Turning Worlds Upside Down

Throughout history, the desire for justice and human rights has motivated the oppressed to demand political change and the promise of a better future.

February 21st and 22nd, Colonial Williamsburg and the Chautauqua Institution present “Turning Worlds Upside Down: Liberty and Democracy in Revolutionary Times,” an exploration of revolutions past and present.

Creative Director for the Revolutionary City Bill Weldon stops by to describe the thought-provoking lineup.

Learn more: Register to attend.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. America’s Revolution is just one of many in history. Across time and continents, citizens strive to find a government that serves them while preserving the rights they hold most important.

Colonial Williamsburg and the Chautauqua Institution present “Turning Worlds Upside Down: Liberty and Democracy in Revolutionary Times,” which is an exploration of revolutions past and present. It’s February 21 and 22, and you can register to attend now at history.org/conted. That’s c-o-n-t-e-d. Here to tell us a little bit more about it is Creative Director for the Revolutionary City, Bill Weldon, one of the conference’s organizers. Bill, thank you for being here today.

Bill Weldon: My pleasure indeed.

Harmony: Talk to us about what Chautauqua is. What they do and how we come to have this partnership with them for this conference.

Bill: Well for folks who are not familiar with the Chautauqua Institution, it has a very rich history. As an institution, it is one of the most prominent in the country in regard to provoking people to think about citizenship and to think about the role that they play in our society and in our politics and the way the country runs.

The Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 by two Methodist gentlemen and it was started as a summer camp for Sunday school teachers. While it was founded by Methodists, it soon became interdenominational and especially among Protestant groups who began to send people in the summer time to the Chautauqua Institution for these training sessions and seminars.

Over time, Chautauqua has evolved to address all kinds of social and political issues. Whereas we are grounded in the history of the colonial and Revolutionary periods, and that’s our foundation and that’s our starting point for any conversation that we engage people in, Chautauqua is really influenced more by the contemporary issues and concerns that our society deals with today.

The partnership is really born from the fact that both organizations are very dedicated to being forums for citizenship, and for examinations of citizenship. We’re now in the 5th year of that partnership. We have presented programs at Chautauqua as part of their summer program series in 2009, 2011 and this past year, 2013. We will be back at Chautauqua with some of the same programs that will present here in the weekend this coming summer.

Harmony: And coming up right around the corner, February 21 and 22, this partnership manifests itself in a two-day conference, which you don’t have to be a historian to attend: you just have to be interested. Why should folks come out and attend this conference? What are we going to see?

Bill: Well I think if I had to identify a primary reason that people should attend would be the opportunity to really learn about some aspects of the American Revolution that are not really explored or talked about that frequently. And also to see some of the current day revolutions, especially revolutions in the Middle East in light of some of those more challenging aspects of the American Revolution. That’s what the program is really going to be oriented around.

Harmony: I think this is such a great angle; thinking about revolutions in the Middle East and the connections to the Revolution in America. You don’t think about them having connections, but underpinning, all these revolutions, are some very similar philosophies. How are we finding connections?

Bill: Oh sure, well I think an examination of revolutions throughout history pretty well reveals that they’re born both from hopes and desperations of people who feel themselves oppressed and frustrated by the political systems that they live under. And so they undertake revolution as a way to better their situation, to hopefully improve the political system that they live under with the hope of having a brighter future as a result. So that’s common to all revolutions, and why people pursue revolution. That’s what we hope people are going to see immediately in the programs and the themes that we’re exploring this weekend.

Harmony: And it’s wonderful to see the democracy that started here with the American Revolution with contributions from great Virginians: that didn’t stop in the Revolutionary era. All that work continues and these are ideals we still have to unpack and examine.

Bill: Oh, and I think one of the things that Colonial Williamsburg tries to explore and to provoke people to think about in our programming is that the American Revolution is ongoing. It’s not something in the past. It’s not something over there and we’re still trying to realize all those promises made in the Declaration of Independence. We’re still trying to achieve those ideals that Thomas Jefferson and the Revolutionary leaders laid out in that document. We certainly don’t see or feel that all those ambitions have been accomplished and that the American Revolution -- I think as Thomas Jefferson imagined -- would be an ongoing experiment.

Harmony: So you’re bringing in some great speakers to bring some different perspectives to the conversation?

Bill: We are indeed.

Harmony: Who are some of the folks on the lineup?

Bill: Well the gentleman who will lead the conference off and be our keynote speaker on Friday evening is a Harvard historian named David Armitage who has written prolifically about the American Revolution. But I think one of his books that we would certainly want to make people aware of is a book called “The Declaration of Independence: A Global History.” His title for his presentation will be “Every Revolution is a Civil War.” I think that he’s going to explore those very issues that we’ve been discussing here. What’s behind revolutions? Why do people really pursue revolution as some kind of solution to a societal or cultural problem that they’re experimenting with? So we’re seeing revolutions in light of the Declaration of Independence and of the promises that the Declaration of Independence sort of holds out for people in regard to self governance and representative systems of government.

Then on Saturday, as a part of our early afternoon presentation, we have Robin Wright, who is a celebrated contemporary journalist who has been involved in covering many of those revolutions in the Middle East and a couple years back she published a book called “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.” She will focus particularly on the Egyptian revolution and her experiences with covering the Egyptian Revolution and sort of the evolution of some of the things that have occurred as a result of that.

We also have historian Patrick Griffin from Notre Dame, who’s published a book called “American Leviathan,” which looks at the sort of some of those harder, darker realities behind the American Revolution. He will be coming along with historian, Scott Stephenson, on a scene that we’ve entitled “The Hair Buyer: The Case Against General Hamilton,” which really looks at an event in the Revolution in Virginia in the period when Thomas Jefferson was governor and one of the thornier sort of issues that Jefferson had to deal with in his governorship.

And then finally, I want to make certain that we mention and make people aware of the fact that we will also have celebrated historian Annette Gordon Reed here to participate in the afternoon as a commentator on a new scene that we’ve written entitled “Fighting Another Man’s War,” which really examines how enslaved people were caught up in the American Revolution and how their situation was affected by the war and different things that occurred during the war. Annette is particularly known for her Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Hemings of Monticello” about the Hemings family, who were enslaved by Thomas Jefferson.

Harmony: Sounds like a really fascinating, thought-provoking couple of days to think about the relevance of America’s history, the connectedness of global history and sort of the unfinished business of resolution of human rights and really reaching those ideals and finding a balance between a government that preserves our rights and protects us at the same time.

Bill: And that’s particularly the kind of issue that this whole conference is designed to address. How do you maintain those revolutionary ideas and ideals in the face of having to actually govern against the backdrop of war and social conflict? Every revolution that’s ever occurred has had to deal with those conflicts and those contradictions, and that’s what we hope we’re going to provoke people to think about if they attend the conference.

Harmony: It sounds like a great conference. We want to make sure that people know that there are still spaces available. They can register at History.org/conted or if you like you can call 1-800-History to get more information on that.

Bill: And we want to encourage people to either call 1-800-History or to go on-line. We still have places available for people to register and attend and I think it’s going to be one of the highlights of our year and certainly the next significant step in the partnership that we are striking with the Chautauqua Institution.

Harmony: Thanks so much for being here.

Bill: You’re welcome.