Williamsburg's Courthouse

The Courthouse is a symbol of the presence of the law in the colonial community. Tom Hay tells this original building’s history.

Learn more: The Courthouse


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. One of the biggest personalities in 18th century Williamsburg was not a person, but a building. The Courthouse stands in the center of Duke of Gloucester Street and is a symbol of government in the community. Tom Hay is site supervisor of the Courthouse, Capitol and Gaol and he’s here today to talk to us about this remarkable building both architecturally,  and for its role in the community. Tom, thank you for being here today.

Tom Hay: My pleasure, Harmony.

Harmony: Well if you’re walking down Duke of Gloucester Street, and no mistake, right slam in the middle of the street a very handsome, very large brick building, built to last, built to be imposing is one of the big things that you’re going to notice. Architecturally, what is this building accomplishing? What is it trying to say to the community?

Tom: Well first of all, we can point out that the building itself is literally in the center of Williamsburg. Not only in the middle of Duke of Gloucester Street, halfway between the College and the Capitol, but it is in the center of the community as well. It served as a gathering place for all sorts of activities. I mean not only was there the monthly city court held there the first Monday of every month, but there was likewise a monthly county court held there the second Monday of the month and people would come for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes people came to court even when they didn’t have any business with the court.

In a day and an age where most people lived in widely spread out rural farms, they prized opportunities to gather together as a community and court day provided one of those as did Sunday at church. So people would get together and watch what was going on, find out the news of the day, so it really did serve as a focus of the community. What’s interesting is in 1991 when we opened up for the very first time, Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice of the Supreme Court, was the primary speaker the day we opened. She said that as a child her father took her to their local courts because he said it was the finest free entertainment in town and that’s certainly true for 18th century Williamsburg as well.

Harmony: And we’re so fortunate in the Historic Area that this courthouse is one of our original buildings that was reclaimed during the reconstruction during the Rockefeller era and so we can say this is an original building. This is where these things actually happened. You can walk on the same floors and stand in the same four walls.

Tom: Absolutely. You can talk about the walls that way. The building itself has been through many trials and tribulations in its day. It was of course built as a local courthouse of the British Empire in North America. Just shortly before the war started actually. However, it’s during the war itself used as, well, a barracks and as a hospital during the Yorktown campaign.

During the American Civil War it was used as a hospital right after the Battle of Williamsburg, May 15, 1862 and then afterwards was used as a barracks for occupying federal troops here in town. As a matter of fact it was in such bad condition after that war that the local government actually had to meet in the basement of the then-standing Baptist Church right across the street.

And then of course in 1911 there was a fire where we lost a lot of original documentation. In the 1930s Colonial Williamsburg had what Carl Lounsbury refers to as a very vigorous reconstruction, and it was used as a museum for a while. From the bicentennial on it was used as a ticket office and it wasn’t until 1987 that we closed it down so we could restore the interior back to its 18th century look and that’s when we opened in 1991. That’s the very short history of the architecture of the building.

Harmony: Talking about the interior look, how does it compare to the interior look of a courtroom today? Are there similarities in the DNA of courtroom layout that echo through to a modern courtroom today? What’s the layout of the 18th century courthouse?

Tom: Well in a very broad perspective, it is similar to modern courts but there are many differences and even today in a modern court they will use phrases that remind us of how courts were laid out in the 18th century. For instance, when a judge wants the attorneys to come up and talk to him. What does a judge say in a courtroom when he wants those attorneys to come up and talk to him?

Harmony: Approach the bar? Approach the bench?

Tom: Approach the bench. Well, what’s he sitting on.

Harmony: A chair?

Tom: So why does he say approach the bench? Because in the 18th century, they sat on a bench. So justices sitting on a bench was so ingrained that we still use the phrase “bench” even though judges don’t use them anymore. And as you walk in the courthouse up on the far wall underneath the royal coat of arms, you’re going to see a chair for the Chief Magistrate and the other magistrates sitting in fact on a bench. And they are figuratively and literally higher than everyone else in society and in the courtroom. They’re also the only ones that get cushions.

So nowadays you’d see one judge, in the 18th century you’d see at least five. Nowadays they’re paid. Back in the 18th century they served as, well, out of a sense of obligation and they served for free so the justices were well meaning, untrained, legal amatures in the best sense of that term.

Harmony: But men of the community?

Tom: Leading gentlemen of the community. As you walk around Colonial Williamsburg, if you look at the homes of George Wythe or Peyton Randolph you will get the idea of men who were the leaders of local society and they sat on the local bench as did Robert Carter Nicholas who at one point lived in the Robert Carter House next to the Palace; very grand buildings.

Other court officers like the court clerks, they lived in more modest structures. You can walk down by Thomas Everard’s house and see a still a genteel structure, but smaller. Or at the far end of town past the Capitol, one of our original houses, is the Benjamin Waller House, and he lived there for some time. Again, a very nice house, but not quite as fancy as the Randolph House or the Wythe House, but it does give you an idea, a very quick look, at what people expected. So the justices were the leading gentlemen of the community. No doubt about that.

Harmony: You really cannot understate the importance of the Courthouse. We’ve said that it is a brick building in an age where many buildings are made of wood so it’s built to last; its imposing. It’s in the center of town. It’s at the heart of the town. No less important is the work that’s happening inside the Courthouse. This is how a community decides to govern itself, to apply its laws, to hand out justice, to protect its under protected. How important was the work of the Courthouse and the work of the law in the early days of the Williamsburg colony?

