Byrd II, William

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Byrd II, William

March 28, 1674

Richmond, Virginia

August 26, 1744

Westover, Virginia

Planter, colonial official, and writer

" . . . like one of the patriarchs, I have my flocks and my herds, my bond-men and bond-women, and every soart [sic] of trade amongst my own servants, so that I live in a kind of independence on every one, but Providence."

William Byrd.

William Byrd II was a wealthy landowner and government official in eighteenth-century Virginia. His success in large part came from inheriting one of the largest fortunes of the time. After receiving a gentleman's education in England, Byrd returned to America with great political and social ambitions. Elected to the Council of Virginia in 1709, he was firmly devoted to the political interests of the colony. He successfully battled Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood, who tried to limit the power of the council. Byrd had a reputation as a carouser (one who engages in loose behavior) and a womanizer. Despite these faults, he worked hard, significantly expanding the Byrd estate and rebuilding the great family mansion at Westover plantation.

Educated in England

William Byrd II was born in 1674 in what is now Richmond, Virginia. His father was William Byrd I, and his mother, Mary, was the daughter of Warham Horsmanden. Being the son of William Byrd I meant that someday Byrd would inherit one of the largest fortunes in the late-seventeenth-century Virginia. The elder Byrd had inherited vast land holdings in America, along with lucrative (producing wealth) interests in the rum, slave, tobacco, and fur trades. He also had a seat on the Virginia governor's council. This was a position of great influence that could be exploited to gain more wealth.

Robert Beverley, Virginia gentleman

Even though William Byrd II was an unusual individual, he was in some ways similar to other elite Virginia landowners. In fact, he shared several traits with one of his contemporaries, Robert Beverley. Like Byrd, Beverley was educated in England, had inherited great wealth, and served in Virginia government. After being elected to the House of Burgesses (the governing body of the Virginia colony) around 1700, Beverley, like Byrd, supported Virginia in conflicts with England. He even married Byrd's sister Ursula, although she died within a year and Beverley never remarried.

Both men were also writers. Beverley was an author of books on Virginia. His best work, The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), was first published anonymously. If Beverley and Byrd differed in any way, it was that Beverley had a more moderate nature. In his book he did not romanticize the New World; instead, he portrayed it as a place that had to be developed through hard work. Yet The History and Present State of Virginia was also intended to lure Europeans to Virginia. In promoting Virginia as a beautiful colony, Beverley glossed over the violence of such events as Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 (see Nathaniel Bacon entry). His other work was a legal text, An Abridgement of the Public Laws of Virginia (1722).

Despite their social position in Virginia, however, life on a frontier plantation still had its challenges for the Byrd family. William Byrd I feared the influence that African Amer ican slaves, who performed the physical labor on the planta tion, might have on his son. Therefore, the younger Byrd was sent to be educated in England when he was only seven years old. During his young years he received some of the best train ing that England had to offer in business, literature, and law. In 1684 he studied the classics (literature of ancient Greece and Rome) and modern languages with a leading schoolmaster named Christopher Glassock in Essex. In 1690 Byrd traveled to Holland to learn business at the great merchant houses. In 1692 he began his legal training at the renowned Middle Temple in London, England. Byrd also toured the European continent, another essential element of an English gentleman's education.

During his years in London, Byrd socialized with important political and cultural figures in drawing rooms, coffeehouses, and theaters. In the process he made friends and acquired contacts that would make the Byrd name known and respected in England. Among his closest and most important friends were two men of science, Robert Boyle, Earl of Orrery, and Robert Southwell. With their help Byrd gained admission to the Royal Society at the age of twenty-two. In 1696 he and Cotton Mather (see entry) were the only two American members of the distinguished scientific organization. This honor, along with his English education and social connections, made Byrd an influential figure, both in England and Virginia.

