William Byrd

William Byrd

(1674-1744)

January 1, 1710 “I rose at 6 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and two chapters in the Greek Testament. . . In the afternoon we took a walk about the plantation. The weather was very warm. In the evening we drank a bottle of wine and were merry. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.”

Our knowledge of plantation life in colonial Virginia would be much poorer if we did not have the diary of William Byrd, who wrote in great detail about the events of his life.

Byrd was born in Virginia, the son of a prominent Virginia planter. He left home at the age of six and spent a number of years in England. There he became a lawyer and learned the manners of an English gentleman. Byrd returned to Virginia in 1696, and was soon elected to a seat in the House of Burgesses.

Byrd remained in Virginia for only a year. He then returned to England with the title of colonial agent, which meant that he was there to represent the colony’s interests in the mother country. Few colonial Americans were better suited to this task than Byrd; he seemed to understand almost instinctively how to maneuver in the complicated world of English politics.

Byrd returned to his home colony around 1704. He married Lucy Parke in 1706, and they had four children. He was named to sit on the Virginia Council of State in 1709. He soon became embroiled in a long and destructive controversy with Governor Alexander Spotswood.

The new governor wanted to end the long monopoly that planter families had held in regard to owning large tracts of land. Spotswood tried to enforce the policy of “quitrents” which would have prevented the planters from acting as absentee owners. Spotswood also tried to take away the Council of State’s judicial powers.

As a member of one of the great planter families, Byrd strongly opposed Spotswood’s policies. He led the resistance to them, and traveled to England in 1715 to express the views of his fellow plantation owners. Byrd and his fellows won their cause mostly through default; Governor Spotswood left Virginia in 1722.

Lucy Byrd died in 1716, William married Maria Taylor while in London, and the couple had four children. Byrd returned to Virginia in 1727 to spend the rest of his life at Westover, his magnificent estate. Byrd laid out the plans for the town of Richmond, Virginia, and served as president of the Council from 1743 until his death the following year.