On two particularly compelling reasons to study a frustrating, foundational Virginian.
As Edmund Morgan so elegantly traced, Virginia was the origin point for more than just the Declaration of Independence and four out of the first five presidents—it was also, and not at all coincidentally, the origin point for the foundational (and, as Morgan notes, apparently quite necessary) American contradictions: between slavery and freedom. As a result, it’s difficult to find any significant Virginians from the state’s first few centuries of existence who did not actively participate in the slave system, and that’s certainly true of William Byrd II (1674-1744), the planter and author who founded the city of Richmond and contributed significantly to the state’s colonial identity. Unfortunately, as his private diaries reveal, Byrd was not just a slave-owner but a particularly cruel and violent one; while a connection to slavery was perhaps inevitable in the era (and something Byrd was born into), his attitude and actions were nonetheless his own and are deeply troubling.
We can’t remember or study Byrd without including, in a prominent role, that troubling element—and to be honest I don’t think Byrd himself would want us to. One of the two things that make Byrd a particularly compelling voice is precisely his blunt honesty, throughout his diaries, about his own flaws and contradictions. It’s not just that Byrd writes about sleeping with the wives of friends, molesting servant girls, binge-eating when he knows it’s bad for him, treating his first wife very poorly, and so on—it’s that he makes such details one of his two primary focal points, with fervent expressions of repentance and religious feeling as the counter-balancing second focus. While many diarists could be read as writing for an audience and/or posterity in one way or another, Byrd utilized a secret code in his diaries, suggesting that he was indeed writing for his own psychological and emotional benefit. What exactly that benefit might be is a question I’ll leave for the psychoanalysts—but for students of American identity and history (and international ones, as Byrd also spent time in England), Byrd’s honesty offers an amazing glimpse into his life and world.
The second reason to read Byrd is similarly grounded in a compelling contradiction, but in this case a more public and published one. In 1728, Byrd spent time surveying and mapping the contested border between Virginia and North Carolina, a process he turned into the complex, witty, and unique book The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. The book’s combination of geography, history, sociology, and autobiography would be compelling enough in its own right—but the ever contradictory and verbose Byrd also wrote a second concurrent text, The Secret History, in which he fictionalized the process of mapping the border, the various figures who took part and whom he met along the way, and many other elements of this foundational moment. Taken together, these two books are more than just a unique record of colonial Virginia and America—they’re one of our most striking and significant literary texts, and another reason to read this Virginia voice.
Next voice tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Voices from your home you’d highlight?
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