"The Empire of My Heart": The Marriage of William Byrd II and Lucy Parke Byrd

Article excerpt

by PAULA A. TRECKEL*

THE month was unusually cold, noted William Byrd II in his diary on 30 July 1710, "indeed the coldest that ever was known in [Virginia]." Could the weather, he wondered, have caused the fever and headaches suffered by his people? Thank God none had died. On that chilly day he also "read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson and then took a little [nap]." In the afternoon Byrd had a "little quarrel" with his wife, Lucy, but "reconciled" their dispute "with a flourish. Then she read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson to me. It is to be observed," he recorded, "that the flourish was performed on the billiard table." After eating fish for dinner and reading a little Latin, Byrd and his wife "took a walk about the plantation." That evening, although he "neglected to say [his] prayers," he enjoyed "good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God."1

Most students of early American history are familiar with William Byrd II, the "great American gentleman," whose secret, coded diaries reveal the daily life of a member of Virginia's eighteenth-century planter elite.2 These journals have given generations of historians insights into the Chesapeake's changing economy, master-slave relations on early Tidewater plantations, and the development of plantation society and culture in the colonial South.3

Byrd's remarkable candor in recording his most personal activities-the most infamous is his account of giving his wife a "flourish" on the billiard table-also provides a glimpse into the private world of a Virginia gentleman. In recent years, biographer Kenneth A. Lockridge used the diaries to psychoanalyze Byrd and trace his self-conscious struggle to construct an independent identity as a man and as an American. Historians Michael Zuckerman and Daniel Blake Smith also studied the diaries to shed light on familial mores in the eighteenth-century South. They argue that Byrd blurred the distinction between his public and domestic worlds and created a community, a web of relationships, in the region he ruled.4

In addition to providing insights into individual development and the establishment of community in the Chesapeake, William Byrd's diaries give the modern reader an interior view of marriage and gender relations among the Virginia gentry during an important transitional period in American history. The journal entries illuminate Byrd's tempestuous relationship with his first wife, Lucy Parke Byrd, and reveal how at least one gentry couple struggled to reconcile their often conflicting notions of men's and women's proper roles in the colony's emerging plantation economy. The Byrds' stormy marriage was filled with tensions over power and intimacy, authority and love, reason and passion. The couple's slaves often found themselves the innocent victims of the Byrds' battles in the eighteenth-century war between the sexes.

The transformation of the Chesapeake economy from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century prompted modifications in the region's social structure. Although the concept of the patriarchal family was one that most English colonists brought with them to North America in the seventeenth century, harsh reality prevented them from realizing their ideal in Virginia. Because mortality was high and life expectancy low, family life was extremely fragile there. Men seldom lived long enough to assert their accustomed authority over their wives and children; labor shortages throughout most of the century meant that women often helped their husbands supply their families' basic needs. Wives who outlived their spouses were, of necessity, granted greater legal rights and responsibilities than their counterparts in northern colonies, where family life was more stable.5

By the end of the century, demographic conditions improved, however, and it was possible for men and women to organize their families' lives in more familiar ways. Because men lived longer, they were able to assume their traditional role as household heads, directing the lives and organizing the labor of their wives and children. …