In the build-up to the September 28, 2019 symposium Before They Were Americans, today we are highlighting Liz Williams, Director of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. The tavern consists of two buildings: a (circa) 1785 tavern and the 1792 City Tavern. Named after its tavern keeper from 1796 to 1808, Gadsby’s Tavern was an important center of economic, political, and social life in Alexandria after the American Revolution.
What do you believe was a significant event in the American Revolution era that not many Americans may know about or recognize?
Having grown up in the state of Delaware, one event immediately comes to mind – the ride of Caesar Rodney. Some could argue that the Revolution wouldn’t have happened without his critical vote during the Continental Congress in 1776. Rodney was home promoting the cause of independence and tending to state militia issues when he received word that the Delaware delegation was tied – one vote for, and one vote against independence. He needed to return to Philadelphia to break the deadlock. He rode through a thunderstorm, during the dead of night, in ill health and arrived early July 2nd. His vote was the final push needed to bring unanimity to the cause of independence. Perhaps his ride was more important than the one from that Paul Revere guy.
What first attracted you to the study of early American history? What keeps you involved in the study of this history? Do you find these things are the same or different?
I blame my father. During family vacations, we would always visit historic sites and the magic of these places took hold quickly. I was entranced by the stories they told and how they impacted not only my family history, but also the nation’s. The magic continues for me. I love history because there is always something new to learn. That goes for my own family history (I enjoy the rabbit holes of research into my genealogy) as well as the history of our country and world.
Do you believe the impact of the American Revolution is visible on our current society? In what ways?
Absolutely. Who we are as a nation is a direct result of choices and decisions made over two hundred years ago. The impact is visible through various aspects of our society today: commerce and economics, our place in the world, social inequality, class disparity, et cetera. These choices, decisions, and conversations laid the foundation for America as we know it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have not always been perfect, but across generations, we have worked toward “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
With any violent conflict, there are opposing sides. How important do you believe the Loyalist side was to the American Revolution? Do you believe the existence of this group of colonists has been diminished through romanization of the American Revolution?
The Loyalists during the American Revolution are often made out to be the villains in history textbooks. Simply put, they supported Britain and Britain was bad, so Loyalists were bad. But we all know life and history are not so cut and dry. It is a much more complex, finessed story. Often there is a black and white understanding of the war and the different sides colonists aligned themselves with. War did not happen overnight; it took time to reach that point. Not all Loyalists were villains; not all Patriots were angels. An important job for any public historian is to try to convey this complexity and avoid a black and white view.
Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?
I think our Founders that lived the Revolution, over the course of time, have evolved into these mythical, god-like figures, when in reality they were people just like us. They had flaws; they were not perfect. Trying to share those imperfections alongside achievements can sometimes be challenging for guests to absorb. Busting the mythical bubble can be difficult.
History has a habit of repeating itself. The conversations and challenges our country is experiencing today has a similar quality to the conversations and challenges that were present during the young beginnings of America. The music changes, but the dance is the same. Just as colonists would gather around food and mugs of beer to debate politics and the colonies’ future, we find ourselves in bars and restaurants with the same questions in our hearts. “The layers of history and significance at places like Gadsby’s Tavern is mind-blowing in its scale to think about,” said Williams. “Alexandria has experienced these different aspects of American history from the beginning.”
Victoria Wangler is a freelance writing intern for Emerging Revolutionary War. She will be doing interviews of the Before They Were Americans Symposium speakers. These interviews will be posted on a biweekly basis throughout the summer.