Around a year and a half ago - Christmas 2021 - I captured a very special image on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. The best photographs always have the best stories, but I've never quite felt like it was time to share the experience until now. Once upon a time...
The setting is the Charlton Stage, and I was just beginning to listen to interpreter Kurt Smith's first-person presentation as Thomas Jefferson. This was my fourth time attending this presentation, so I enjoyed knowing a little bit of what to expect: first, Jefferson walking onto the stage singing the tune of "God Save the King" but finishing with "God save George Washington" - then suggesting that
"We are changing the words and this is perhaps the object of the age, to bring something ancient - that which we have inherited - and bring something new into the melody." Smith sets his presentation in 1777, and next asks his audience if they have heard the news of the Declaration of Independence. Upon receiving few responses from the audience, Jefferson remarks "we must enter into this confab as we now enter as we enter in this new American experiment, and that is with the greatest of exuberance so I say to you, Good day friends!"
After receiving a more enthusiastic return of greetings, he inquires from where his friends hail. Anyone who hails from a state that is not the thirteen colonies is greeted "Welcome to your capital!" as back then Virginia claimed a large swath of land west.
But that's where the similarities between this presentation and the previous times ceased. There wasn't a discussion of Jefferson's upbringing or thoughts on the inequalities of education. As he stood with the colonial capital building in the background, there was no discussion of Jefferson's proposed bills 21, 56, 79, and 82 (out of 126 total) and how he felt the passage of these bills would improve citizens' lives.
You see, around the time that Smith was encouraging a hearty back-and-forth with his hearers, a tween girl started answering his queries. He directed more questions at her - more answers - then invited her to come up on the stage with him. I'm not sure if he was expecting her to take him up on the offer, but come up she did! That's when I took the photograph at the top of this article. Out of all the pictures I've taken at Colonial Williamsburg, this one is my favorite because it perfectly sums up their mission statement:
That the future may learn from the past.
I don't quite recall the particulars of what was discussed, though I suspect it had something to do with education, history, and the importance of an involved citizenry in a nation's success. I do know that I saw a striking example of what this incredible living history museum is all about. I like to think that the girl has long remembered her getting to talk with Thomas Jefferson, but even if she hasn't, I sure have.
I remember that Smith cared more for connecting with his audience - even in a spontaneous style - than staying strictly on script. I remember seeing before my very eyes the past coming alive in the present and inspiring the future. I remember being inspired to be a better American myself.
Before leaving, Jefferson shared these powerful closing lines:
"Thank you for coming here, thank you for being advocates of education, thank you for being advocates of history - the most important subject a man might study. Anytime you find yourself uncertain of what to do - if you find your waters clouded and your newsmen are writing issues that seem polluted by nonfact, I hope you know that you can come here. And beyond our gates every single day - 365 days a year - we speak fact here in Williamsburg, and that is something we could all do a bit more of, yes?
Secondly, you're not off the hook, I know you came here on vacation but I'm going to give you homework. Your job is to continue these conversations like the one we just had. Continue these conversations, continue this debate. Our government is founded upon debate. But please as you debate, please let us put civility back into our debates, yes? This is your obligation. If you wish to see change within the halls of government, then you must be that change. Our government will always be a reflection of you. So if you want your government to be better, then you must be better. That being said, let's get to work."
One of my favorite aspects of Colonial Williamsburg to me is that the present (us visitors) can interact with the past, live. Yes, I know that Kurt Smith is not really Thomas Jefferson. But when he adopts the mannerisms, clothes, and words of Jefferson as we together stand in a fully restored colonial city, the illusion is powerful. The experience of learning history is immersive...and enjoyable!
Prior to visiting Colonial Williamsburg, my only knowledge of Jefferson was that he wrote the Declaration, was the 3rd president, and launched the Corps of Discovery. Visiting the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. - while beautiful - only cemented my view of Jefferson as a legendary, larger-than-life figure in American history. But interacting with Kurt Smith's Thomas Jefferson has helped me grasp a view of Jefferson that is more...human. More relatable. I've learned that I'm not the only American who struggles with the inequality of this country between what is and what should be. And I'm encouraged - challenged - to within my own spheres of influence make this a better country. To educate myself about the context of a political or societal issue before speaking, to then participate in respectful civil debate, and especially to not take voting or religious rights for granted.
And that's my story of this special image.
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Education, Voting & More: In Conversation with Thomas Jefferson (my video of one of Kurt Smith's presentations at Colonial Williamsburg)
thejeffersonexperience1776 - Kurt Smith's new Instagram! Continue the conversation online.
The Jefferson Experience - Kurt Smith's website
Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence - Colonial Williamsburg