When Margie Wilson inhabits the spirit of her centuries-dead ancestor, Anne Justis Morton, curious things happen.
In addition to letting audiences discover more about the woman behind the man who cast the deciding vote for American independence, Wilson says she sometimes feels she’s really lived through the trials and tribulations the family endured after John Morton died and British soldiers tore the family home asunder.
“Embodying those times is a very powerful experience,” Wilson says. “I’m spinning, and I’m taking on the spirit of my ancestor. I get emotional that my home has been burned down and my son is a soldier who is likely starving to death. Difficult emotions are stirred. It’s a unique experience.”
“Witnesses to the Revolution,” the living history presentation Wilson created with fellow genealogist Barbara Johnson—who portrays another founding mother, Abigail Adams—is based on the premise that the two women meet in the period of time after the Declaration of Independence had been signed. At a time when the country is at war and the Morton estate has been destroyed, the women—who likely never met in real life—retell the events leading up to their husband’s decisions to vote for American independence.
“We talk about the difficulty of making that decision to sign,” Wilson says. “Basically, as soon as these signers declared independence, they were labeled traitors. I think that surprises some people.”
Wilson says that Morton, who had previously been a stalwart presence in his Pennsylvania community, was totally disowned by all of his neighbors and many of his relatives, who were interested in continuing on with Britain. When he died in 1777—less than a year after making history, and before America’s freedom had been realized—he passed on thinking that everyone thought he had done the wrong thing. His final words, in fact, were directed toward those who had ostracized him: “Tell them,” he said, “that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service I ever rendered to my country.”
Because he died unrecognized for his valor, Wilson says part of why she and Johnson do what they do is to educate people about what it really took to take a stand and change the course of history. She points out that Morton didn’t want to go to war, and had in fact wanted reconciliation with the king. Alas, the letters he—and others—sent to England with their grievances were ignored. Eventually, something had to be done, and hard decisions had to be made.
“The motivation for me, besides the family connection, was that Morton died without his friends and neighbors recognizing his contribution,” Wilson says. “In this day and age, we need to reflect on how much courage it took to create this country. People really had to sacrifice, and I think we should recognize that.”
Although much of what Wilson and Johnson share is based on dialogue sourced from original letters and documents, she says the story they’re sharing is one that couldn’t be made up.
“You could not write a story about history that could be more fascinating,” she says. “Facts are more intriguing and stranger than fiction a lot of the time.”
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