Serves in Council of Virginia

After many years abroad, Byrd returned to Virginia. He was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1692. When he was admitted to the bar (the profession of lawyer) in 1695—a distinction few Englishmen at the time attained—he traveled back to England and defended the British governor of Virginia, Edmund Andros, who was being charged with hostility against the Anglican Church of Virginia. In 1704, after his father died, Byrd returned to Virginia to claim his fortune and take his place among the colony's leaders. Because Byrd had spent most of his life in England, it was uncertain whether or not he would fit in with colonial Americans. However, as it turned out, his education and personality made him more than compatible with the elite group of men ruling Virginia at the time. Byrd devoted the next eleven years to enlarging Westover, climbing the social ladder, and raising a family.

In 1706 Byrd married Lucy Parke, the daughter of General Daniel Parke, a leading Virginian who became governor of the Leeward Islands. Despite their wealth and privilege, the couple had a difficult marriage. For instance, two of their four children died in early childhood. They also frequently quarreled over Byrd's conduct with other women and his management of the plantation slaves. Because domestic misconduct was common among Virginia planters at the time, Byrd actu ally earned respect for this behavior. In fact, he so impressed his contemporaries with his business sense and social abilities that after being elected to council in 1709, he was appointed the Virginia colonial agent in London in 1715. Because of his new position, Byrd then traveled to London to represent Vir ginia's economic and political interests before Parliament (the supreme legislative body in England). Lucy died of smallpox shortly after his arrival, and Byrd remained in London for more than a decade.

Alexander Spotswood

Alexander Spotswood, the man who tried to oust William Byrd II from the Council of Virginia, was born in Tangier, Morocco. He began serving as lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1710, under the governorship of George Hamilton. At first Spotswood was a popular leader, but his support soon began to decline as he took on several controversial issues. In addition to attempting to limit the power of the council, he required the inspection of tobacco in 1713 and regulated trade with Native Americans the following year. In 1722 he negotiated a treaty with the Iroquois Indians that forced them to remain beyond the Potomac River and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is believed that this treaty might have been an effort on behalf of settlers to push Native Americans farther west. At the end of his governorship in 1722, Spotswood retired to his estate in Spotsylvania County, the future site of many battles during the American Civil War (1861–65).

Preserves power of the council

In 1710, Alexander Spotswood arrived in Virginia from England to begin serving as lieutenant governor. It did not take long for Spotswood to come into conflict with the Council of Virginia, which consisted of wealthy landowners like Byrd. While in office, Spotswood tried to limit the power of the council, thereby making himself highly unpopular with the council members in the colony. First he attempted to limit the council's ability to monopolize (assume complete possession or control of) vast areas of land by collecting quit-rents (a fixed rent payable to a feudal superior in exchange for services). Byrd and his colleagues fiercely protested this action. Second, Spotswood proposed a reform of judicial power of the council, which had served as the supreme court in Virginia for many decades. He wanted to devise a new system that would not contain any council members.

While Byrd was in England, he brought the concerns of the Council of Virginia before the Board of Trade, which regulated commerce in English colonies. He claimed that Spotswood's having absolute control over both the economic and legal systems of the colony would be a serious threat to the freedom of Virginians. Spotswood argued that, to the contrary, the English king must retain power over Virginia. Therefore, the majority of that power must be given to the governor, not the council, which presently had too much control. Finally, in 1718, Spotswood tried to have Byrd permanently removed from the council. When Byrd arrived in Virginia in 1720 with orders to resolve the problem, Spotswood was removed instead. This left the council intact, with continued power over the colony of Virginia.

