Byrd was born on March 28, 1674, probably near the falls of the James River in Henrico County, the eldest child of Mary Horsmanden Filmer Byrd and her second husband, William Byrd (ca. 1652–1704). He is usually referred to as William Byrd II (a style that he did not employ) to distinguish him from his father and his only surviving son.
Byrd spent the formative years of his childhood in England. When he was two years old he and his mother temporarily left Virginia to reside with her relatives in Purleigh, Essex County, England. Although Byrd probably returned to Virginia two years later, by the age of seven he was definitely in England in the care of the same relatives, who sent him for nine years to the Felsted School, a prestigious academy in the same shire. He learned Greek and Latin and there probably also acquired his ability to read French, Italian, and Hebrew. After leaving school Byrd worked for tobacco trading companies for two years in London and Rotterdam to learn about commerce and at the same time acquire the social graces of a gentleman. He entered the Middle Temple in 1692 and studied law there for three years while reading widely, attending the theater frequently, and sporting with “naughty jades.” Byrd was called to the bar in 1695 and elected to the Royal Society on April 29, 1696, thanks to the patronage of his father’s friend Sir Robert Southwell.
These were heady achievements for a young colonial, and one can imagine Byrd’s anticipation in the summer of 1696 as he planned his first trip to Virginia in fifteen years. He may well have made the journey with the expectation of staying. The powerful influence of his father and his own superior education helped Byrd win election to the House of Burgesses for the autumn 1696 session, representing Henrico County, but he withdrew from the assembly in October and returned to England to practice law. Although the elder Byrd was undoubtedly disappointed, he accepted his son’s decision and drew on his London contacts to assist him. Extended separations had nurtured or reinforced a strong sense of autonomy in Byrd and a commensurate willingness on the part of his father to accommodate it.
The Bodleian Plate
At his thirtieth birthday Byrd was unmarried, lacked an official post, and faced uncertain immediate prospects in England. His surviving letters suggest that he was preoccupied with his aristocratic friends and his own mastery of polite manners and wordsmanship. Byrd had learned a great deal about England. A fourteen-week tour in 1701 as the chaperon of Sir John Percival, the eighteen-year-old nephew of Sir Robert Southwell, introduced him to a wide range of clergymen, merchants, borough officials, and country gentlemen. Byrd visited many market towns and indulged his curiosity about the commercial life of these places, as well as their architecture, libraries, and art collections. He took an interest in his father’s business and political affairs, but he stretched beyond the older man’s world by encircling himself with social types and activities that his father had usually kept on the periphery of his own life.
Return to Virginia
Early in 1705 Byrd learned of his father’s death and returned to Virginia, where he had spent only about five of his thirty-one years, and only a few months during the past quarter century. As principal heir to his father’s great estate, Byrd was one of the wealthiest men in the colony, and on May 4, 1706, he married Lucy Parke, the younger legitimate daughter of Daniel Parke, a wealthy man of the world and newly appointed governor of the Leeward Islands, who promised but did not deliver a £1,000 dowry. Parke bequeathed the Byrds the promised marriage portion at his death in 1710, and Byrd then agreed to take over the lands left to his wife’s sister in exchange for assuming the debts of the Parke estate. The obligations were much greater than he knew and left him burdened into his old age.
Passion rather than prudence had directed his marital choice, but at that age Byrd seemed incapable of the kind of intimacy that characterizes successful affectionate marriages. Byrd’s references to his wife in his diary suggest that she was less of a companion with whom he was emotionally engaged than a subordinate (and sometime insubordinate) figure to whom he expected to dominate in the household and in bed. He manifested the same lack of deep attachment in his relationship with their two sons and two daughters. Both sons died in infancy, but neither their lives nor their deaths weighed heavily on Byrd’s mind. He was a distant father and husband, psychologically and physically, and often left his family for extended periods on business, political, or social trips. Just as Byrd’s father and mother had been willing to send him across the ocean for most of his childhood and early adulthood, he was unwilling or unable to bring his own children and spouse close to himself emotionally even when they resided on the same plantation.
If the prolonged separation from his parents reverberated in the emotional distance Byrd put between himself and his own children, it did not estrange him from his patrimony. He took up his father’s estate, but he could not take it for granted that he would be appointed to the offices that his father had held and that he coveted. He secured the post of receiver general, which was separated from the auditorship after his father’s death, and in December 1705 he applied for a seat on the governor’s Council. Lineage counted, but no colonial post was hereditary. Byrd had to draw on the influence of his and his father’s English connections. Nearly four years after initiating the process, he took his seat on the Council on September 12, 1709. He served continuously until his death thirty-five years later.
