Byrd II, William (1674-1744)
William Byrd II (1674-1744)
Planter, royal official, and colonial agent
Privileged Upbringing. William Byrd II was “born to one of the amplest fortunes” of late-seventeenth-century Virginia. His father, William Byrd I, inherited vast landholdings in America along with lucrative interests in the rum, slave, tobacco, and fur trades. The father’s wealth and importance gained him a seat in the Virginia governor’s council, a position of great influence that could be exploited to gain even more wealth. By the time of his death William Byrd I had amassed a huge estate of twenty-six thousand acres and had secured his family’s place in the highest ranks of Virginia society. To prepare his heir for even greater achievements the elder William sent his son to London at the age of seven. There the younger William grew up receiving some of the best training England had to offer in commerce, letters, and law. He studied classics and modern languages with a leading schoolmaster in Essex, learned business in great merchant houses in Holland and England, and received his legal training in the renowned Middle Temple. He was admitted to the bar in 1695, a distinction few Englishmen of the time attained. Young William also toured the European continent, another essential element of a seventeenth-century English gentleman’s education. He hobnobbed with important people in the drawing rooms, coffeehouses, and theaters of London, making friends and contacts that could help him 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 Sir Robert Southwell. With their help William gained admission to the Royal Society at the age of twenty-two. His friendships, training, and honors all combined to make William Byrd II an influential man for his colony of Virginia.
Virginia Gentleman. In 1704 his father died, and William Byrd II returned to Virginia to inherit his fortune and place among the colony’s leaders. He devoted the next eleven years to managing and enlarging his plantation, climbing the ladder of influence in public affairs, and establishing a family. He married Lucy Parke, daughter of another leading Virginian who soon became governor of the Leeward Islands. The marriage, though enduring, was not without difficulty. Two of their four children died in early childhood, and the couple frequently quarreled over Byrd’s conduct with other women and his management of his slave workforce. His domestic misconduct was all too common among Virginia planters, with whom his political star continued to rise. By 1715 Byrd had so impressed his contemporaries that they appointed him the colony’s agent in London.
London. Byrd remained in London to represent Virginia’s economic and political interests before Parliament for more than a decade. His wife Lucy died of smallpox within a few months of his arrival, and he spent the next eight years as a widower. Byrd worked hard making business and political deals, lobbying on behalf of policies that could help Virginia and trying to prevent those that might harm the colony’s interest, and renewing old friendships and cultivating new ones among men of influence in London. Byrd also enjoyed the many benefits of London’s cultural and intellectual life while simultaneously falling in love with several wealthy women before winning the hand of Maria Taylor in 1724. He remained in London two more years after his marriage, returning to Virginia for good in 1726.
Patriarch. Byrd reaped the benefits of his hard work on his own and Virginia’s behalf during the last eighteen years of his life. Like his father before him, Byrd served on the governor’s council, of which he became president the year before he died. He also served as receiver-general of Crown revenues, a lucrative post overseeing the collection of customs that his father had likewise held. In 1728 he led a team of surveyors from Virginia and North Carolina to establish the boundary line between the two colonies, and he recorded this adventure in a pair of illuminating and entertaining diaries. This service on Virginia’s behalf helped him gain a large grant of lands, which he added along with other land acquisitions to his already-huge estate. His landholdings totaled 180,000 acres by the time of his death. Shortly after his return to America, Byrd wrote to an English correspondent, “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.” His wealth in fact depended in great measure on his slave workforce, which in 1718 included well over two hundred men and women located on several plantations. The skilled “tradesmen” among them served Byrd in rebuilding Westover, the great family house on the James River, into a red brick Georgian mansion surrounded by beautiful English gardens. It remains to this day one of the most beautiful of the colonial-era plantation mansions. He and Maria raised four more children—three daughters and a son, William Byrd III, who inherited his father’s wealth in 1744 only to gamble most of it away.
Kenneth Lockridge, The Diary, and Life, of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1674-1744 (New York: Norton, 1987).
William Byrd II
William Byrd II
The Virginia diarist and government official William Byrd II (1674-1744) revealed much about 18th-century American life in his important, charming, and witty diaries.
William Byrd II was the son of William Byrd, whose inheritance had enabled him to purchase valuable Virginia lands at the age of 18, and of Mary Horsmanden Byrd, daughter of a Cavalier gentleman. Born on March 28, 1674, near what is now Richmond, Va., the younger Byrd was educated at Felsted Grammar School in Essex, served as an apprentice in business in Holland and London, and studied law at the Middle Temple. He was admitted to the bar in 1695 after 3 years of study. At the Middle Temple, Byrd's contemporaries included the dramatists William Congreve and William Wycherly. Byrd also came to know notable men of science, such as Sir Robert Southwell and Hans Sloane. In 1696 he was elected to membership in the Royal Society, and a paper published soon afterward demonstrated his scientific abilities.
In the same year Byrd returned to Virginia, where he was elected to the House of Burgesses, but the next year he was back in London, representing the governor of Virginia and later the Virginia Council as agent. This time he remained until 1704, when his father died, leaving him not only his lands, including the site of Richmond and the 1,400-acre Westover plantation, but also his office of receiver general. In 1706 Byrd married Lucy Parke. After the death of his wife's father he made the mistake of seeking to acquire his lands and as a result acquired immense debts.
In time Byrd became a member of the governor's council and commander in chief of the Charles City and Henrico County militias. His life, public and private, during these years is well documented in a secret diary dating from 1709. From it emerges a vivid portrait of Byrd as a healthy extrovert interested in everything from books (his library eventually numbered more than 3,600 items) to the welfare of his many tenants.
In 1715 Byrd returned to England on business. The next year he sent for his wife, who died of smallpox soon after her arrival. She left him two daughters, whom he brought to England. Another secret diary, now published like the earlier, demonstrates that Byrd took advantage of the opportunities London offered for sexual adventures. He also served again as agent for Virginia. Despite strenuous efforts, he did not find the wealthy wife he was looking for, though he remained in England until 1719. Another visit in 1721 brought him a wife, Maria Taylor, who in time gave him four children but no fortune. He returned to America in 1726 and remained there until his death on Aug. 26, 1744.
Byrd's cultivation of writing over the years is demonstrated by his care in letter writing. His most famous contribution to literature is his History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728, first published in 1841. It is a witty, frank, and informative narrative. (Another version, The Secret History of the Line, is inferior.) Byrd's other writings include A Journey to the Land of Eden and A Progress to the Mines, both also published in 1841.
Written without knowledge of the diaries, Richmond C. Beatty, William Byrd of Westover (1932), is the only full-length biography. The best brief biography is by Louis B. Wright in Byrd's The London Diary (1717-1721) and Other Writings, edited by Wright and Marion Tinling (1958). A sketch of Byrd as man of letters appears in Wright's edition of Byrd's Prose Works (1966).
Lockridge, Kenneth A., The diary and life of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1674-1744, Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Perceval, John, Earl, The English travels of Sir John Percival and William Byrd II: the Percival diary of 1701, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989. □