The Capitol Building

The Capitol Building in Williamsburg is truly the birthplace of independence.

It was here that men first spoke of being free.
Men like Thomas Jefferson would find their voices here.
Patrick Henry’s famous speech was here.
The House of Burgesses would find their permanent home here in 1699 after fire destroyed the building at Jamestown for the third time.

The Capitol building was constructed in 1705, after fires destroyed the ones at Jamestown.  In the interim, the House of Burgesses met at Middleton Plantation. The extreme temperatures, malaria, and location all helped change the location from Jamestown to Williamsburg.  The view that the climate was much better near Middleton Plantation was a deciding factor. The former location was also more dangerous with its close proximity to the James River, where the Spanish could attack them.
deliberation room

The building has two wings connected with an arcade. The circular ends give the building a distinctive feel. Located at the end of Duke of Gloucester Street, it is directly down the road from the College of William and Mary, the college founded in 1693.   There are two floors. The General Court meets in the west wing, and the House of Burgesses met on the east wing. At first, the building had no fireplaces.  The fear of fire destroying the building had the men insist on this feature which proved to be very uncomfortable as the years progressed.  All meetings were done during the day, and even then imagine if the day was dark because of weather.  They would have to adjourn because even candles and pipes were not allowed in the building. Eventually, in 1723, chimneys were added. The city’s climate made the building damp and uncomfortable. The chimneys were supposed to help keep the building dry, but as expected, in 1747, a fire broke out and destroyed the building, leaving only a few walls and the foundation.
part of the courtroom - Cry Witch was here

For many years, the House of Burgesses met at the Wren building at the College of William and Mary. Many debated whether or not the Capitol should even be rebuilt, but finally in 1753, a new building was constructed. This new building would see history being made.  In this new building, Patrick Henry would speak his famous speech against the Stamp Act. While many of the conservative Burgesses were not in attendance, he took the opportunity to incite the men present to make a cry for freedom.
the Cupola

 “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the first his Cromwell; and George the Third . . . may he profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!

The men present agreed with him and while his words were considered traitorous, people listened and agreed.  They were tired of King George taxing the colonists in an attempt to pay for his wars. They did not want to continue to pay without being given a chance to vote on these taxes and decide which ones were legal. Not only did the king insist on taxes, but he limited where the colonists could purchase their goods. He insisted they only buy goods from Britain, or through Britain. This led many in the colonies to find goods through illegal means, which led to ships being confiscated, sailors being conscripted into service, and armies being sent to the colonies to enforce British law.
the Governor's chair

Men like George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, Peyton Randolph, and Richard Henry Lee all gathered at the Capitol.  SO, who were the Burgesses and how did they get their power? These men were elected by the colonists in an attempt to give the governing of the colony over to the people.  They would meet yearly.  The men would represent the different boroughs along the James River.  They included – the governor appointed by London, a governor’s council selected by the governor, and the elected burgesses.  Only white men over the age of 17 who owned land were eligible to vote.  Once the Revolutionary War started, the Burgesses were considered traitors to the Crown.  The King wanted them captured and thrown into prison.  For many of them, a price was put on their heads and they had to go into hiding to keep from being jailed and tortured.  The Patriots hid some of them in their homes far away, knowing that if something were to happen to them, the fight for independence would crumble.
High Council Chambers

The Capitol Building became the social and political center of Virginia. Balls were held here. Politicians met here and decided on laws. Court cases were tried here, like the famous witch trial against Grace Sherwood who was accused of casting a spell against her neighbors. Thomas Jefferson’s speech for religious freedom was spoken here. Men came to learn from their elders and respected members of the community. Over the years, the building saw many transformations.  Once the capital was moved to Richmond in 1779 for safety reasons, the building was occupied by British forces during the Revolutionary War. The building was also used as an admiralty court (these courts exercised proceedings over maritime, or naval, contracts, torts, injuries, etc), a law school, a female academy, and even a military hospital during the war.  After the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the building was evacuated by British forces and left in disrepair.
balcony - spectators could watch trials from here

By 1881, the bricks had been sold and nothing but the foundation was left.  It wasn’t until archaeologists began to unearth many of the historic buildings in Williamsburg that attention was brought to their importance. Thousands of artifacts were unearthed and catalogued over the years.  Finally in 1928, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities deeded the land to Colonial Williamsburg  and the restoration of the Capitol Building began. With the help of John D Rockefeller, many buildings were reconstructed. Thorough research helped bring back the authenticity of the buildings. The Capitol Building used from 1705-1747 was the one rebuilt because of its historical significance.

view down Duke of Gloucester Street from the Capitol Building

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