Not only do re-enactors give visitors a sense for life in the 18th century, but they serve as a reminder for how far American’s understanding of freedom has evolved over time.
Every American founder would have agreed with Jefferson’s famous remark, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” Yet as Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has sadly noted, our country “seems well on the way to testing” this proposition. Second Lady Lynne Cheney agrees: “If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today, it would be American history.”
One can hope our schools will improve from their present state. A Roper Center survey of seniors at the nation’s 55 highest–ranked colleges finds 81 percent can’t pass a basic high school American history test, and the latest Department of Education test of fourth–, eighth–, and twelfth–graders labels their historical knowledge “abysmal.” But meanwhile, private philanthropy and the institutions it supports continue to step into the breach and bring the past to life for a generation of future leaders who, as Lieberman puts it, are “losing touch with the civic glue that binds our diverse nation into a single people with a common purpose.”
Those in the trenches know how bad things have become. Jim Rees, executive director of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, admits it’s “shocking” that visiting schoolchildren have never heard the immortal legend about the cherry tree. Still, there may be room for cautious optimism. Across the country, while overall museum attendance is down, people aged 18—24 make up the fastest–growing number of attendees. Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, thinks he understands the increase: “This is a very visual generation. I think they’re being attracted because . . . you can go when you want to, take your own course through the galleries, and stop and browse and take time where you wish.”
To capture this visual generation, Americans will have to exercise imagination, be flexible in their approaches to the problem, and move quickly. Private philanthropy has a decided advantage over government in each of these three areas, a perfect example of which is on display in the colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia, where life is re–created just as it was on the eve of the Revolution.
A Philanthropist Rebuilds a City
For a visual generation, there’s nothing that brings history alive better than Williamsburg, which is perhaps the world’s largest living history museum and truly does feel like a bit of the eighteenth century dropped into the suburban woods of eastern Virginia. Blacksmiths, wigmakers, farm hands, and wheelwrights bustle up and down the pebbled streets, jostling with tourists in baseball caps and college–age joggers from nearby William and Mary College, the nation’s second–oldest institution of higher learning. It’s a sign of how authentic the place feels that you are occasionally disconcerted by an actor dropping out of character: a house servant in wimple and apron sneaking out back for a quick smoke, a blacksmith wearing a tricorner hat as he pulls out of the parking lot in a late–model Chevy.
Williamsburg began serendipitously, one of those wonderful moments in the history of private philanthropy when vision and resources coincided perfectly. In 1903, the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin took over as rector of Bruton Parish Church, located in the heart of the old colonial district and one of the oldest Episcopal parishes in the United States. As Goodwin began the restoration of the nearly 300–year–old church, he began to conceive of a much grander project–restoring the colonial district into a massive living history museum, where visitors could experience colonial life as it was lived. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that from an historical point of view this is the greatest teaching opportunity which exists in America.”
To bring his dream to fruition Goodwin approached philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1926 for funding. Rockefeller was in the area on a business trip, and he visited the local historical sites with several members of his family. Goodwin took him on a tour of downtown Willamsburg’s most historic buildings, including the George Wythe House, a colonial–era dwelling the rector was trying to save from demolition. Rockefeller’s interest was aroused.
After a second visit, Rockefeller sent Goodwin an oblique telegram authorizing him to buy the Paradise House, an 18th–century property then on the market, and to hire an architect. “Authorize purchase of antique referred to in your long letter of December Fourth at eight on basis outlined in shorter letter same date.” Afraid the news that he was interested in buying large swaths of the town would artificially raise land prices, Rockefeller signed the telegram “David’s father.” Colonial Williamsburg was born with Rockefeller’s secret backing; astonishingly, his involvement was kept under wraps for close to two years, even as Goodwin began buying up huge portions of the town.
Eight Years and Millions of Dollars
The task before the two men was immense. Essentially, Rockefeller and Goodwin proposed buying up an entire village, removing everything not of the colonial period (including a number of Victorian–era buildings beautiful and noteworthy in their own right), and returning the area to its 18th–century condition while complying with local codes concerning utilities, public safety, and transportation—and keeping local landowners happy as their town was dug up and reconstructed. By 1928, Rockefeller had spent over $3 million—roughly $30 million in today’s dollars—and would spend more before the project was done.
