Washington, Jefferson, address party politics, taxes, power of the people

 

Bill Barker portrays Thomas Jefferson Tuesday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

The first Chautauquans arrived for Tuesday’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture almost two hours early, said Maureen Rovegno. By 1:30 p.m., the seats were packed for “Storm on the Horizon,” a character-interpretation by members of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Rovegno, the assistant director of the Department of Religion, did not seem surprised by the large turnout, though. When other members of the Foundation performed at Chautauqua in 2009, the event was just as popular.

When the performance began a few minutes early, probably to accommodate the restless crowd, narrator Jim Horn introduced the actors and gave some background of the history. Horn also is the vice president of Research and Historical Interpretation for Colonial Williamsburg. Ron Carnegie interpreted the character of George Washington and Bill Barker played Thomas Jefferson.

At this time, near the turn of the 19th century, Washington was being asked to run for re-election to the presidency, and Jefferson had just written the Kentucky Resolution in response to the Alien and Sedition acts.

There were two main theories of government at this time: the Democratic-Republicans, who demanded that power be in the hands of the people, and the Federalists, who believed in a more central control of power in the government.

Washington first greeted the audience with a “Good afternoon, friends, citizens, good people of the United States of America,” dressed in an 18th-century style black suit, knee-high socks and black shoes with buckles. After admitting to the audience that he will not run for president again, Washington reflected on his presidency.

The three pillars of government, he said, should be an indissoluble union, a sacred regard to public justice and a willingness to put aside the conflicts and differences that ravage America internally.

“The independence and liberty, which is now ours, is the result of joint efforts, joint struggles, joint disappointments and joint successes,” Washington said.

Washington also emphasized the importance of the Constitution as the supreme law and the responsibility people must take over their own power. The sovereignty of the nation belongs to the people, and they must not let any branch of government encroach on another.

But most of what Washington said stirred knowing laughter from the crowds.

“It is just as important that we endeavor to avoid seeing factions arise in the spirit and fury of party politics,” Washington said. “It causes a man to be a servant not of his country but rather merely a political party.”

The dangers of going into debt incited the occasional “mmm-hmm” or “ahhh” of agreement from an audience member, but one particular comment sent the crowd laughing and clapping so much that Washington had to pause until it ended.

“Let us always remember that the debts caused by such actions must be paid and never left ungenerously to be paid by our children or our children’s children which ought to have been paid by ourselves,” Washington said. “For debt to be paid, there must be revenue. For there to be revenue, there must be taxes, and there have never been taxes created which are not inconvenient and unpleasant.”

Although Washington never broke character, the reactions of the audience made it clear that Washington was getting the message through. The audience heard, perhaps for the first time, the warnings Washington gave against conflicts that now plague American society and threaten the nation’s power and unity.

One of Barker’s closing remarks completed the puzzle. Although Jefferson and Washington’s concerns about the future were eerily correct, they were not seeing the future.

“They knew no more of what was going to happen on the 24th day of August 1776 or 1811 than we know what is going to happen tomorrow,” Barker said, out of character. “So I think to be well-read in history, as Mr. Jefferson said, to know where we have been, helps us better to know where we are and, with the hope, where we are going.”

To more laughter and clapping, Washington admitted that even though he “dare not suppose that any of these words that (he) share with you will long be remembered,” they were nonetheless important. Then he thanked the audience and took a seat.

When Jefferson took the stage, he greeted Washington as “Your Excellency,” took off his hat and began a more conversational speech.

He joked that the audience had been rude in not standing up to greet former President Washington, but then spun it around to applaud them for it because, after all, the government is fully theirs, not Washington’s.

It was clear that Jefferson’s stance was as a Democratic-Republican and that the Constitution demands that power should be in the hands of the people at all levels of government.

Jefferson denounced the Alien and Sedition acts for their bias to one party and explained the Kentucky Resolution. Jefferson said he considered these acts, not laws, created to keep one particular party in power.

Although Barker stayed in character when portraying Jefferson, it was during the Q-and-A period that he proved his vast knowledge about Jefferson. Barker has been interpreting Jefferson with Colonial Williamsburg for 17 years, and with other groups for almost 15 years before that.

Washington and Jefferson loosened up for the questions but still provided answers in character.

For example, when one woman asked if either Washington or Jefferson foresaw women’s right to vote, Washington stated plainly that he would have to see a woman first take interest in government, and he had not yet seen that.

Another man posed his question to Presidents Washington and Jefferson. Washington balked at the insult, because Jefferson had not yet been elected president, and then jokingly replied, “You know his ambitions well, sir.”

To bring the performance full circle, a question about each man’s justification for owning slaves received more serious answers and reminded the audience of the theme for the week.

“The strongest pillar for our success is the continuation of our Union … and when one considers the fact that slavery is dying a natural death, to risk the survival of our Union to bring that death about prematurely seems most unwise,” Washington said. “It must be done slowly, it must be nearly imperceptible and these men must be brought to a level of education necessary that they might live as free members of a free society. To simply cast them adrift immediately without giving them anything to hold onto — I fear that will be conduct of much inconvenience and mischief.”