Tom: It was absolutely important in so many different ways. I mean this is where rights were protected; where life, liberty and property were on the line. much of what happened in the courthouse was every bit as exciting as, well, standing in line in the department of motor vehicles because there was an awful lot of license renewal going on so the work a day things that we go to our local government today happened back then but you went to the court rather than then some bureaucrat.

Let’s say so you needed a tavern license, you went to the court. You wanted to become a tobacco inspector, you went to the court to get their recommendation. That’s consistent. If you needed to document a debt owed, you’d sue someone in court. Interestingly the suits for debt are a major part of what the court did. Ninety percent of the court docket is related to debt in some way, but it’s not necessarily adversarial. Everyone understood that when you had a debt go through the court process, that took it from a private debt to a publicly recognized debt and that meant that it would be a bond debt. It was secured by bond, which means that if a person died the bond debt is the first debt that’s paid off by the executors of the estate.

One Englishman who came through Virginia at the time was very surprised when he saw one Virginian suing another Virginian in court and when they left after that case had been decided they were making yet another credit agreement amongst themselves and he said, “Well, tis no great shame to be sued for debt in Virginia.” So that was very important.

There’s also, in addition to the administrative and civil procedure, its where widows were taken care of and orphans were taken care of. Sometimes that was done through the vestry and sometimes it was done through the court. That can change in different places so Virginia simply because the vestrymen are quite often local justices as well I’d say.

At any rate, in other ways they took care of things its where you were called forth to answer for transgressions in the community. Some are not very serious, like failure to attend church or cursing in public, being drunk in public, and these were taken care of by minor fines. You didn’t even have to pay the fine immediately in a day and age when most people are involved in agriculture. Well everyone just expected that it would wait until the crops were sold before you could pay your debt and so that would just be carried on the books until someone sold their crops.

As a matter of fact, most crimes were probably punished by fines simply because punishment should fit the crime. Most people when they commit crimes are minor crimes, but sometimes the crimes are a little bit more serious, which is why outside of every single courthouse, as outside our courthouse, is a set of stocks, pillories and a whipping post. It’s important to remember that stocks sound like socks and that means that they’re both for your feet. Pillories sound like pillows, they’re both for your head. The most common way of punishing people was to whip them if they didn’t pay a fine, and of course most people if they have the means, would far rather pay a fine than be whipped.

That means that many times the people who did get whipped outside a courthouse for some sort of theft would be someone who could not pay a fine; an enslaved person or an indentured or convict servant. The pillories were put there for public humiliation so if you got put in the pillories you were exposed to public humiliation. You could not testify again in a court. We know that in England people who were put in the pillories for doing something unpopular would often be pelted by garbage. We don’t have much documentation for that happening in Virginia.

But the point is is that punishment itself was done in front of everyone and done right after the trial so it was part of being part of the community and it was all done within a monthly session that would last two or three days, so quite often people come from all over and pack the town to find out what was going on.

Harmony: It seems to me that part of the greatest significance of the Courthouse is that it’s where people come into contact with the law, whether they’re the judges who are handing down the law or whether it’s citizens who are defending themselves before the law or bringing a case before the law, its where you interact with the codes of your community. See if they work, see if they apply and work within that system. And that’s something that you still give visitors a chance to see today with a lot of the programs that you present in the Courthouse now. You give visitors a chance to sit on the same bench, sit in the same audience and see exactly how law was put into practice in the colonial community. What are some of the ways that visitors can see colonial law in action when they come here for a visit?

Tom: Well, from Tuesday through Saturday we offer “Order in the Court” which is our court session recreation and that program couldn’t happen without our guests participating. So they are given roles. Sometimes they help the staff as justices or members of the jury. Sometimes they are litigants and we know that has tremendous effect. I personally have experienced guests who come back after a 10-year hiatus in their visits and they’re not sure which big brick building is the Capitol and which one is the Palace, but they can go into extraordinary detail about how mom got in trouble with the justices for complaining about the conditions in the town market.

Because one of the most successful things that can happen at Colonial Williamsburg is when a visit to Colonial Williamsburg transcends merely a visit to a historic site and it becomes a part of family lore and its then remembered. And I think that “Order in the Court” recreates these court sessions achieves that and achieves it quite regularly. It is perhaps one of our most popular daytime programs and certainly one of the longest lasting. So that’s what we do.

Harmony: Well we hope that everybody who’s planning a visit out here will check the program calendar on ColonialWilliamsburg. com to see what programs are available to them during their visit. Tom, thank you for being here today and describing the history of this remarkable building and its history and our community and our democracy.

Tom: I’m looking forward to having all our guests come and visit. Thank you so much.


  1. I had the pleasure of working a few months on the reconstruction of the Courthouse in August-October of 1990. I still talk to Garland whenever I see him on my visits to CW. I had a very minor part in the woodworking as I mainly interpreted for guest who were allowed to come in and watch our work in progress.

  2. In search of information relating to news being posted on a post of some sort in the cent er of town in the 18th century or any century in early times.

    • Kerry,

      Broadsheets and newspapers were circulated widely in Williamsburg’s colonial years. You might have found them in taverns, coffeehouses, and in private homes. Ads for runaway slaves and other notices might be posted in shop windows. Is there something specific you are looking for?

      Thanks for your question.

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