From the beginning, authenticity was the watchword. Historians combed libraries and museums on several continents for clues as to how Williamsburg looked in the 1770s. Field workers photographed and measured colonial–era buildings up and down the East Coast; enormous swaths of the town were dug up, and the dirt was sifted for artifacts. So meticulous was the research that when investigators failed to find appropriate bricks from commercial vendors, officials decided to start their own brickyard and produce bricks that used colonial–era materials. Scholars even tracked the stones in the floor of the Capitol to a specific quarry in England, from which new stones were quarried and imported to Virginia. After eight years of work, the village was dedicated in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Today the work of restoring Colonial Williamsburg continues, with scholars refining our understanding of what the village looked like and how life was lived during the 18th century. Artifacts inside rooms are shifted when plans or documents are uncovered that pinpoint the pieces’ original locations. Recently, the George Wythe House—the structure that started it all—was repainted dark brown in response to new evidence about its appearance in the 1700s, much to the consternation of some locals who treasured the white clapboard of the old home.
Williamsburg is celebrating its seventy–fifth anniversary this year by kicking off a five–year, $500 million capital campaign. And Williamsburg’s offerings are more diverse than ever. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—the nonprofit that administers the historic district, runs a number of hotels, restaurants (including several reconstructed taverns that serve colonial fare), and golf courses—has turned the area into a major tourist and honeymoon destination. Colonial Willamsburg products, including pewter, glass, baskets made by local living history interpreters, and colonial outfits, hats, books, cookbooks, and foodstuffs extend the Williamsburg brand into homes nationwide. Interpreters travel from across the country to give presentations to schoolchildren, and an innovative “electronic field trip” uses the Internet to bring the town to students who can’t visit in person.
A Year of History Class in a Day
At Williamsburg, what sets historical education apart from other living history museums is the depth and breadth of the information its actors impart to visitors. A walk down Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare through the historic district, offers any number of opportunities for learning. The historical impersonators are especially adept at situating themselves in the larger context of 1770s life. Entering the post office, for example, a group of us encountered a costumed spectacled man sitting inside. He asked a young girl, an 11–year–old who I later found out is named Ashleigh, where she was from.
“Ohio,” she answered.
The actor didn’t skip a beat. “Well, you have come a long ways, all the way from the western holdings. I’d like to hear your stories of that wild region in the Tavern some time later.” The actor then launched into a monologue on how he was waiting for the papers from Philadelphia, since there were “signs of an approaching conflict” from the Continental Congress then meeting in that city. “I worry that the situation becomes more ominous by the day. Were you present for Mr. Henry’s speech some months ago in the Burgesses?” he asked.
The girl shook her head no.
“I fear there might be trouble, with hotheads like him around,” he said sternly. “But God save our King, he will bring it all to a good resolution.” And with that he shuffled us out the door.
The girl was rapt with attention during the whole speech. The approach was artful, neither heavy–handed nor “academic,” but certainly memorable, and as her parents said to me later, “That’s probably more than she’s learned in an entire year of history class.”
Mock sessions of the district court in the Courthouse, built from 1770 to 1771 and used for local proceedings until the foundation purchased it in 1932, provide more provocative lessons. Before visitors enter, court leaders pick a jury for a session, which features actual cases from the 1770s drawn from court records. To select members, the actors first ask the tourists to raise their hands. Then all women are told to lower theirs, because only men could vote and serve as jurors. Then all men under 18 are asked to lower their hands; then all non–whites; then anyone who does not own property; and, finally, all non–Protestants. Typically, this process will eliminate all but about one–fifth of the visitors, and from this small group the jurors are selected. Looking at the middle–aged, white males sitting in the jury box, one is forcibly reminded of how our understanding of the nation’s ideals of freedom and equality before the law have evolved, often painfully, over time.
Philanthropy’s Comparative Advantages
It is in the depth of the actors’ presentations and understanding— a demonstrated, felt understanding of history—that philanthropy can find motivation and models for funding historical education. It is one thing, and an important thing, to support curricular development, teacher training, and other school–based educational initiatives: Students must have their appetite for American history whetted by knowledgeable teachers.
Private philanthropy is only one piece of the puzzle in school–based historical education, albeit an important one. Changes in how history is taught in America’s classrooms will be the result of a long, intensive re–examination process that involves parents, teachers, and education professionals, as well as state, local, and federal officials. This slow process will be extremely susceptible to the vicissitudes of politics.
In the meantime, we have a pressing need to supplement the failure of schools to train students in their own history. And here is where private philanthropy has a decided advantage, because it can target resources quickly and efficiently, with great flexibility, in imaginative ways that can make a difference for individual students. Examples of philanthropy targeting resources in these three ways for educational enhancement abound.
