The Best Of Georgian


William Byrd was a typical citizen of this cosmopolitan world. Born in Virginia, by his fiftieth birthday he had spent more time in London than in the colonies. He was educated at the Inns of Court and was a member of the prestigious Royal Society of London. He read or spoke at least five languages and counted dukes and earls among his friends. (Characteristically, when he returned to Virginia, he hung their portraits on his library walls.) By London standards Byrd might have been counted as one of the “new men” who had recently risen to high rank from the profits of overseas trade, but in Virginia his social station was higher than that. Byrd was, in fact, one of the founding members of a new American aristocracy. A member of the Council in Virginia, and the colony’s representative in London, he held the office of receiver general of His Majesty’s revenues and was a colonel in the Virginia militia. Byrd’s social standing was just below that of the governor and the representative of the Anglican Church in Virginia.

Byrd’s life history, with slight differences in detail, was mirrored in the histories of other owners of Georgian houses. The Wentworths in New Hampshire; the Hutchinsons, Royalls, and Vassalls in Massachusetts; the Browns in Rhode Island; the Chews in Philadelphia; the Carters and Lees in Virginia; and the Brewtons and Draytons in South Carolina—all played similar roles as middlemen between rude colonial settlements and the splendors of the imperial capital. Caught between two worlds in the years before the Revolution, they were the leaders who first tried to regulate and direct the rising tensions between colonists and king.

After the Revolution many of America’s first aristocrats fled; those who remained found their economic roles increasingly filled by a rising merchant class and their political places usurped by a new breed of “democratic statesmen.” (Byrd would have thought the phrase a contradiction in terms.) But the philosophy of America’s colonial elite, both political and aesthetic, which was embodied in the architecture of their houses, continued to inspire. Their legacy of rational order and the harmony of parts became the heart of a newly emerging American social and political order.