We can sometimes think of Williamsburg’s Historic Area as a place where time stood still. The clock that marked time some 275 years ago in the cupola of the Capitol has indeed stopped, but the forward march of time is symbolized by the clock’s movement, now displayed in Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
The movement, which is the mechanism that powers a timepiece, was likely installed in the cupola in the 1750s after the Capitol had been rebuilt following a 1747 fire.
Nothing is known about who made the movement. Clock movements, like many other goods found in 18th-century Virginia, were imported from England. Much like in a tall case clock, the geared movement was driven by the gravity supplied by weights and by the force of a swinging pendulum.
This clock kept time above Patrick Henry as he declared in 1765 to the House of Burgesses that “if this be treason, make the most of it,” and also in 1776 when the Virginia Convention declared an independent commonwealth and produced the state’s Declaration of Rights.
The movement was still working in 1777 when, according to the Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, James Galt was appointed to “keep in order the Capitol Clock.” It was still working in 1780 when Gov. Thomas Jefferson, having been informed that the militia had stripped the cupola of its lead and left the clock exposed, ordered that the clock and cupola be protected “by stopping up the open part of the Cupola, or raising
a roof over it.... It must be made absolutely secure in some way or other.”
The clock had by 1785 acquired a bronze bell to mark the hours when Noah Webster, well before his name became almost a synonym for dictionary, visited Williamsburg and wrote that the Capitol housed “the only public clock & bell of consequence in Virginia.”
After the capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, the Capitol gradually fell into disrepair, and fire destroyed the building in 1832. The clock’s face may have perished in the fire, but the movement survived. Perhaps it had been removed from the Capitol because movements were expensive and hard to replace, though curators can only speculate as to when and why it was moved.
At some point, it was moved to the Courthouse and then in 1840 to the steeple of Bruton Parish Church. In 1931 the church gave it to the Williamsburg Holding Company, which later became Colonial Williamsburg.
“The fact that the movement survived the centuries, keeping time in three different Williamsburg public buildings, shows Webster was right and it truly is of consequence,” said Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of mechanical arts and numismatics.
Note The clock movement is included in an exhibition called A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South, which is generously funded by Carolyn and Michael McNamara. It is on view in the Nancy N. and Colin G. Campbell Gallery.