Skip to main content

The Pepys Of The Old Dominion

May 2024
13min read

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

He could never resist an old book, a young girl, or a iresh idea. He lived splendidly, planned extensively, and was perpetually in debt. Believing perhaps, like Leonardo, that future generations would be more willing to know him than was his own, he wrote his delicious, detailed diaries in code. Only now that they have been translated, and time has put his era in perspective, do we see what William Byrd of Westover was: one of the half-dozen leading wits and stylists of colonial America.

In the popular imagination, to be an American hero means to rise from rags to riches. William Byrd reversed the pattern, as he did so many other things: born to wealth, he never seemed able to hold on to it. His father, William Byrd I (1653–1704), was one of the most powerful and venerated men of his generation. Not only had he inherited valuable land on both sides of the James River, he had also won the hand of Mary Horsmanden, and a very dainty and wealthy hand it was, too. Some of the bold and red knight-errant blood of the Elizabethans flowed through the veins of William Byrd I. He had the same knack as did Captain John Smith (in whom that blood fairly bubbled) for getting in and out of scrapes. For example, William Byrd I joined Nathaniel Bacon in subduing the Indians, but stopped short of joining the rebellion against Governor William Berkeley, withdrawing in time to save his reputation and his neck. Later on he became receiver-general and auditor of Virginia, a member of the Council of State, and the colony’s leading authority on Indians. The important 1685 treaty with the Iroquois bore his signature. Death cut short his brilliant career soon after his fiftieth birthday, and suddenly thrust his son and namesake into the center of the colonial stage. The boy, who had spent much of his time in England getting an education and, later, as an agent for Virginia, must now return to America and assume the duties of a man.

No one can read the story of young Will Byrd’s early years, and his transformation, without thinking of Will Shakespeare’s Prince Hal. If ever a young Virginian behaved scandalously in London, it was Will Byrd. “Never did the sun shine upon a Swain who had more combustible matter in his constitution,” Byrd wrote of himself. Love broke out upon him “before my beard.” Louis Wright, to whose editing of Byrd’s diaries we are indebted for much of our knowledge of the man, says that he was notoriously promiscuous, frequenting the boudoirs of highborn and lowborn alike. Indeed, as his diary shows, he was not above taking to the grass with fille de joie whom he might encounter on a London street.

Once, when he arrived for a rendezvous with a certain Mrs. A-l-n, the lady wasn’t home, so he seduced the chambermaid. Just as he was coming down the steps Mrs. A-l-n came in the front door. Then Will Byrd and Mrs. A-l-n went back up the stairs together. Several hours later, he went home and ate a plum cake.

On his favorites he lavished neoclassic pseudonyms and some of the era’s most sparkling prose. One such lady (called “Facetia” and believed to have been Lady Elizabeth Cromwell) was his preoccupation during 1703. When she left him to visit friends in Ireland, Will Byrd let her know she would be missed:

The instant your coach drove away, madam, my heart felt as if it had been torn up by the very roots, and the rest of my body as if severed limb from limb. … Could I at that time have considered that the only pleasure I had in the world was leaving me, I had hung upon your coach and had been torn in pieces sooner than have suffered myself to be taken from you.

Having said all the proper things, he moved on to relate, in a later letter, some of the juicier bits of London gossip. Mrs. Brownlow had finally agreed to marry Lord Guilford—”and the gods alone can tell what will be produced by the conjunction of such fat and good humourl” The image is Falstaffian, as were many of Byrd’s friends. But with news of his lather’s death he must, like Prince Hal, scorn his dissolute friends and assume new duties. With both Hal and Will the metamorphosis was difficult and partial, but nonetheless memorable.

The Virginia to which in 1705 William Byrd II returned—the oldest permanent English settlement in the New World and the first link in the chain that would one day be known as the British Empire—was a combination of elegance and crudity, enlightenment and superstition. While some of his Virginia neighbors discussed the most advanced political theories of Europe, others argued about how to dispose of a witch who was said to have crossed over to Currituck Sound in an eggshell. In 1706, the same year that Byrd was settling down in Virginia alter his long stay in England, a Virginia court was instructing “as many Ansient and Knowing women as possible … to search her Carefully For teats spotts and marks about her body.” When certain mysterious marks were indeed found, the obvious conclusion was drawn, and the poor woman languished in ye common gaol. Finally released, she lived to be eighty and died a natural death.