Writes books about exploration

After spending many years in England as a widower, Byrd married Maria Tyler in 1724. Two years later he returned to Virginia permanently. In his later years, Byrd continued serving on the Council of Virginia. Shortly before he died he was elected council president. He was also receiver-general of Crown revenues, a lucrative post as overseer of the collection of customs (taxes), a job that his father had held. However, despite his great wealth, Byrd was frequently in debt. In order to pay creditors, he often had to sell land and slaves. Eventually he managed to earn back much that he had lost. In 1728, while serving as a commissioner, Byrd headed a team of surveyors (those who measure and describe the geographic characteristics of a tract of land) from Virginia and North Carolina in establishing a boundary line between the two colonies. He also surveyed the Northern Neck region of Virginia in 1736. Service on behalf of Virginia helped Byrd gain more land. By the time of his death, he had turned the 26,000-acre Westover Plantation he had inherited from his father into almost 180,000 acres.

William Byrd's "secret history"

Throughout his life William Byrd kept a personal diary (published as Secret History in 1929). It provides a detailed picture of the life of an eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman. Excerpted below is Byrd's account of his daily routine at his Virginia plantation. The entries show that Byrd observed a strict schedule of reading and prayer, yet he also engaged in activities that earned him a reputation as a carouser and womanizer.


20. I rose about 5 o'clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and some Greek. I said my prayers, and had boiled milk for breakfast. The weather continued very hot. However, about 8 o'clock I went to Mrs. Harrison's in a boat and ate some milk there. We played at piquet [a card game] and shot with bows and I won five bits [small coins]. Sometimes we romped [had fun] and sometimes talked and complained of the heat till dinner and then I ate some hashed lamb. After dinner we romped again and drank abundance of water. We played at piquet again and I stayed till 8 o'clock and then took leave and walked home and found everything well, thank God. I talked with my people and said my prayers and then retired and slept but indifferently because of the exceedingly great heat.

21. I rose about 5 o'clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and some Greek. I neglected to say my prayers, but had milk for breakfast. The weather continued very hot and we began to cut down our wheat. About 9 o'clock came Frank Lightfoot and we played at billiards [pool] and then at piquet and I won two bits. Then we sat and talked till dinner when I ate some beans and bacon. After dinner we agreed to take a nap and slept about an hour and then I received a letter from New Kent that told me William R-s-t-n [a slave] was run away. Then Mr. Lightfoot and I played again at piquet till the evening and then walked about the garden till night and then he went away and I gave my people a bowl of punch and they had a fiddle and danced and I walked in the garden till ten and then committed uncleanness [engaged in sexual intercourse] with Annie. I said my prayers.

In addition to being a councilman and a landowner, Byrd was a writer. His diaries were published as Secret History in 1929. This work revealed some of the misconduct that Byrd was famous for as a public figure. One of his major works, "The History of the Dividing Line," was an account of his 1728 expedition to survey the Virginia–North Carolina boundary. He wrote this piece, which contrasted with his personal diaries, in a style that captured the colonial American spirit of exploration. "The History of the Dividing Line" was first published along with "A Journey to the Land of Eden" and "Progress to the Mines" as The Westover Manuscripts in 1841. These works, while presenting Byrd as an adventurous well-rounded public figure, also served as a model for other authors of exploration literature in years to come.

Byrd mansion still stands

Not surprisingly, Byrd's wealth depended in great measure on his slaves, which in 1718 included well over 200 men and women located on several plantations. With Byrd managing the job, some of the skilled "tradesmen" among the African American slaves rebuilt the great Byrd family home at Westover on the James River into a red-brick Georgian mansion surrounded by English gardens. Byrd also built a great library with more than 3,000 volumes, rivaling the collection held by Cotton Mather. Because the Byrd mansion was a place of solitude and beauty, it is considered a predecessor to Monticello, the mansion built in 1772 by the American statesman Thomas Jefferson. After spending his last few years living on his estate, Byrd died on August 26, 1744. Unfortunately, William Byrd III, a son from his second marriage, gambled away most of the family fortune. The Byrd mansion still stands, however, as a fine example of colonial American architecture.

For further research

Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 245–46.

Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1946–1958, p. 383.

Lockridge, Kenneth A. The Diary, and Life, of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1674–1744. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

"William Byrd II." Available July 13, 1999.