Williamsburg thrived as the capital of Virginia at a time when the dream of American freedom and independence was taking shape and the colony was a rich and powerful land stretching west to the Mississippi River and north to the Great Lakes.
For 81 formative years, from 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg was the political, cultural, and educational center of what was then the largest, most populous, and, in many respects, the most influential of the American colonies. It was here that the fundamental concepts of our republic--responsible leadership, a sense of public service, self-government, and individual liberty--were nurtured, culminating in the leadership of patriots such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Peyton Randolph.
Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, the government of Virginia was moved to safer, more centrally located Richmond. For nearly a century and a half afterwards, Williamsburg was simply a quiet college town, home of the College of William and Mary. The second oldest college in the nation, William and Mary was chartered by King William and Queen Mary in 1693.
The Restoration Begins
Williamsburg's restoration began in 1926, when the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church, imparted his dream of preserving the city's historic buildings to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Dr. Goodwin feared that scores of structures that had figured in the life of the colony and the founding of the nation would soon disappear forever. Rockefeller and Goodwin began a modest project to preserve a few of the more important buildings. Eventually, the work progressed and expanded to include a major portion of the colonial city, and approximately 85 percent of the 18th-century capital's area is encompassed by the undertaking.
Mr. Rockefeller gave the project his personal leadership until his death in 1960, and it was his quiet generosity of spirit and uncompromising ethic of excellence that guided and still dominates its development. He donated funds not only for the preservation of more than 80 of the original structures and the reconstruction of many buildings that had vanished but also for the construction of extensive facilities to accommodate the visiting public.
Colonial Williamsburg Today
Today's restoration, one of the most extensive ever undertaken, offers visitors an exciting opportunity to see an 18th-century city much as it must have been in George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's time. A dozen major exhibition buildings and almost 20 busy trade sites are open year-round.
Though Mr. Rockefeller engaged in many projects of preservation and conservation, he seemed to find the greatest satisfaction in his work here, declaring that:
"The restoration of Williamsburg . . . offered an opportunity to restore a complete area and free it entirely from alien or inharmonious surroundings as well as to preserve the beauty and charm of the old buildings and gardens of the city and its historic appeal. As the work has progressed, I have come to feel that perhaps an even greater value is the lesson that it teaches of the patriotism, high purpose, and unselfish devotion of our forefathers to the common good."
In the preservation of the setting of Virginia's 18th-century capital, Mr. Rockefeller and Dr. Goodwin saw an opportunity to ensure that the courageous ideals of the patriots who helped create the American democratic system live on for future generations. Today, Colonial Williamsburg continues to endeavor to bring the era to life so "That the future may learn from the past."