- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

On a visit to Old Town Alexandria two decades ago, Canadian tourist Doreen Scott got an unexpected lesson in American history at Gadsby’s Tavern, the 18th-century inn that hosted many of America’s founding fathers.

A man in knee-length trousers and cut-away coat, with his long hair pulled back in a ponytail and wire-rimmed glasses balanced on his nose, stopped at her table and asked what she had done that the day.

I visited Washington, Mrs. Scott said.

Oh, the man replied, How is the general?

Mrs. Scott was perplexed. For John Douglas Hall, however, it was a perfectly reasonable question.

For Mr. Hall, the year was not 1985, but 1785. George Washington had led the Continental Army to victory over the British, and King George III had conceded defeat in the Treaty of Paris in September 1783.

Washington resigned his commission in December that year and returned to his Potomac River plantation at Mount Vernon, where he anticipated retirement as a Virginia country gentleman not so different from Mr. Hall’s alter ego.

Mr. Hall has been living in the past professionally for more than 30 years.

He performs as the 18th Century Gentleman at Gadsby’s, where Washington celebrated his birthday in the 1790s and Thomas Jefferson held an inaugural ball.

On a typical evening, Mr. Hall will pass among the diners at the inn, trading quips like an 18th-century version of a Borscht Belt comic.

Unfazed by the chatter of the guests, he plays a German lute and sings songs of ages past and accepts compliments with modesty.

I depend on a certain din in the room to distract from my defects, he said on a recent evening.

He had stopped at a table to chat with a young man from Texas, which, to the 18th-century gentleman, was a still a Spanish colony.

Speaking slowly and pretending the man did not speak English well, Mr. Hall said, We … are … pleased … to … see … you … sir.

When the man said his name was Kelsey, Mr. Hall inquired about his means of travel, asking if he came by land or sea. When the man said he flew into a Washington airport, the 18th-century gentleman responded, Well I don’t know about that, but we have a very good port here.

Mr. Hall announced that he had read in the Alexandria Gazette that one of the diners had promised to pick up the bill for the entire room that night and walked over to a table where a 6-year-old boy named Joshua was sitting and thanked him for his generosity. He sang a song for the youngster, his sister and parents.

Mr. Hall then proclaimed his four hinges of friendship: swearing, lying, stealing and drinking.

Swear by your country; lie for a pretty woman; steal away from bad company; and drink to the Republic and all who serve her, he said.

Mr. Hall, 60 and married for more than 30 years, still has an eye for the ladies.

I like to make musical love to the women and chastise the men for bringing them in at such a tender age, he said in an interview between sets.

In the 32 years I have been at Gadsby’s, I have rarely seen a woman over the age of 16, regardless of their appearances. Some seem to exhibit a grace and poise reflective of a maturity that their physical appearance does not support.

That was Mr. Hall’s 18th-century way of saying women never look their age.

Some young ladies, their lips are silent, but their eyes speak novels, he added. One eye may draw a man in, while the other keeps him at bay, and a perspicuous eye will acknowledge that the second eye is generally dominant.

Humor aside, Mr. Hall is serious about history and bemoans the astounding lack of knowledge of the founding of the United States among many Americans, including university students. A recent study by the University of Connecticut found that 81 percent of college seniors would fail a simple test on American history.

The nature of our society in the 20th and 21st centuries has really placed a lot of emphasis on technology, he said. The dissemination of information — so much information — the difficulty becomes how do you spend your time, what information do you chose to read and learn.

The rapidity of information, knowing all around the world what is happening at any given moment tends to dull the senses on the significance of any one event that would have stood out markedly 80 or 100 years ago.

What is not encouraged is to read anything in depth beyond a 30-second sound bite that may tickle the senses for a few moments.

History, he said, has become lost in the cacophony of sounds and images cluttering airwaves from television, iPods, text messages and the Internet.

The role of history, the significance of history in one’s life, begins to take second place to the more immediate needs of society, Mr. Hall said.

Born in 1949 in Granby, Conn., Mr. Hall taught music at his former high school and then traveled to the French Alps with a group of American students to teach French. He later developed courses in music and history at the Unquowa School, a private school in Fairfield, Conn.

He relocated to Alexandria in 1978, where he gradually developed his 18th-century character and met his future wife, Laura Lee. They have two children, John Douglas II and Sarah Lee. Mr. Hall has written musical scores for two films produced by the National Park Service and for two musicals.

Since 1986, he has taken on a second historic personality, James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution. He portrayed Madison when the National Trust for Historic Preservation opened Montpelier, the historic home of the fourth U.S. president in Orange, Va., to the public in 1987.

Interviewed in his Madison character, who in December 1809 was in the ninth month of his presidency, Mr. Hall scolded a reporter for asking, How is Dolly, referring to one of the most famous first ladies in American history.

I take some umbrage of a gentleman addressing my wife on so familiar terms, Mr. Hall replied.

He acknowledged that Mrs. Madison, Washington’s most renowned hostess of the day, was helpful politically.

She generally takes more of the attention, he said, referring to the Madisons’ frequent dinner parties. I think they think of me as pedantic and boorish by contrast to the effervescence of my own spouse. But even that can prove helpful in matters of state.

Mr. Hall conceded that sometimes he is torn between the past and the present.

I used to retreat to the 18th century because I found the 20th century very superficial, he said.

But the more I learn about the 18th century and early 19th century — with the vitriol and aspersions cast on characters — I retreat to the 21st century for relief.

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