This sample William Byrd II Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
William Byrd II was the proprietor of Westover plantation in colonial Virginia during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In addition, he left an entertaining and varied body of factual reportage about colonial America. Byrd’s diaries, letters, travel narratives, and miscellaneous writings give a revealing picture of the Virginia planter’s world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Colonial Birth and English Education
Byrd was born in Virginia on March 28, 1674. His father, William Byrd I, was a London goldsmith who immigrated to Virginia at age eighteen and inherited an estate there from an uncle. He became a wealthy planter and trader with the Indians. When his son reached age seven, he sent him to England under the care of relatives to be given a gentleman’s education. Byrd learned Greek and Latin at Felsted Grammar School in Essex. During his stay at Felsted, he witnessed the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a bloodless revolution in England that replaced an absolute monarch with a king supported by parliament.
In 1692, he entered the Middle Temple in London to study law. The Middle Temple, which formed one of the Inns of Court, was a haven for wits and writers during the seventeenth century. It was here that Byrd cultivated lifelong friendships with Sir Robert Southwell, president of the Royal Society, and with Charles Boyle (later the Earl of Orrerey). Byrd also formed acquaintances with the dramatists William Congreve, William Wycherley, and Nicholas Rowe. Through the influence of Southwell, Byrd was elected to the Royal Society and kept up an interest in natural science all his life.
A Political and Aristocratic Career
In 1696 his father asked him to return to Virginia. Once back in Virginia, Byrd immediately entered the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s legislature and the first popularly elected body in the English colonies. Thus began his lifetime of political activity. As a member of the ruling class of planters, Byrd served in a number of high offices and frequently opposed the interests of the English crown in favor of Virginia.
Virginia was a provincial culture of tobacco plantations forming green rectangles along river estuaries. The nearest market town was London, a two months’ sail away. Byrd soon found a need to return to England, but he was back in Virginia again in 1705, to take over his inheritance at the death of his father. A year after his father’s death he married Lucy Parke, daughter of Daniel Parke, governor of the Leeward Islands. When Daniel Parke died in 1710, Byrd voluntarily assumed some of the Parke family debts in order to acquire a huge Parke landholding in Virginia. The Parke debts turned out to be more than Byrd expected and for the rest of his life he was often plagued by the need for money.
His wife had died of smallpox in 1716, and Byrd, now in his early forties, wooed in succession three heiresses, failing with each of them. Meanwhile, he con ducted business for the colony of Virginia and spent much time gossiping and making contacts at the Virginia Coffeehouse, where the colony’s gentry gathered. Finally, in 1724, he married Maria Taylor, who, respectable but without money, ultimately gave him an heir named William. After one last trip to England, Byrd returned to Virginia in 1726 to stay.
A Diarist of Colonial Life
During the early years of his first marriage, Byrd settled into the daily routine of an ambitious planter. He kept a diary in cryptic shorthand detailing his daily life. During the last two decades of his life, he wrote the works for which he is best known, four factual narratives of travel through the backcountry. Byrd took up the pen to fill the intellectual vacancies in the routine of a planter’s life, a life—busy as it was with overseers, slaves, politics, tobacco, ship movements, and visitors—that could be tedious. The practice of letters was for Byrd an amusement and a refuge. He read and wrote in his library, which at his death contained some 3,600 volumes, making it one of the largest in the Colonies.
When Byrd died in 1744 at seventy years of age, he left an estate of 179,440 acres, complete with an imposing brick house that still stands today, not far from Colonial Williamsburg. He also left an assortment of manuscripts that would be discovered and published centuries after his death.
Works in Literary Context
Byrd was an urbane, inquisitive, eccentric man who, with sly humor, surveyed life from the heights of colonial aristrocracy. Byrd’s eye moved over flora and fauna, landscapes and people. He wrote about American Indians, gentry, women, slaves, medicine, natural history, folklore, diet, religion, and sex. True to the aristocratic tradition, he wrote mainly to amuse his friends in England and America. Although Byrd’s major works circulated in manuscript form for many years, none of them was published during his lifetime.
