By Meredith Henne Baker
Last week, police in Portsmouth arrested two NAACP leaders who called for the removal of a Confederate monument.
Afterward, angry protesters pelted the monument with bricks, then attempted to pull it down as a brass band blared celebratory tunes in the background. After community member Chris Green was seriously injured by a toppled statue, police dispersed the crowd and Gov. Ralph Northam urged protesters to let officials safely remove monuments. As the crowd cleared, four statues were decapitated, one lay on the ground, and another found himself disarmed via bolt cutter.
Seemingly less concerned about Mr. Green than the state of the monument, social media immediately buzzed with condemnation. Vandals! Fiasco! Chaos! Domestic Terrorists! One commenter wondered when the “woke rioters” would come to Williamsburg to destroy historical objects.
Historians can tell you it’s already happened. Destruction — and even decapitation — of hallowed statuary has a long history in Virginia. In the late 18th century, the American Revolution had ended, France was in the throes of her own rebellion, and students at William and Mary were filled with the fervor of a new era. The wealthy White students whom we now consider nation-builders, whose names bedeck buildings across the commonwealth, were hell-raisers with a national reputation, and a statue became the target of their rage.
Williamsburg boasted a marble likeness of Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, who served as the colonial governor of Virginia from 1768-1770. (A reproduction now stands at the center of the colonial campus.) During and even after his term, Lord Botetourt was remarkably well-liked. Nevertheless, his statue represented an oppressive past William and Mary’s student body sought to disavow. Students, according to official school records, sawed off Lord Botetourt’s marble head. Modern scans also indicate vandals lopped off the lord’s hand. Historians have excused this “lawless” behavior as “the legacy of the Revolution.”
Unrest in the Early Republic era grew so out of hand that the head of school, Bishop James Madison, housed students in town rather than lodging them together on campus, which he feared would lead to more “preconcerted mutinies,” according to a history of the college. It didn’t help.
Students still threw bricks through windows, raided professors’ homes and flipped carriages to protest school rules. With their reputation for Jeffersonian Republican leanings and religious skepticism, it’s perhaps not surprising they also targeted churches. At Bruton Parish, students ripped open prayer books, smeared human waste across the pulpit, and splintered the altar. One group bizarrely dug up a woman’s body from the churchyard and left it in a nearby home.
It’s likely many critics of today’s civil unrest take pride in Virginia’s revolutionary past, and the leaders that emerged from the Early Republic era.
It is worth remembering that many of those tailcoat-wearing leading lights from Virginia — future ambassadors, representatives, chancellors, and judges — engaged in defacing statues and destroying property during their own protests.
Meredith Henne Baker is the author of The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster and a graduate of The College of William & Mary.