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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

William Byrd II

William Byrd II is a key literary figure from the first half of the eighteenth century in British America. Engaging in the many genres then available to the educated cosmopolitan elite, Byrd wrote treatises dealing with medicine, science, and agriculture, as well as political briefs, diaries, character sketches, letters, and travel narratives. Especially in his History of the Dividing Line, Byrd developed a distinctive style that posed satire against disinterested observation. Such a style aptly recorded the contradictory life of a genteel colonial who understood that, for English readers, the New World made him both a suspect stranger and a valuable witness.

His father, William Byrd I (1652-1704), emigrated from England in the late 1660s to inherit from his uncle a growing fur trade and some 3,000 acres of land on the Virginia frontier; he became very knowledgeable about the geography of the interior and a valuable negotiator with local Indian tribes. He married Mary Horsmanden Filmer, a member of the Cavalier elite who had fled Cromwell's England. The elder Byrd participated with Nathaniel Bacon in a rebellion against the royally appointed Governor William Berkeley, but ultimately Byrd ended up on Berkeley's side. He was elected to the House of Burgesses the next year and was appointed a member of the governor's Council in 1682.

When William Byrd II was seven, he was sent across the ocean to the Felsted school in Essex to receive a genteel education. Never close with his wards there, he only received brief letters from his father with words such as "improve your time, and bee carefull to serve God as you ought, without which you cannot expect to doe well here or hereafter." At Felsted, Byrd assiduously collected the various attributes of an English gentleman; he read manuals such as Henry Peacham's Compleat Gentleman and learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and Italian. From the time he traveled to England, Byrd saw his father only twice more before his father's death. Evidently he felt haunted enough by this distant but formidable paternal presence that years later, in the winter of 1710, Byrd recorded in his diary, "I had my father's grave opened to see him but he was so wasted there was not anything to be distinguished."

In 1690, Byrd was sent to Rotterdam to study commerce, but upon his return to England he decided instead to pursue law at the Middle Temple. In these years, frequenting court circles, spas, and coffeehouses, Byrd came to know well-placed noblemen and noblewomen, literati, and men of science. He befriended figures on both sides of the great intellectual contest between the "Moderns," who believed that, especially in matters of science, modern learning superseded ancient knowledge, and the "Ancients," who believed in the abiding superiority of the classical world. Byrd was elected to the central institution of the "New Science," the Royal Society of London, brought to Society meetings live American specimens such as the rattlesnake and the female opossum, and published in its Transactions "An Account of a Negro-Boy that is dappel'd in several Places of his Body with White Spots."

Byrd returned to Virginia to inherit his father's estate and his lucrative post as receiver general in 1705. He married Lucy Parke, the daughter of a colonial governor who was soon after assassinated in Antigua. It was at this time that Byrd began keeping a diary that he would write in, confess to, and regulate himself by almost every day for the next thirty-five years. In this secret diary, in shorthand cipher, he would record his daily regimen of rising early, reading Greek or Hebrew, dancing (moving through a series of morally inflected postures), praying, eating, speaking with "his people" (servants and slaves), and walking in his garden with his wife; in the same terse form, he recorded his nightmares, sexual transgressions, acts of corporal punishment, and the death of his infant son.

On a trip to England with Byrd in 1716, Lucy died of smallpox, leaving him two little girls in Virginia. Byrd spent most of the following decade in London arguing Virginia's political and economic causes before the British government (and rebelling against his colony's lieutenant governor much as his father had done decades before), amassing the largest book collection in the colonies, and courting English heiresses, who rejected him largely because of his colonial status. He finally married Maria Taylor, a woman he was "completely crazy about" because she "spoke Greek, the tongue of the Muses." During this time, he wrote flattering verse sketches that were printed in Tunbrigalia in 1719, displayed his bookish knowledge of the healing arts in A Discourse concerning the Plague (1721), and mocked women's superstitions in The Female Creed (1725). These years represented an important stage in his maturation: after repeated political and romantic failures, Byrd came to accept his colonial situation, seeing life on a Virginia plantation surrounded by "his people" less as a curse and more as a dignified responsibility in the mode of the Old Testament patriarchs. After 1726, as he acquired thousands of acres of land to the west and tried to encourage a colony of Swiss immigrants to settle there, rebuilt his father's estate, entertained and wrote to important naturalists, and founded the future cities of Richmond and Petersburg, Byrd came to understand the unique opportunities of his American environment.

In the spring of 1728, Byrd was appointed to lead the Virginia members of a commission to survey and settle the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina. To encourage individuals to buy property inland and thus expand both colonies westward, the two governments needed to clarify which should govern and tax the disputed land along the border. As Virginia was the first English colony in North America and a royal colony, whereas the later-established North Carolina was owned by a group of Lords Proprietors, Virginians felt great interest in demarcating their territorynot only geographically but sociallyfrom a colony they believed to be inferior. Byrd kept a longhand journal throughout the trip for official purposes. Over the next few years he transformed it first into the Secret History of the Line and finally into The History of the Dividing Line. The Secret History, dealing with unseemly acts of sexual aggression and male squabbling, was intended for a small audience of Byrd's intimates. The History, "improved" by learned citations to classical sources, to other travel narratives, and to natural histories, was intended for a larger public. The unresolved play in these texts between two versions of American reality offers us, on the one hand, a panegyric devoted to civilization's westward progress and, on the other, a satire of its wilderness degeneration. Such a bifurcated narrative line is a dizzying and fascinating one to tread.

Susan Scott Parrish
University of Michigan

In the Heath Anthology
Letter to Mrs. Jane Pratt Taylor (October 10, 1735) (1735)  [n.b., Published in 1901]
from The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and The Secret History of the Line (1841)  [n.b., Version from 1929]

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileBritish views of the Colonies

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The House That Byrd Built
  Includes biography, family tree, pictures , and bibliography.

William Byrd Page
  The life history of Byrd, with several images.

Secondary Sources

Douglas Anderson, "Plotting William Byrd," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, LVI, 1999: 701-722

Kevin J. Hayes, The Library of William Byrd of Westover, 1997

Kenneth Lockridge, The Diary, and Life, of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1674-1744, 1987, esp. 127-143

Susan Manning, "Industry and Idleness in Colonial Virginia: A New Approach to William Byrd II," Journal of American Studies, 28, 1994: 169-190

Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 1982

Margaret Pritchard and Virginia Sites, William Byrd II and His Lost History: Engravings of the Americas, 1993

A. James Wohlpart, "The Creation of the Ordered State: William Byrd's (Re)Vision in the History of the Dividing Line," Southern Literary Journal, 25, 1992: 3-18