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The Raleigh Tavern:
The Social and Political Center of Colonial Williamsburg
By Jim Newton

RaleighT imageThe Raleigh Tavern was established around 1717 being named for the famous Sir Walter Raleigh who had, in 1585, attempted the first colonization of Virginia. The tavern grew to become the most noted hostelry in all of Virginia. For over 100 years every man and woman of note in Virginia had made their presence known at the tavern. The Raleigh’s main apartment was called the "Apollo Room”, the word meaning "a banqueting room”. The space was large and well lit and contained an imposing fireplace over the mantel of which was inscribed the Latin motto, "Hilaritas, Sapientiae et Bonae Vitae Proles (mirth is the offspring of wisdom and a good life). The room probably witnessed more scenes of brilliant festivities and political excitement than any other chamber in Colonial America. It was the scene of grand balls, dinners and parties. In 1764 the young Thomas Jefferson wrote that he was "as happy on the night before as dancing with Belinda at the Apollo could make me”. On February 22, 1779, the birthday of George washington was celebrated by "a very elegant entertainment at the Raleigh Tavern. On November 1, 1783, the general peace and final establishment of American independance was joyously celebrated in Williamsburg by a parade and other activities which were to end at the Raleigh Tavern where those taking part were to spend the rest of the evening.

Not only was the Roleigh Tovern the social center of Williamsburg, but it also served as a meeting place to discuss the political events of the day. On May 16, 1769 the House of Burgesses pushed through resolutions regarding colonial rights. Lord Botetourt, the royal governor of Virginia, in anger dissolved the assembly prompting its members to repair to the Raleigh Tavern. While there in the Apollo room they adopted a non-importation agreement drawn by George Mason and offered by George Washington. In 1773, when, as Campbell says, "the horizon was darkened by gathering clouds" (the fear of war with England), many in the House of Burgesses including Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, among others, often met in a private room at the Raleigh Tavern to converse on the ominus state of affoirs. On May 26, 1774 the assembly protested against the closing of the port of Boston and designated a day of "fasting, prayer and humiliation” The next day the then royal governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the assembly because of the protest. The Burgesses, as a result, once again retreated to the Raleigh Tavern where the adopted resolutions against the use of tea and other East Indian commodities and originated the "committee of correspondence’ the main politicol engine uniting in one column, for resistonce or attack, all the colonies of North Americo against the mother country. The Raleigh Tavern also had a darker side as merchandise and slaves were frequently auctioned off from its steps. The tavern burned down in 1859 but on September 16, 1932, having been reconstructed, the edifice was ceremoniously re-opened. The latest revision to the building took place recently in 2017 with the addition of a front porch.


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