Nine months after Byrd joined the Council, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood began his administration. Although Byrd had sought the governorship for himself and was disappointed to be told that he lacked the required military background, he evidently intended to cooperate with Spotswood. They shared a vision of economic and geographic expansion and later discussed a mutual interest in establishing ironworksin Virginia. They moved completely off common ground, however, when the lieutenant governor, over Byrd’s opposition, reorganized the collection of quitrents in order to enlarge the royal revenue. Byrd regarded the receiver’s office as his own property and Spotswood’s actions as a personal affront. Shortly afterward, in March or April 1715 Byrd sailed for England, primarily to take care of some private affairs but with undercutting and removing Spotswood from office undoubtedly high on his transatlantic agenda.
Byrd stayed in London for five years. In November 1716, shortly after his wife joined him in London, she died of smallpox. Symptomatic of his feelings, Byrd began wooing a prospective replacement within two months. He was unsuccessful with several romances until six weeks after his fiftieth birthday, when on May 9, 1724, he married Maria Taylor, the twenty-five-year-old heiress of a Kensington gentleman. Surviving evidence about Byrd’s emotional involvement with his second wife and their one son and three daughters is less abundant and less illuminating than about his first.
In England Byrd sold the receiver generalship to a Virginian for £500. The post’s profitability had declined, and he found it difficult to manage through a deputy while he remained in England. In 1717 Byrd took credit for the royal veto of two major laws that Spotswood had persuaded the General Assembly to pass, the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1713 and the Indian Trade Act of 1714. The first regulated the quality and distribution of tobacco exports, and the second established a monopoly over commerce with the natives. Both measures were designed to solve longstanding public policy problems, and Byrd’s motives very likely flowed more from his personal resentments than from genuine reservations about the merits of the legislation. He eventually proposed himself to serve as the assembly’s London agent, and the burgesses first voted to appoint him in May 1718 and then overrode Spotswood’s objection by appropriating Byrd’s salary that November. The lieutenant governor was not without influence, though, and maneuvered to have Byrd deposed from the Council. The Virginian saved himself only by promising to return to the colony and evidently agreeing to seek a reconciliation with Spotswood.
Byrd returned to Virginia in February 1720, and in April the two men made peace after airing their differences. Byrd viewed himself as representing the people of the colony in both his struggle and his rapprochement with Spotswood. The two men had each given up something and gained something, and neither had succeeded in removing the other. After the accommodation Byrd set sail for England again in the summer of 1721 as paid agent of the burgesses. Some contemporaries believed that he assisted with the removal of Spotswood from office the following year, but Byrd took no credit for Spotswood’s dismissal, which resulted largely from the loss of political power by the lieutenant governor’s English sponsors.
Byrd remained in England for four and a half years, through most of the administration of Spotswood’s successor, Hugh Drysdale. Byrd returned to Virginia the final time in 1726 and resumed attendance at the Council on April 28. After Drysdale’s death in July, Byrd unsuccessfully urged his own patrons in England to nominate him as the next lieutenant governor. Despite the blow this failure dealt to his ambition, he was impressed by Drysdale’s successor, William Gooch, with whom he was friendly from the beginning. Gooch appointed Byrd to the joint commission of Virginians and North Carolinians that surveyed the boundary between the two colonies in 1728. Byrd eventually led the Virginia contingent. The lieutenant governor’s landmark achievement was passage of the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730, essentially a reenactment of Spotswood’s statute of 1713 that Byrd had had a hand in killing. This time the legislation benefited Byrd directly, for he was one of those whose land was chosen for the construction of a warehouse. The paucity of references to Gooch in Byrd’s writings of the 1730s and 1740s and his general preoccupation at this time with private matters rather than public business reflect in part the lieutenant governor’s skill at managing the Council.
Byrd showed a continuing interest in land development, public and private. In the autumn of 1733 he conceived the plan to establish what became the cities of Petersburg and Richmond at the falls of the Appomattox and James rivers, the latter of his own property. Gooch appointed him in September 1736 to a commission to lay out the bounds of the Northern Neck Proprietary. None of the commissioners accompanied the surveyors to their final destination at the headwaters of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, but Byrd wrote the report that was sent to England with the survey in August 1737 and that was ultimately set aside after his death in favor of a finding more in line with the report of a competing commission that Lord Fairfax appointed.
By 1743 Byrd was the senior councillor, but he never had the satisfaction of serving as Council president, or acting governor, as his father had done. Even without that capstone to his career, Byrd was one of the most skillful politicians of his generation and may have had a greater familiarity with the corridors of power in London than any other American. Royal governors could not afford to antagonize him because he had imperial connections and know-how and a proven willingness to go overseas to draw on them. His influence with his fellow Virginia gentry derived from his unique experience and knowledge.
