What I Saw At Yorktown

I mentioned that two weekends ago we took the kids to Williamsburg, a living museum of life in colonial times. As you tour various intact buildings from the 17th century, there are live enactors in period dress who carry on various tasks as they were performed then. Three things struck us.
  1. Regarding Kelo: as you watch people splitting logs by hand and planing them into boards for houses, you get a sense of how detached we are in the wealthy West from the meaning of property. Of course we still earn our livings by work, but because our livings come in the form of a paycheck, we're fairly removed from the process. Doing everything by hand, you'd have a much deeper attachment to your property, and take encroachments upon it as an attack on your person.
  2. Knowing a lot of history doesn't mean you have any perspective on it. The Master of the Magazine (armory) was knowledgeable, but he felt it necessary to prattle on about how the entire Revolution was fought over taxes, and the notion of "freedom" was added in later, to justify the revolt as noble. It's perfectly true that the Revolution was fought over taxes, but what our guide missed is that the Founders' understanding of "freedom" was precisely self-government --no one could take their property from them without their having some say in it, as every other British citizen had. See point one, above. So the tax/freedom dichotomy is an anachronism. Our guide's rather cynical view of the founding is based on his own --contemporary-- understanding of "freedom," and utterly misses the significance of the Founders' view.
  3. Williamsburg was nice, but by far the most moving part of our visit took place 12 miles away in Yorktown (for my international readers: the site of Cornwallis' surrender to Gen. Washington). There's a live encampment on site, and may I just say that no history-book description of the conditions of deprivation under which Washington's men's labored can possibly convey what you see there? You find yourself wondering what ideas could have motivated them to persevere, and in a kind of awe that they did. Then you compare your own generation's concept of "liberty," and its attachment to the idea, and you wonder. (I can't help relate this to the seeming disregard of half the country for how amazing the Iraqi elections are.)
  4. The Battlefield is amazing. There's an enormous earthworks begun by Washington & his men to give them the high ground for a siege. It was fortified during the Civil War, but otherwise remains as it was; you can't believe people did this without a backhoe. Not to knock Williamsburg in the least, but it seemed sad to me that while it was crowded, the only other people visiting Yorktown were a couple of military families (identifiable from the insignia on their bumpers). To me, Yorktown is quasi-sacred ground. But apparently besides our family, only soldiers find it of interest anymore. We sang "Shot Heard Round The World," and belted out the end:

at Yorktown, the British could not retreat,

bottled up by Washington & the French fleet,

Cornwallis surrendered, and finally we had won.

From the shot heard round the world

to the end of the Revolution,

the Continental Rabble took the day.

And the Father of our Country

beat the British here at Yorktown. . .

Brought freedom to you and me & the USA.