Observant Travel Writer
Byrd’s first published work and still his best known work, The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (1841), is an account of his leadership of a Virginia commission charged with settling a boundary dispute between Virginia and North Carolina. His party of surveyors and workmen met up with a similar commission from North Carolina, and they pushed the dividing line between the two states westward from the Atlantic shore. Although the narrative was not published until nearly a century after his death, it has since become known as a classic portrait of backwoods life in the mid-eighteenth century. Byrd had a reporter’s eye and a magisterial sense of ridicule, particularly when it came to the North Carolinians.
In 1851 a manuscript by Byrd, titled The Secret History of the Line (1929), turned up in Philadelphia. A shorter, alternative version of the History of the Dividing
Line, The Secret History of the Line was probably written first, for a small circle of Virginia friends. In The Secret History of the Line, Byrd disguised the names of the party, and for his private audience, Byrd included sexual escapades, including six occasions when members of the Virginia party (but not Byrd himself) assaulted women. Byrd also made no attempt to disguise the personal hatreds that had existed between various members of the group.
Byrd also chronicled his daily life in a series of diaries, which were also not published until well after his death. The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709-1712 (1941) contains an amazingly detailed record of the minutiae of life as a Virginia planter. Two other diaries have also been discovered, one covering a period of Byrd’s life in London, and the third his later life in Virginia. Byrd’s diaries are the fullest set of diaries from the Southern colonies during that period.
Works in Critical Context
Although Byrd published very little during his own life time, the discovery and publication of several of his manuscripts has won him regard as one of the most important American colonial writers. During his lifetime, Byrd was known in London and Virginia for his interest in literature and books, but he was not considered a literary personage himself.
Since the discovery of Byrd’s works, critics have focused on two essential elements of Byrd’s writing: what they show about life in colonial America and what they reveal about the author himself. His travel narratives and diaries are seen by scholars as important historical records as well as prime examples of the period’s best writing. While critics admire Byrd’s style, particularly his satirical wit, they also note that his writings reveal a misogynistic and decadent character.
Byrd’s Private History
Byrd’s works were largely circulated among his friends in manuscript form, though he also attempted to prepare some of his works for publication. The various manuscripts that have been found reveal very different public and private personae for Byrd. The private manuscripts were much more revealing and, to modern scholars, valuable for their insight. Pierre Marambaud notes the frequent comparisons between Byrd and a similar English diarist, Samuel Pepys: ”Like his famous English counterpart, he had written a day-by-day account of his life that he had really intended to keep secret.” Marambaud notes the freedom this gave to Byrd to honestly document his world:
The conviction that his diary would always remain secret led him to record with uninhibited sincerity all sorts of particulars about his daily routine and his main preoccupations; his food and work, his illnesses and remedies, the books he read and the people he met, the pleasures and sorrows he experienced, a complete catalog of his sexual life, and of prayers said or forgotten.
- Adams, Percy G., ed. William Byrd’s Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. New York: Dover, 1967.
- Beatty, Richmond Croom. William Byrd of Westover. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.
- Blanton, Wyndham B. Medicine in Virginia in the Eighteenth Century. Richmond, Va.: Garret & Massie, 1931.
- Bryson, William Hamilton. Census of Law Books in Colonial Virginia. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1978.
- Hatch, Alden. The Byrds of Virginia. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.
- Johnson, Herbert A. Imported Eighteenth-Century Law Treatises on American Libraries, 1700-1799.
- Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1978.
- Lockridge, Kenneth. The Diary, and Life, of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1674-1744. New York: Norton, 1987.
- Marambaud, Pierre. William Byrd of Westover 1674-1744. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1971, pp. 106-116.
- Wenger, Mark R. The English Travels of Sir John Percival and William Byrd II: The Percival Diary of 1701. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
- Wright, Louis B. The First Gentlemen of Virginia. San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1940.
- Wolf, Edwin, II. ”Great American Book Collectors to 1800.” Gazette of the Grolier Club (June 1971): 1-70.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.