The Sound of a Violin
I have this odd habit, admittedly, of letting my imagination run amuck: sometimes I like to think myself someone else just for a moment. Sometimes it’s inevitable given the circumstances. During a recent trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, I indulged in one such moment.
Williamsburg was at one time a pivotal city in the history of our country both directly and indirectly. Indirectly because, as some may already know, Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary which finds its home in Williamsburg—contributing to the education of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence is no small achievement in my mind.
More direct, though, was an event that was known as the Gunpowder Incident.
Fearing rebellion—as was relatively common in colonial America—Williamsburg’s Governor Lord Dunmore ordered marines to take all the gunpowder from the local magazine on the night of April 20, 1775—just a day after Lexington and Concord. Obviously, this infuriated a people already seething with thoughts of liberty and growing frustrations toward the Crown’s arbitrary exercises of power. So a small, leaderless band of angry voices “stormed” the governor’s palace.
This storming is reenacted daily at 10 A.M.; this was my third time storming the palace with the angry and armed mob, and it’s genuinely hard not to be swept up in the moment. It’s times like these that I’m not at all surprised that people can so easily tag along with the group because said group is merely passionate about a cause or objective.
I felt swept up in the moment because I knew how it ended; I knew that the American Revolution was, at the end of the day, a righteous cause. I even say this with the knowledge of how life was in colonial times—many historians claim that it really wasn’t as bad as the founding brothers claimed it was. They may have been blowing things out of proportion, but one cannot fault them for that. We all do it.
It’s during these reenactments and casual strolls down Gloucester Street that I let myself succumb to my surroundings. I let myself be defined by the consciousness-bending environment around me. I let myself be a colonial. It’s rather easy, too: walking down the main drag one is inundated with “good day sir” and tips of the hat from folk dressed in traditional colonial garb. My response is usually a completely genuine “to you as well good sir” albeit dressed in a shoddy accent.
Much to the dismay of the excited revolutionaries, the “storming” of the palace never came to fruition. As soon as some of the townsfolk witnessed the taking of the gunpowder and passionate revolutionaries started rallying for the cause, the ever-wise Peyton Randolph quelled the fury.
This calming of the revolutionaries—of whom I was now a member—was a speech of grand eloquence. Nothing recounting the first-hand speech of Randolph survives, so interpreters take a bit of historical license in recounting how the situation went down. There were instigators amongst us who found the taking of the gunpowder to be akin to an act of war encouraging us to fight, while others saw that a display of violent force against the governor would be unwise at this point.
Standing on the long, lusciously green front lawn of the governor’s palace next to militiamen with fixed bayonets our historic decision lay before us: do we charge the building or let Randolph’s rhetorical force calm our nerves? Listening to Mr. Randolph give a masterful speech about the negative consequences of this action was compelling, even amongst the boos and hisses from those who no doubt wished to assault the Governor’s palace. It was his practical wisdom, though, that allowed the better angels of our nature to come forward: he would ensure that the Governor return the gunpowder.
However, Randolph didn’t come through on his promise, and, much to the surprise of the townspeople, he accepted Lord Dunmore’s explanation—or excuse—for taking it in the first place. Dunmore claimed he feared a slave rebellion and the magazine was a “very insecure depository.”
Some were not happy with this decision. None other than “give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry led an armed march on Williamsburg soon after the incident. Local officials needed to think quickly as to something that would deter Henry—who was always known to be a man of, shall we say, hot temperament—from inciting violence in Williamsburg. Sure enough, Henry was greeted by Robert Corbin who immediately presented Henry and his following Virginia militia with a reimbursement for the powder.
It’s the small things like the gunpowder incident in Williamsburg that makes the American Revolution not seem like the flash in the pan event it’s sometimes illustrated to be. It was a long building up of pressure that was bound to find an outlet in one way or another. Minor sun flares like this one were happening all over the colonies and much earlier too.
As such, I agree with the historians that claim that the Revolution wasn’t so much a surprising turn of events in the mid-18th century as it was a rather unsurprising reaction to the circumstances. If one extends their historical perspective a little further, they will see that the freedom and liberty that were fought for in 1776 were quite common sights and taken for granted in the 17th century. From the beginning, the English colonists enjoyed a vast and unusual amount of freedom within their towns, colonies, and communities—of course always answering, at the end of the day, to the crown. But the crown, for better or worse, didn’t interest itself much in the day to day affairs.
It’s hard to tell what this, for lack of a better term, lackadaisical manner of ruling suggests: for perhaps if the crown continued to rule this way no revolution would have happened. Indeed, it may have been the sudden tightening of the grips that set the colonists off.
I found myself aristocratically pondering these thoughts whilst sitting on a bench in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, listening to the sound of a violinist play traditional patriotic tunes. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to, as some here at Ordinary Times put it, “listen to the muse sing.”