Speed. Simply put, private philanthropy, in contrast to government, can move quickly when time counts. It seems nonsensical to speak of speed when discussing the preservation and presentation of the past. Yet a recent incident at the National Portrait Gallery shows that speed can often make the difference when important historical treasures are threatened.
Last year, the nation was stunned to discover that the British aristocrat who owned the invaluable painting of George Washington that hung in the National Portrait Gallery was putting it on the auction block. His asking price: $20 million, well beyond the gallery’s means. Called the Lansdowne portrait—after the Marquis of Lansdowne, a prominent British supporter of American independence for whom it was painted—it is one of the most famous representations of our first president.
On Monday, February 26, 2001, gallery director Marc Pachter wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal. It caught the eye of Steven Anderson, president of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, who decided, as he put it later, to “go for broke.” Two days later, Pachter had a proposal in Anderson’s hands. After two more days, the 11–member board of the Reynolds Foundation agreed. Pachter and Anderson met the next day and completed the deal. The following Monday, the Reynolds Foundation wired $20 million to the Smithsonian to buy the painting.
But the foundation didn’t stop there. Reynolds added $4 million for a permanent display at the National Portrait Gallery. And most important for Reynolds, the foundation added another $6 million to finance a nationwide tour of the painting, focusing on sites west of the Mississippi, so that children who normally might not go to Washington, D.C., would have a chance to view the painting.
The foundation’s contribution has led to a 50–state educational initiative, chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. With the new funding, the Smithsonian has written a complete curriculum to help educators teach students about Washington and the American founding. The Reynolds’ grant is also underwriting distribution of free posters of the portrait, as well as buses and field trips during the tour and the hiring of professional actors to recreate the first president for students.
Portraiture and history aren’t a normal focus for the Reynolds Foundation, which was founded in 1954 by the magnate of the Donrey Media Group. But according to Anderson, the opportunity just “struck our patriotic core.” Because of that receptivity to patriotic fervor—and the ability to move quickly in response to immediate needs that is a hallmark of the private foundation—a priceless artifact of American history has been kept in public circulation, inspiring another generation of schoolchildren. As Fred W. Smith, Reynolds’ chairman, puts it, the “primary goal” for the Lansdowne project “is to have a major impact in reintroducing George Washington to the next generation of leaders.”
Flexibility. The area around Fredericksburg, Virginia, is one of the most historic in the nation. Native American sites, colonial–era farms, and four major Civil War battlefields—Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness, as well as the sites of countless other smaller engagements—draw tens of thousands of visitors to the area every year.
Yet the region is under constant pressure from two major urban areas, Washington from the north and Richmond from the south. Thousands of acres of countryside are being turned into shopping malls and suburban tract homes every year. From 1970 to 1990, population in the Fredericksburg area grew by a whopping 120 percent, four times the average of Virginia as a whole. This growth places enormous pressure on the historic areas, many of which have been lost forever to development. Prominent among the losses is the New Salem Church—scene of a vicious engagement during the Battle of Chancellorsville—now completely surrounded by shopping malls, a gas station, and other retail outlets. In fact, eight of the 25 most–endangered battlefields in the country are in Virginia, several near Fredericksburg, according to the Civil War Preservation Trust.
Into this new war has stepped the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, a nonprofit group that buys historic property and either donates it to the National Park Service or holds it in perpetuity. Several hundred acres of important battlefields around Fredericksburg have been saved this way—often in conjunction with purchases by the Park Service, with the Battlefield Trust picking up the slack when government resources are tapped out. It’s an unusual and, so far, extremely effective public–private partnership, funded almost completely by the trust’s 32,000 members. Its private status has allowed it to avoid the messy, politically fraught process of the government’s seizing private land for public use through the power of eminent domain, and the trust’s low–key approach has been praised by developers who are usually cast as the bad guys in debates on development. In fact, the trust recently received its first land donation from a controversial developer, Larry Silver, who donated a six–acre tract called Grant’s Knoll, where General Ulysses S. Grant established his battlefield headquarters during the Virginia campaign of 1864. Foundation funding for projects such as the trust’s circumvent the difficult process of governmental seizure of private lands, while offering landowners fair prices for their holdings—an eminently free–market solution.
Imagination. There are any number of books, films, and educational materials produced about George Washington every year. How does one cut through the mush and find the best educational resources available?
