The complicated sex drive of William Byrd II.
Hans Hysing’s portrait of Byrd, ca. 1724.
William Byrd II was a colonial Virginia gentleman who, on occasion, was no gentleman at all. Writing about himself in the third person, in 1723, he bemoaned “the combustible manner in his constitution”; he cursed the innate passions that “broke out upon him before his beard,” making him a “swain” before all women. Byrd’s carnal drive underscored the eyebrow-raising vigor of his lust. On a trip to London in 1719, according to his secret diary, he “rogered”—an easy enough euphemism—no fewer than six women in nine days. Of one woman, he (proudly) recorded having “rogered her three times” in a single evening. That same night, Byrd, aged forty-four, noted with a tinge of sadness that he had “neglected my prayers.”
When he wasn’t on a whore-chasing jag in the metropolis, Byrd was back on his Virginia estate, called Westover, with his wife, Lucy. At Westover, his sexual proclivities certainly raged with similar, singleminded intensity—he wrote in his diary about having urgent sex with Lucy on a billiards table—but it was also tempered by a healthy desire to achieve mutual pleasure with her. He was just as inclined to “give my wife a flourish”—bring her to orgasm—as he was to “roger” her, a semantic shift suggesting that Lucy’s response to their sexual union mattered as much to Byrd as his own physical gratification. On April 30, 1711, he noted in his diary that although he discovered his wife in a “melancholy” mood, the “powerful flourish” he delivered filled her with “great ecstasy and refreshment.” He recalled one morning during which “I lay in my wife’s arms” while, during another, his wife “kept me so long in bed” that “I rogered her.” That evening he got around to saying his prayers—before rogering her again. The man could be a virtuous, even tender, Tidewater lover when he wasn’t being a London sleazebag.
If Byrd’s sexual persona shifted between id explosion and conjugal control—between hooking up and making love—that tension was an apt reflection of the larger struggle faced by most eighteenth-century English gentlemen. In England, and even more so in Virginia, being a gentleman was coming to mean more than being a member of the lucky sperm club. Hereditary wealth and family title no longer carried the weight they once did. A gentleman was now expected to behave. Specifically, he was expected to have cool mastery over his subordinates—wives, children, citizens, employees, serfs, and slaves—and achieving that mastery required mastering oneself.
The inspirational text behind this anxiety-inducing expectation was John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693, embraced by genteel society, and placed prominently in Byrd’s library. In it, Locke captured the essence of this relatively new social obligation when he wrote, “the Principle of all Vertue and Excellency lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires.”
Byrd must have shuddered at the prospect. Still, he took it seriously enough to enter the sentiment into his commonplace book (another accouterment of gentility), writing: “If I am incontinent, and lye with every Woman I meet, I use those women as if they belonged to me when they really do not, and suffer my Self to be governd by appetite like a Brute, & not by Reason like a man, and is in effect Saying that I am a brute.” This recorded aspiration to avoid “incontinence” momentarily placed Byrd in the ranks of George Washington—whose 110 “Rules of Civility” shaped his public demeanor—and Benjamin Franklin—who, although more of a cad than Washington, made a good faith effort to live according to his “13 virtues of life.”
But at the end of the day, Byrd’s quest for decency—a kind of self-directed pep talk to get his shit together—proved no match for that “combustible manner” of his. Watching Byrd try to be virtuous is like watching a bull trying to behave in a china shop. He assumed so many Franklinesque postures of disciplined gentility—ritualistically praying, exercising (“I danced my dance”), eating with moderation, and reading Greek—that you’d think he’d have at least a slim chance at the mannered decency that would propel younger Virginians (Madison, Jefferson, Washington) into public prominence. But the halo of history would never hover over Byrd’s troubled brow. Though he’d eventually enjoy moments of public significance—elected to the House of Burgesses, member of the Royal Society, lead surveyor of the North Carolina/Virginia boundary—his place in the pantheon of colonial greatness ultimately yielded to zipper issues.
Byrd’s diary is a rap sheet of absolutely galling sexual misconduct. He wrote about having “committed uncleanness with the maid because the mistress was not at home.” Offensive enough. But then: “when the mistress came, I rogered her.” He referred to “a dark angel”—likely a slave—who “struggled just enough to make her Admirer more eager.” Admitting to his “wicked inclinations” toward the wives of other men, Byrd, on at least one occasion, overstepped the bounds of his inclinations, kissing a woman “on the bed until she was angry and my wife was also uneasy about it, and cried as soon as the company was gone.” It happens so often it almost becomes boring.
History has deservedly fumed at William Byrd. But if there’s a silver lining to his effusion of misogyny, it’s the fact that the only thing Byrd did more actively than rogering a transatlantic array of women was to keep the presence of mind to write about it. His prose, while thematically troublesome, is, in terms of its frankness, historically unimpeachable. Byrd’s emotional generosity lends exclusive insight into the psyche of a colonial gentleman struggling to mold libertine impulses into Lockean expectations. Every gentleman went through it. Those who conquered the task carefully cultivated themselves for a golden posterity. Those who failed disappeared into history’s dustbin.
But not Byrd. He failed, and he stuck around. And, with confessional honesty, he had the perverse decency to let us know exactly why.
James McWilliams is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He teaches at Texas State University and is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.
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