Man of Letters
Despite his political influence, Byrd’s lasting fame rests more on his personal lifestyle and private writings than it does on his official activities. He was a highly cultivated colonial gentleman who read widely and assembled one of the greatest colonial libraries, consisting of more than 3,500 volumes of history, biography, travel, drama, divinity, architecture, gardening, law, art, science, medicine, and etiquette. The books were written in English, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Dutch, and Hebrew. Byrd himself wrote in different genres: diaries, letters, poetry, essays, caricatures, histories, and speeches. He experimented with different tones and styles, from the satirical and comically ironic to the serious and imploringly persuasive. Byrd’s friends and correspondents in England included some of the most distinguished statesmen, writers, and naturalists. His wide reading was reflected in the cultivated tone of his writings, and liveliness of his mind found expression in the keen insights and sharp humor of his personal correspondence. Byrd kept a secret diary that was not decoded and published until the twentieth century, but it, together with his other writings, made him the most-written-about Virginian between Captain John Smith and George Washington.
Byrd wrote mostly for his own enjoyment and the amusement or edification of his friends, but he occasionally also wrote for the public. Several anonymously or pseudonymously published works are attributed to Byrd. He probably collaborated with William Burnaby, a colleague in the Middle Temple, on a translation of Petronius’s Satyricon (London, 1694). Frequenting the English spa of Tunbridge Wells in 1719, Byrd published several poems under the name of “Mr. Burrard” in Tunbrigalia; or, Tunbridge Miscellanies (London, 1719). Byrd and other dilettante “Water Poets,” as Sir Richard Steele named them, wrote verses describing the denizens of resorts like Tunbridge Wells, Bath, and Epsom. His Discourse Concerning the Plague, with Some Preservatives against It, published in London in 1721, touted tobacco as a preventer of infection.
Much of Byrd’s writing exists only in manuscripts, which likely circulated among friends and acquaintances in a form of self-publication that would typify a gentleman’s authorial career (as opposed to publishing in print for pay). These writings are representative of Byrd’s study of natural history and his promotion of the interests of the Virginia colony. “A Journey to the Land of Eden,” his account of his 1733 visit to his frontier landholdings, may have been intended to promote immigration to Virginia. “A Progress to the Mines,” a description of his 1732 trip to Fredericksburg to visit Spotswood, is a more personal and mature piece, written by a man who has come to accept the limitations of his career and to terms with past animosities.
For several years Byrd worked on The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728 with an eye toward publication. Byrd’s most ambitious literary effort, it was based on rough notes that he had kept on the expedition. He intended the artfully crafted narrative for a broad audience, but in a second version, entitled The Secret History of the Line, he assigned pseudonyms to members of his party so that he could describe them more frankly. Neither was published in his lifetime, but Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line has become a classic of early American literature. It may have been a portion or precursor of a larger history of Virginia that does not survive.
During the last decade and a half of his life Byrd devoted himself to rebuilding and improving what has become one of the most importantly symbols of gentry culture, his plantation at Westover in Charles City County. His father had begun by laying out the best-documented late seventeenth-century plantation garden, and while Byrd was still in England he befriended the leading botanists of the day, studied natural history, and may have procured English plants for his father. During earlier Virginia residences Byrd enlarged and improved the garden, and after his final return to Virginia he developed a strong attachment to the landscape of his native country. Moreover, his determination to remain in Virginia permanently led him to replace the wooden structure he inherited with a brick mansion. Contemporary correspondence indicates that construction took place during the 1730s prior to his death, while modern testing of attic beams suggests that his namesake son William Byrd III also did renovations to the home about 1750. Considered one of the finest American examples of Georgian architecture still standing, Westover housed the elder Byrd’s library and his large collection of portraits. There he completed his major prose works and spent much of his time supervising his plantation. At one point he thought that he might have to sell Westover in order to meet his debts, but he was able to discharge them fully before his death.
Byrd died at Westover on August 26, 1744, and was buried in the garden there.
- A Discourse Concerning the Plague (1721)
- The Westover Manuscripts: Containing the History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina; A Journey to the Land of Eden, A.D. 1733; and A Progress to the Mines; Written from 1728 to 1736, and Now First Published (1841)
- The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709–1712 (1941)
- Another Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1739–1741, with Letters & Literary Exercises, 1696 (1942)
- The London Diary, 1717–1728 and other Writings (1958)
- The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover: Narratives of a Colonial Virginian (1966)
- The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover (2001)