Michael Pack of Manifold Productions and biographer Richard Brookhiser have teamed up to produce a documentary of Washington’s life based on Brookhiser’s 1996 biography, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, which will air nationally on PBS stations just after the July 4 fireworks. The film Rediscovering George Washington discusses three traits that led Washington to power—his skill as a warrior, charisma, and political savvy. Pack also discusses three traits that taught Washington to wield these talents effectively and, more important, later to renounce power—adherence to principle, civility, and magnanimous renunciation.
The trick of this film is the freshness with which it presents its subjects. It doesn’t provide a cynical, revisionist examination of Washington’s character, but rather attempts to humanize a historical figure who has lamentably become somewhat remote. So the film gets the camera “off old prints, out of the offices of talking heads, and away from stock footage of marching feet,” as Pack puts it. “The paintings of Washington are all of him in ‘eternal’ poses. We wanted something with a bit more life to it.“
“There has been this renaissance of historical programming on television, and Washington is, of course, an evergreen topic. But most films about Washington use a strictly biographical approach—dates and facts about his life,” says Pack. “That has its value, but we wanted to focus the show on Washington’s character to address some of the weaknesses we saw in earlier films.”
The documentary’s production values reflect this concern. Historical events are discussed with modern analogies: A seminar of colonels at the Army War College discusses the Whiskey Rebellion and how a commander in chief should have responded; high school pitchers attempt to throw a stone as Washington supposedly did across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, site of Washington’s boyhood home (only two were able to do it); and experts discuss historical events on the spot, not in their offices.
Essential to the project was the backing of a number of major foundations, including the Betty Casey Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Richard Gilder Foundation, and the William H. Donner Foundation. “These foundations know Richard Brookhiser’s work, and they have been indispensable in this area,” Pack says. After its initial broadcast, Pack hopes the film will form the centerpiece of a broad educational campaign for high school students studying American history.
Historical education is likewise the mission of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, an operating foundation that also gives out over $100,000 in annual grants. The Institute’s Lesley Herrmann tells Philanthropy that she worries “the public schools can’t provide the enrichment kids need to get excited about American history,” even though “it’s so important that students understand what our country is founded on and why it’s important.” So the Institute joined the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the proprietors of Washington’s home, in a major new effort. The Ladies are explicitly aiming to lure younger Americans to the site, and they have announced plans for a new $85 million museum and orientation center complex, complete with multimedia shows. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation has again taken the lead, providing a grant of $15 million to spur the campaign.
Reynolds Foundation chairman Fred Smith explains the relation between the group’s Lansdowne portrait project and the Mount Vernon grant: “Staff research into the Lansdowne portrait and its historical significance logically led us to Mount Vernon,” where the new facility should be finished just as the portrait completes its national tour. “Our goal at Mount Vernon is to build upon and continue the renewed interest in George Washington. We believe the potential impact here is extraordinary.” The new facilities will not only “expand the educational experience for visitors” but also “serve as a hub for the educational outreach from Mount Vernon to schoolchildren and teachers across the entire country.” Reynolds President Steven Anderson adds that although the two grants were unusual for the foundation, “they still meet our criteria of having significant impact and fulfilling unmet needs,” especially given their “complementary nature.”
In addition to the Reynolds Foundation and the Gilder Lehrman Institute, the F. M. Kirby Foundation is also funding the Mount Vernon Ladies. Executive Director S. Dillard Kirby explains that his fellow director Jefferson W. Kirby “recognizes that Mount Vernon is no longer seeking to be simply an historic home and museum, but rather the preeminent resource for expanding knowledge about George Washington and thus the traditions, principles, and values” that have “guided this country so well.” He adds that “Jeff and our family hope the recent surge in patriotism in this country will continue, and we are convinced that Mount Vernon will be even more well–suited, following the completion of the current capital campaign, to cultivate an appreciation for the unique circumstances under which this nation was founded.” In a nice historical twist, the Kirby Foundation is also a longtime supporter of Lafayette College, and so their funding “will be directed, in part, toward a focus on the close relationship between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.”
All these ventures in funding history point to the comparative advantages that private philanthropy brings to the field. The various approaches show that funders can find any number of outlets to suit their interests and the size of their commitment. Almost any foundation can help build up the historical resources for the young—and for future generations—that are essential in transmitting the principles and culture that undergird American civic life. Of course, funding history does not provide some of the immediate benefits of other direct services; there is not the immediate satisfaction of the hungry being fed, the homeless being sheltered. But if foundations are an important part of the fabric of American civic life—and they are—then they must continue to play a crucial role in strengthening and perpetuating that life.
Justin Torres is formerly managing editor of Philanthropy. Since this article was written, he has joined the Corporation for National and Community Service. The opinions expressed here are his own.