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The Pepys Of The Old Dominion
His secret diaries sparkle with the wit, wisdom, and lusty candor that made William Byrd II of Westover one of Virginia’s most engaging gentlemen
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
Other Virginia ladies faced problems (including, on occasions, Will Byrd) that were far older than the colony or the witch scare. A good example was Martha Burwell, a Williamsburg belle, who rejected the suit of Sir Francis Nicholson, the governor, so she might marry a man more to her liking. If she did so, swore the enraged Nicholson, he would cut the throat of the bridegroom, the clergyman, and the issuing justice. Unaware that females are members of the weaker sex, Martha refused to give in—even when Nicholson threw in half a dozen more throats, including those of her father and brothers. She married her true love. No throats were cut—but visitors to the Governor’s palace in Williamsburg observed that His Excellency made “a Roaring Noise.”
In those days Tidewater Virginia was governed by a system of benevolent paternalism. The aristocrats intermarried, and the essential jobs—sheriff, vestryman, justice of the peace, colonel of militia—stayed in the family. The support of the gentry was the prerequisite to social and political advancement. Wealth, status, and privilege were the Tidewater trinity, and it was a case of three in one: wealth guaranteed status; status conveyed privilege; and privilege insured wealth.
Will Byrd both understood and mastered the world to which he had returned. He retained the seat in the House of Burgesses which he had won before going to England, and turned his attention to finding a suitable wife. Like many of his contemporaries, he confined “romantic love” to extracurricular affairs, and called on common sense to help him in matrimony. Both Washington and Jefferson married rich widows. Ambitious young men found they could love a rich girl more than a poor one, and the colonial newspapers reported their marriages with an honesty that bordered on impropriety. One reads, for example, that twentythree-year-old William Carter married Madam Sarah Ellson, widow of eighty-five, “a sprightly old Tit, with three thousand pounds fortune.”
Will Byrd’s choice was the eligible but fiery Lucy Parke, daughter of the gallant rake Daniel Parke, who had fought with Marlborough on the Continent and brought the news of Blenheim to Queen Anne. Many a subsequent battle was fought between Lucy Parke arid William Byrd after their marriage in 1706, though neither side was entirely vanquished. Byrd was quick to record his victories, such as the one noted in his diary for February 5, 1711: “My wife and I quarrelled about her pulling her brows. She threatened she would not go to Williamsburg if she might not pull them; I refused, however, and got the better of her and maintained my authority.”
That Mrs. Byrd had as many good excuses for her fits of temper and violence as any other lady in Virginia seems plain—not only from her accusations, but from her husband’s admissions. From his diary entry of November 2, 1709, for example, we get this graphic picture of life among the planters:
In the evening I went to Dr. [Barren’s], where my wife came this afternoon. Here I found Mrs. Chiswcll, my sister Custis, and other ladies. We sat and talked till about 11 o’clock and then retired to our chambers. I played at [r-m] with Mrs. Chiswell and kissed her on the bed till she was angry and my wife also was uneasy about it, and cried as soon as the company was gone. I neglected to say my prayers which I should not have done, because I ought to beg pardon for the lust I had for another man’s wife. However I had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.
As we read on, we begin to realize that we are confronting a Renaissance man in colonial America—a writer with the frankness of Montaigne and the zest of Rabelais. Philosopher, linguist, doctor, scientist, stylist, planter, churchman, William Byrd II saw and reported as much as any American who died before our Revolution.
Here was a man who, burdened tor most of his life with the responsibility of thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves, never became narrow or provincial. Neither his mind, nor his tongue, nor his pen—the last possibly because he wrote the diaries in code—was restrained by his circumstances, and no one at home or abroad was immune from the barbs of his wit. When we read Byrd, we know just what Dean Swift meant when he said: “We call a spade a spade.”
One of Byrd’s most remarkable achievements, and one not nearly well enough known and appreciated, is his sketch of himself, attached to a letter dated February 21, 1722. For honesty and perception, and for the balance that the eighteenth century enthroned, it has few American counterparts.
Poor Inamorato [as Byrd calls himself] had too much mercury to fix to one thing. His Brain was too hot to jogg on eternally in the same dull road. He liv’d more by the lively moment of his Passions, than by the cold and unromantick dictates of Reason … He pay’d his Court more to obscure merit, than to corrupt Greatness. He never cou’d flatter any body, no not himself, which were two invincible bars to all preferment. … His religion is more in substance than in form, and he is more forward to practice vertue than profess it … He knows the World perfectly well, and thinks himself a citizen of it without the … distinctions of kindred sect or Country.
He goes on to explain why, for most of his life, he began his day by reading ancient classics, and frowned upon morning interruptions:
A constant hurry of visits & conversations gives a man a habit of inadvertency, which betrays him into faults without measure & without end. For this reason, he commonly reserv’d the morning to himself, and bestow’d the rest upon his business and his friends.