Williamsburg in the 19th Century: “As Lifeless as the Goddess of Dullness Could Wish”

As I began to research the effects of the Panic of 1819 on the City of Williamsburg, I thought it was a good idea to first get an idea of what exactly the city looked like in the 1810’s and 1820’s (using the term “city” to describe Williamsburg may be a bit of misnomer- the population had decreased considerably since the 18th century; it could easily be described as a village).  Anyone who has ever been to Williamsburg already has a pretty good idea of what the city looked like in the 1770s of course, thanks to the efforts of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. But what did the city look like forty years after independence? To answer this question, I turned to a collection of contemporary descriptions of the city put together by Jane Carson and the Colonial Williamsburg Department of Research and Record entitled We Were There and put together in 1961, as well as an architectural history of the city written by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, who had served as the College of William and Mary’s president during the early twentieth century. As it turns out, these readings show that the forty years after the capital moved to Richmond were not very kind to Williamsburg.

Let us first consider a description put forward by an anonymous author in 1816, in a satirical book that was supposedly the translated letters of a visiting French nobleman entitled Letters From Virginia, Translated From the French. In the “letter” concerning Williamsburg, the author describes the town as a decaying backwater where the streets are “paved with grass” and the buildings are “shabby for the want of repairs and a little paint”.[1] According to this author, Williamsburg was in a lethargic state and certainly not worth visiting: “There is neither business without nor amusement within; but all is just as lifeless as the very Goddess of Dullness could wish.” [2]

The most important buildings in the city in 1816 were the College, the Mental Hospital, the James City County Courthouse (which was housed in the old Capitol building), and the Raleigh Tavern, which served as the only source of social life within the town.  In other words, the places that were important in 1816 were the same as the ones that had been important in 1775, with one major exception: the Governor’s palace had been burned down by American soldiers in 1781.[3] But while the other buildings may have still been standing, they had all seen better days. For instance, half of the old Capitol building had been torn down, supposedly to make the building easier to maintain.[4] The College was still open and seemed to be operating just fine, although the statue of Lord Botetout had been “mutilated” and its head had been removed.[5] Obviously, Williamsburg had seen better days, although the anonymous author of Letters may have been exaggerating just a little bit. A far more fair depiction of the town can be found in the letters of James Kirke Paulding, a New Yorker who visited Williamsburg in 1816. He probably hit the nail on the head when he described the city in the following way:

“Williamsburg seems to be experiencing the fate of all the works of man, none of which, except the labors of the mind, (and the      Pyramids,) seem destined to last for ever.  ‘God made the county, and man made the town;’ and the difference of the work is exemplified in their progress and decay…[6]

Still, if Williamsburg seemed to have been declining in 1816 (and according to Paulding, it certainly seemed that way), it was in far worse shape just eight years later, in 1824. Daniel Walker Lord, a New Englander from Kennebunkport , Maine, visited the city that year and discovered it to be virtually in ruins. The population had dwindled to around fourteen hundred people and, according to Lord, “the whole village bears the marks of poverty.”[7] Many of the houses were either abandoned or had fallen down, and even Bruton Parish Church was in disrepair, although it was still better maintained than the rest of the town (it did lack a minister, however).  Still, out of all the buildings in Williamsburg, it was the College of William and Mary that had been hit the hardest, as Lord describes:

“Here I visited the ruins of William and Mary College. It has been very much neglected, and will   soon go quite to ruin. The steps are mostly out of their place. Some of the windows are entirely broken out and most or all of them more or less broken, some not having more than three panes of glass in them. The cellar is used for a barn, and the building has more of the  appearance of a gaol in ruins than the remains of a college. In the chapel the seats are broken down, and the panels of the doors are broken through…[8]

What had happened to Williamsburg and William and Mary during these intervening years?  The Panic of 1819 had occurred, causing economic decline across Virginia.  The College had been hit particularly hard, its finances having dwindled considerably and its endowment shrinking to almost nothing- the situation had gotten so bad by 1824 that the President of the College, John Augustine Smith, proposed moving the school to Richmond in order to save the institution from complete financial ruin.[9] Unfortunately for Smith, an aging Thomas Jefferson blocked the move by appealing to the state government in Richmond. Jefferson was in the process of founding his own university, and probably didn’t want to see the College emerge as a potential rival. But there were other, darker reasons as well- it was within Jefferson’s interests that the College remained a near bankrupt institution; his own shady financial dealings with the school had helped lead to its ruin. The financial decisions that led to the College’s ruination during the Panic, and the central role Thomas Jefferson played in them, will be the subject of my next blog post.

[1] “Letters From Virginia,” in We Were There: Descriptions of Williamsburg, 1699-1859, ed. Jane Carson(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), 97-99.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Williamsburg, The Old Colonial Capital (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1907), 217.

[4] Ibid., 210.

[5] “Letters From Virginia,” 99.

[6] James Kirke Paulding, “Letters from the South, written during an Excursion in the Summer of 1816” in We Were There: Descriptions of Williamsburg, 1699-1859, ed. Jane Carson(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), 95.

[7] Daniel Walker Lord, “A New Englander’s Picture of Williamsburg” in We Were There: Descriptions of Williamsburg, 1699-1859, ed. Jane Carson(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965),  100.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tyler, Williamsburg, The Old Capital,184.