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.

The reason for his own candor is clearly stated:

He Lov’d to undress wickedness of all its paint, and disguise, that he might loath its deformity.

The extent of his philosophizing and his admitted heresy is made clear by this remarkable passage:

He wishes every body so perfect, that he overlooks the impossibility of reaching it in this World. He wou’d have men Angells before their time, and wou’d bring down that perfection upon Earth which is the peculiar priviledge of Heaven.

Byrd left us a scattered and largely unavailable body of literature— vers de société , historical essays, character sketches, epitaphs, letters, poems, translations, and humorous satires. Of this work Maude Woodfin, one of the few scholars to delve adequately into Byrd’s work, wrote:

“There is a distinctly American quality in these writings of the latter half of Byrd’s life, in direct contrast to the exclusively English quality in the writings of his earlier years. Further study and time will doubtless argue that his literary work in the Virginia period from 1726 on, with its colonial scene and theme, has greater literary merit than his work in the London period.”

Byrd has a place in our architectural history as well. His manor house, Westover, is in many ways the finest Georgian mansion in the nation. Triumphant architectural solutions never come quickly or easily: only firstrate minds can conjure up first-rate houses. In the spring of 1709, we know from Byrd’s diary, he had workmen constructing brick. Five years later, stonecutters from Williamsburg were erecting the library chimney. There were interruptions, delays, faulty shipments, workmen to be trained. But gradually a masterpiece—noble in symmetry, proportion, and balance—emerged.

Built on a little rise a hundred yards from the James River, Westover has not changed much over the generations. The north and south façades are as solid and rhythmical as a well-wrought fugue, and the beautiful doorways would have pleased Palladio himself. Although the manor is derived from English standards (especially William Salmon’s Palladio Londinensis ), Westover makes such superb use of the local materials and landscape that some European critics have adjudged it esthetically more satisfying than most of the contemporary homes in England.

Like other buildings of the period, Westover was planned from the outside in. The main hallway, eighteen feet wide and off center, goes the full length of the house. The stairway has three runs and a balustrade of richly turned mahogany. The handsomely paneled walls of the downstairs rooms support gilded ceilings. Underneath the house is a complete series of rooms, converging at the subterranean passage leading to the river. Two underground chambers, which could be used as hiding places, are reached through a dry well. Since he liked nothing less than the idea of being dry, William Byrd kept both chambers stocked with claret and Madeira.

Westover takes its place in the succession of remarkable Virginia manors that remain one of the glories of the American past. It was completed probably by 1736, after Stratford Hall, with its masculine vigor, and Rosewell, with its mahogany balustrade from San Domingo. Westover would be followed by Brandon, with chaste cornices and fine simplicity; Gunston Hall, with cut-stone quoins and coziness; Sabine Hall, so reminiscent of Horace’s villa at Tivoli; and Pacatone, with its wonderful entrance and its legendary ghosts.

These places were more than houses. They were little worlds in themselves, part of a universe that existed within the boundaries of Virginia. The planters lavished their energy and their lives on such worlds. They were proud of their crops, their horses, their libraries, their gardens. Byrd, for example, tells us about the iris, crocus, thyme, marjoram, phlox, larkspur, and jasmine in his formal two-acre garden.

At Westover one might find the Carters from Shirley, the Lees from Stratford, the Harrisons from Randolph, or the Spotswoods from Germanna. So might one encounter Byrd’s brother-in-law, that ardent woman-hater, John Custis, from Arlington. Surely the ghost of William Byrd would not want any tale of Westover to omit a short tribute to Custis’ irascible memory.

While other founding fathers left immortal lines about life and liberty to stir our blood, Custis left words to warm henpecked hearts. With his highhanded lady he got on monstrous poor.

After one argument Custis turned and drove his carriage into the Chesapeake Bay. When his wife asked where he was going, he shouted, “To Hell, Madam.” “Drive on,” she said imperiously. “Any place is better than Arlington!” So that he might have the last word, Custis composed his own epitaph, and made his son execute it on pain of being disinherited:



Still Custis came to Westover, like all others who could, to enjoy the fairs, balls, parlor games, barbecues —but above all, the conversation.

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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.