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The Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

“Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third …”

Shouts of “Treason!” interrupted Patrick Henry, as he spoke to the Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg.

“… may profit by their example,” he concluded.  It may or may not have been what he’d originally planned to say.

It was May 29, 1765, when Henry delivered his “Caesar-Brutus” speech against the Stamp Act on May 29, 1765, in Virginia’s Capitol building.  It was an early milestone on the long and treacherous path that transformed British subjects into American citizens.

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Eleven years later, on May 15, 1776, in the same building, Virginia’s elected representatives voted to instruct the colony’s delegation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to call for a vote on independence from Britain.

A month afterwards, on June 12, the Fifth Virginia Convention, meeting at the Capitol, adopted George Mason’s Declaration of Rights.  It would become the model for the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Within the halls of the Capitol, George Washington, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, and other Virginia patriots debated and passed resolutions that led to Revolution.

There were lighter moments too.  The second Capitol in Virginia’s second capital hosted dances and dinners, as well as talk of Revolution.

Virginia’s original colonial capital was Jamestown, where the House of Burgesses first convened in 1619.  After fire destroyed the Jamestown Statehouse, for the third time, in 1698, the Burgesses decided to move the colony’s government to Middle Plantation, soon renamed Williamsburg. 

Williamsburg’s first Capitol was built during 1701-05.  The brick building featured a distinctive open central arcade or “piazza”.  It hosted the Burgesses, as well as the Governor’s Council and the General Court, until fire destroyed it in 1747.

The second Capitol at Williamsburg was built during 1751-53 on the foundations of the first.  To the modern eye, the Palladian design was less unique than its predecessor, but it did inspire imitations, including Thomas Jefferson’s design for Monticello.  This was the structure where the Burgesses met during the decades that yielded the American Revolution.

The building was last used as a capitol on December 24, 1779, when the General Assembly adjourned to reconvene on May 1 in the fledgling state’s new capital of Richmond.  It subsequently served as an admiralty court, a law school, a military hospital, a grammar school, and a girl’s school.  Its west wing was sold for its bricks and demolished in 1793; the east burned in 1832.  In 1881, the last above-ground traces of its historic halls were removed from the lot.  One of the most significant buildings in American history was gone.

Colonial Williamsburg

A little more than 50 years later, Colonial Williamsburg opened a reconstruction of the first Capitol in 1934.

Today, the building is open for tours where you can learn about Virginia’s contribution to the American Revolution.  Evening programs like Cry Witch immerse visitors in 18th-century life.  Until Virginia’s lengthy lockdown, it hosted an annual naturalization ceremony, during which immigrants became Americans.

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