Thursday, June 18, 2009

History Repeats Itself: Part 1

You know that phrase that we study history so we don't repeat it? Well, sometimes I hope we repeat it. Especially the good stuff.

Barbara, Aunt Nita, GranNomi, Mom at Ash Lawne

Last week I reveled in American history en site with my own personal family history. Meaning my grandmother and my great aunt and my mom and her cousin.

The Ancients and the Less-Ancients on the Plantation Tour at Monticello

We had so much fun--can you imagine pushing 2 women in their 80s in wheelchairs through the cobblestone streets of Williamsburg and the dirt paths of Jamestown? Seriously--I laughed so hard. Hilarious. Especially the part where I was holding onto GranNomi's wheelchair for my dear heart as it raced down a gravel hill to a little theatrical recreation in Williamsburg. Yes--I actually made her push it back up the hill (she is a bit wobbly but certainly capable of walking while holding on to a support!).

On Thursday we went to Jamestown Settlement. Now I generally pride myself as an academic historian and prefer the original Jamestown location with its excavation and ruins and historiographic museum. I love the sense of location. This time around with the Sisters in Wheelchairs, we took them to the recreation part with the Powhatan (do NOT ask my mother how to pronounce that word) village and ships and fort. Good times.

We visited lovely Monticello on Friday, home of Thomas Jefferson, and on Saturday we hit up Montpelier, Madison's home, and Ash Lawne, Monroe's home.
Ash Lawne, James Monroe's home

Now, here is where I would hope history would repeat itself. I love the careful study of these people. I love their innovation, their negotiation, their understanding of the human condition--both theoretically, with such devices as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and with the way they organized their homes and their physical lives. There's something about being in the room where Madison studied European and ancient governments to cobble together the Constitution, looking out his window at the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which to him, symbolized the great American West and the potential of the future. There's something about the order in which Jefferson organized his architectural gem, his dependencies, his gardens, and his study--all thought out with such precision and clarity, the same way he thought about the branches of government and inalienable rights.

I'd been to Williamsburg, Jamestown, Monticello, and Montpelier before. But never in such quick succession. I loved the ability to compare and contrast--not only the historical site and the commemorative people and events, but the mode of marking that history. I loved the different versions and efforts of the tour guides, their various agendas and politics, the overall effect for the visitors. And I love buying Christmas ornaments and face cards... just you wait for those Sunday night Nertz tournaments with Virginia historical sites cards!

James Monroe's statue at Ash Lawne

And I loved the neighborhood feeling of it all. That Monroe could see Jefferson's home from his side door. I loved learning that Dolly Madison loved throwing a big party and could entertain hundreds in her backyard for a BBQ. Or that Jefferson experimented with his vegetables--that he loved peas.That Madison and Jefferson raced to see who could grow the first peas. That Jefferson taught Madison how to build his kitchen underground--and how Monroe's kitchen burned down. Or how both Jefferson and Madison had little outdoor study/temple areas where they could commune, alone, with nature and with self.

Yes--I hope that history repeats itself. I hope that we can continue the innovation and patriotism and progress. I know that's a very progressive view of history, often frowned upon by today's academic historians--but I think it's really a means of finding value in the past and having hope in the future.


JJ said...

Wow! What an adventure! And what an amazing experience to get to do that with your Mom and family!

The Harkness Family said...

It looks like you had a great time. What fun visitors. I love your mom.

Paul and Mari said...

You guys look like you are having a blast! How fun.