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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
One should not conclude that entertaining friends was the main occupation of William Byrd. As soon as he awoke he read Latin, Greek, or Hebrew before breakfast. His favorite room was not the parlor but the library, in which were collected over 3,600 volumes dealing with philosophy, theology, drama, history, law, and science. Byrd’s own writings prove his intimate knowledge of the great thinkers and writers of the past.
Of those works, none except his diary is as interesting as his History of the Dividing Line . On his fifty-third birthday, in 1737, Byrd was appointed one of the Virginia commissioners to survey the disputed Virginia-North Carolina boundary; the next spring saw the group ready to embark on their task. Byrd’s History , which proves he was one of the day’s ablest masters of English prose, is a thing of delight. For days comedy and tragedy alternated for supremacy. Indians stole their food. Bad weather and poor luck caused Byrd to swear like a trooper in His Majesty’s Guards. To mend matters, Byrd’s companions arranged a party around a cheerful bowl, and invited a country bumpkin to attend. She must have remembered the party for a long time: ”… they examined all her hidden Charms and play’d a great many gay Pranks,” noted Byrd, who seems to have disapproved of the whole affair. “The poor Damsel was disabled from making any resistance by the Lameness of her Hand.”
Whenever matters got too bad, the party’s chaplain “rubbed up” his artistocratic swamp-evaders with a seasonable sermon; and we must adjudge all the hardships a small price to pay for the History . This was followed by A Journey to Eden , which tells of Byrd’s trip to survey twenty thousand acres of bottom land. On September 19, 1733, Byrd decided to stake out two large cities: “one at Shacco’s, to be called Richmond, and the other at the point of the Appomattuck River, to be called Petersburg.”
It is a generally accepted belief that only in politics did eighteenth-century America reach real distinction. But as we look more closely at our colonial literature and architecture, and apply our own criteria rather than those imposed upon us by the English, we find that this may not be so. How, for example, could we have underestimated William Byrd’s importance all these years? There are several answers. He never pretended to be a serious writer (no gentleman of his time and place would), any more than Jefferson would have set himself up as a professional architect. But at least we have Jefferson’s magnificent buildings to refute the notion that he was a mere dabbler, and for years we had little of Byrd’s prose. Because he did “call a spade a spade,” many of his contemporaries, and even more of their descendants, have not wanted his work and allusions made public. Byrd had been dead almost a century when Edmund Ruffin published fragments of his writings in the Virginia Farmers’ Register . Only in our own generation have the diaries been deciphered: not until 1941 did a major publisher undertake to see part of them into print; not until 1958 did we have The London Diary (1717–21); not even now can we read all that Byrd left for us.
No amount of reappraisal can turn Byrd into a figure of the highest magnitude. What it might do is to reveal a man who for candor, self-analysis, and wit is unsurpassed—this in an age that produced Washington, Adams, Franklin, Henry, and Jefferson. Could any other colonial American, for example, have written such a delightful and ribald satire on women as “The Female Creed,” which has an eighteenth-century lady profess: “I believe in astrologers, coffee-casters, and Fortune-tellers of every denomination, whether they profess to read the Ladys destiny in their faces, in their palms or like those of China in their fair posteriors.”
Nor will one often encounter in a colonial writer the desire to exhume his father’s corpse, and then to report: “He was so wasted there was not one thing to be distinguished. I ate fish for dinner.”
When William Byrd II died in the summer of 1744, the pre-Revolutionary ethos and attitudes were dying too. They have not attracted historians and novelists as have the earlier adventurous days of settlement or the later days that tried men’s souls. The period from 1700 to 1750 remains the forgotten one in American history and literature, despite much excellent but rather specialized work in it since 1930.
When we know more of that important and colorful half century, William Byrd’s reputation will rise. In him we shall find the most complete expression of a man who lived with us but belongs to the world. In his work we shall see, more clearly than in that of his contemporaries, the emerging differences between England and the American colonies destined to grow into their own nationhood. Beside him, the so-called Connecticut Wits of the late eighteenth century seem to be lacking half their title. Compared to his prose, the tedious sermonizing of the Puritan and Anglican ministers seems like copybook work in an understaffed grammar school. Not that William Byrd was a saint, or a model husband—as he would have been the first to point out. But as with the saints, we admire him all the more because he tells us about his faults and lets us tabulate the virtues for ourselves. All told, we can say of him what Abraham Lincoln supposedly said when he saw Walt Whitman far down the corridors of a building: “There goes a man.” William Byrd of Westover would have settled for this.