Growing up, I had plenty of history, and some of my favorite lessons were from Schoolhouse Rock. By the time I was seven I knew that the U.S. House and U.S. Senate had to pass identical legislation before sending it to the President because of a cartoon piece of rolled up parchment sang “I’m just a Bill.” (Yes, I’m Only a Bill. And I’m sittin’ here on Capitol Hill.) I knew about the battles at Lexington and Concord Massachusetts, and the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” (was the start of the Revolution. The Minute Men were ready, on the move. Take your blanket, take your gun, report to General Washington…). But probably most important to me as a High School Sophomore in U.S. Government class were the diverse cartoon people singing about their country and community. You know the one. “We the People… in order to form a more perfect union…” Definitely aced the part of the test writing down the whole pre-amble to the Constitution.
When you’re growing up, everything seemed so much rosier in cartoon format while singing along. But one of the things I like about Colonial Williamsburg is that you get the whole story about how things were back then. First and foremost, the Founding Fathers were people, and as visionary as they were, they were not perfect. And justice was most definitely not equal back then. Some of the constitutional amendments in the Bill of Rights remedied those inequalities and injustices, but others didn’t. While attending a “county court” proceeding circa early 1700s, we witnessed what passed for justice and I compared it to what we have today. Here were some of the big differences:
- Not everyone was allowed to testify to things they saw and heard. While single or widowed women were allowed to own property and represent themselves in court, they could not testify.
- Slaves and indentured servants were forbidden from testifying as well.
- You had to be a landowner to serve on a jury, and a council of wealthy landowners worked with the judge to rule over cases without pay. (It was considered your moral obligation to rule over the “inferior” classes of people in these disputes).
When you look at some of the “justice” that was doled out, some of the provisions in the Bill of Rights make much more sense. For example, being judged by a jury of your peers for crimes, not being prosecuted for the same crime twice, and having a fair and speedy trial.
Colonial Williamsburg remains one of my favorite places to visit, but it also reminds me of how far we’ve come, and what we need to protect as citizens.