by Dan Shippey &

Michael Burns 

     A few months back we ran a series of articles entitled “CSI America: Who’s Killing American History.” Now it is with the greatest pleasure that we can write a story about some people who are saving American history.

     If you have not had the pleasure of spending time In Colonial Williamsburg Virginia then you are missing out not only on one of America’s national treasures but one of the best history classrooms in the world. Last November Williamsburg’s main boulevard, Duke of Gloucester Street, saw the return of a building that had been missing for around 240 years. After that rather long hiatus, Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse has resumed business--and that business is booming.

     In the 18th century, English Coffeehouses were known as “penny academies.”  Once you had paid your penny for admission you entered a world where you could freely exchange ideas with men of almost all classes while you enjoyed your coffee, tea, or most popular of all, drinking chocolate. There were rooms set aside for private events where food could be called for or lectures could be heard, but the main room was the place where the most was happening. Politics, science, theology, business and even a bawdy joke or two accompanied the latest news.

     Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse sat near the Capitol building and the part of town called The Exchange, where merchants would meet to conduct business. Burgesses like George Washington and Patrick Henry could get their news and socialize in the coffeehouse or on it’s front porch as the business of Virginia was carried on around them. On this same porch in 1765 George Mercer, who had been named the chief distributor of the hated stamps in the colony of Virginia, was caught in a riot about the Stamp Act. As in other colonies, any official who had been appointed to the stamp job proved an easy scapegoat for the angry crowd. The mob managed to get hold of Mercer and demand that he swear an oath not to distribute the official stamped paper. The scene was witnessed by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Fauquier from the porch of Charlton’s, and Farquier pulled Mercer to safety, before any injury could befall him. Mercer wisely resigned his position, and the Stamp Act was repealed by Parliament in 1766.





     The “new” Coffeehouse was built using period 18th century construction techniques on the original foundations and as close in appearance to the original building as research allows. This was accomplished through the extensive archaeology, historical scholarship and skilled craftwork of The Williamsburg Foundation, but it was made possible by a generous $5 million gift from Forrest and Deborah Mars. Everyone involved deserves thanks and accolades for their part in this enormous project, but Mr. and Mrs. Mars most of all. For their generosity, they are History Heroes. Now every year thousands of people will get a slightly better view of history and a better understanding of the context in which our nation was born.


    As part of the research for this article I was compelled to tour the coffeehouse and imbibe some of the dark and powerful drinking chocolate. As I sat back in my chair a carriage clattered by on the road outside. I engaged in conversation with the young member of Williamsburg’s 18th century gentry at my table. He was most concerned about the new laws emanating from Parliament in London. “Have you seen the new acts lately published?” he asked. “They are more than ten pages long.  If the laws are to be so lengthly who will read them? And why should they be written so unless to conceal some devious art?” Hmmmm, why indeed?

Those who refuse to learn from History......

My wise coffeehouse companion

For more on Charlton’s Coffeehouse visit

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