and M in honor of William and Mary, but finding this impracticable he designed a main thoroughfare which he named the Duke of Gloucester Street, after the oldest son of Queen Anne. The parallel streets were given the names of Francis and Nicholson respectively.
Of compelling interest today is the old college building which stands on its original site at one end of the Duke of Gloucester Street. Here came George Washington to receive his commission as surveyor; Thomas Jefferson for his liberal education; John Marshall to study jurisprudence under George Wythe, first professor of law in America. Here also were educated such men as James Monroe, John Tyler, John Blair, Bushrod Washington and Peyton and Edmund Randolph.
In 1705 the first capitol building in America was built at the other end of the Duke of Gloucester Street. Plans for this building were recently discovered in the Bodleain Library in England by experts now engaged in the work of restoration. But in the first capitol building stirring scenes were enacted. Here Patrick Henry made his “Brutus-Caesar” speech-prelude to his immortal pronouncement made years later in St. John’s Church, Richmond. The walls of the first capitol rang with the impassioned pleas of the patriots who, in 1773, met there to take steps for the first union of the States. Here was the scene of the Convention of 1776 which called upon Congress to declare the colonies free and independent states; and again it was here that Mason’s Bill of Rights was adopted, which paved the way for the adoption, within the same walls, of the first constitution of a free and independent State.
The site of this building, now being restored, is but one of the many points of interest along the Duke of Gloucester Street. There was the Court House, 1706; the Powder Horn, 1714, which was Patrick Henry’s objective when he marched on Williamsburg to demand payment from Lord Dunmore when the latter had removed the powder supply of the colonists and conveyed it to a British warship. And there was the Debtor’s Prison, 1744, and the Market Square on which it was located. On the Palace Green was the Royal Governor’s Palace which vied in elegance with the other pretentious mansions which flanked the green. On the eastern side of this green the first theatre in America opened its door in 1716.
Turning into Francis Street, there is the site of the first hospital to be visited. On the same street also was the first Masonic lodge building in the South.
Back again on the Duke of Gloucester Street one can find a reproduction of Raleigh Tavern, in whose famous Apollo Room was organized the Phi Beta Kappa Society, its first members being illustrious students of the College of William and Mary. It was to this room that members of the House of Burgesses repaired for their deliberations when that body had been dissolved by Dunmore.
And then what is perhaps the most priceless relic of colonial Williamsburg is Old Bruton Parish Church, the court church of the Colony. Its, burying ground contains the dust of three colonial governors and that of the great-grandparents of Martha Washington. The present building was constructed in 1710, on ground donated by Colonel John Page, and with funds supplied by Governor Spotswood. This church was antedated by one built in 1683 and by a structure which was erected in 1665. The bell in the present tower is the most historic in the South and probably in this nation. It announced the repeal of the Stamp Act and proclaimed the independence of the United Colonies on May 15, 1776-six weeks ahead of the famous bell in Philadelphia. It rang when the Union Jack was hauled down from the capitol, when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, near by, and when peace was proclaimed with Great Britain. The bell yet rings for services on Sunday, calling residents to worship in what is said to be the oldest Episcopal church in continuous use in the nation.
Williamsburg’s part in the Revolution and the great fractricidal struggle of the ’60’s is too well known to warrant comment here. Washington rode down its principal street at the head of a victorious army. Lafayette graced it with his presence. Here the “Father of His Country” wooed and won the Widow Custis, a resident of the town. Today, Williamsburg is dedicated to the education of the youth of the nation and to the preservation of those shrines wherein were born the liberties of the people.