William Byrd’s Ego

Callie Folke

William Byrd's fancy house

William Byrd’s fancy house

This week, I learned a lot about the upper class in colonial Virginia, also known as the gentry. One of the things I noticed about a lot of the gentry is the need for power and control. They needed to be on top, in control all the time. They felt the need to have power over every aspect of their lives, including their wives. They achieved this power through abuse and intimidation, and power achieved through those methods don’t tend to last forever, which is probably why people like Lucy Byrd often fought back. This power that they felt entitled to negatively affected their wives and those considered to be below them because they frequently abused it. They were obsessed with honor and showing off for their peers. They always had to be the most powerful, and they would stop at almost nothing to ensure this.

The more obvious group of people that their thirst power affected was the women. The biggest example would be William Byrd II raping his wife, Lucy Byrd. However in the eighteenth century, there was no such thing as rape because women were not seen as real people. It didn’t matter to them whether or not Lucy consented; he was going to do it no matter what she wanted. He maintained direct control over her, “Yet he also used sex to control and dominate his wife. His method of resolving disagreements and reconciling their quarrels was to ‘roger’ Lucy or give her a ‘flourish’ (Treckel 149).” Because of Byrd’s “need” for sexual satisfaction he decided to achieve it by dominating his wife without her permission, thus violating her body. Another example would be the fact that he married Lucy at all, considering the age difference. “What did nineteen-year-old Lucy Parke think of these effusive letters from her thirty-two-year-old suitor? Surely she was flattered, perhaps even awed by the attentions of this mature, wealthy man, but did she respond in kind? (Treckel 133)” Historians don’t even know if she loved him back. I don’t think that she truly loved him, but because she was a teenager when she married him and he was extremely wealthy and powerful, she probably got sort of star struck. I can understand, because I would probably be the same way if, for example, Leonardo Di Caprio asked me to marry him. But would I truly love him? Probably not, seeing as he’s twenty-three years older than me, and more mature than me. But of course, this practice was acceptable in that time because women had shorter lives due to high risk of death from childbirth. And it was okay to have nonconsensual sex with your wife because she was considered less of a person.

The second group of people that the power-hungry gentry affected were the slaves. Because of the fact that women had no power over men, they would take out their frustration on the slaves because they were the only ones that the women had direct power over. “Sadly, she vented her anger not only on him but also on those doubly marked by their race and gender–the female slaves who served her family. (Treckel 136).” William Byrd mentions several times in the diary that he kept that his wife would beat the slaves after they had an argument, “My wife against my will caused little Jenny to be burned with a hot iron, for which I quarreled with her. (Byrd)” This is just one of the examples of Lucy abusing the slaves to feel powerful. I imagine that this particular household would not be an isolated incident. Again, I can kind of understand. Often times when I get into an argument with my parents or someone else of more authority, I will take out my frustrations about it on my younger sister. Not in the same way, of course, because I would never hit my sister, but more along the lines of making mean remarks. It’s all about feeling in control of a situation and trying to feel like you have some power, and you really can’t blame Lucy for some of the things she did because from what I’ve read, her marriage to Byrd was toxic. This marriage was not good for anyone, including the slaves because it meant harsher treatment.

The final group that was affected to a lesser extent were the other gentry. They were often very competitive with one another over horse racing, backgammon, and cards. They challenged each other’s honor, and when one of them lost it was a big deal because they also lost respect from the other men. Along with honor, one of the biggest desires of the gentry was respect from all aspects of their lives.

A testament to William Byrd's ego

A testament to William Byrd’s ego

This method of ego-stroking caused the men to think themselves more superior than they actually were and is part of the reason why these men got so abusive with those below them, especially when they lost. “Indeed, these men hazarded money and tobacco on almost any proposition in which there was an element of chance (Breen 239).” Gambling was a way to express their values, but I believe that the gentry took their gambling too far.

To conclude, the gentry’s way of life affected all aspects of life in Virginia because of the egotistical desires and actions of the top few. They abused those below them, and took advantage of their power because they could. It is awful to think about what our country may have been like had the women and slaves not fought back to their oppressors, but sadly, the rich white men are still the ones in charge. Yes, there is a black president, but congress makes the laws and the majority of congress is white men claiming to know what’s best for everybody. The country has become so polarized in terms of political parties, and the wealth divide is still huge, so in a way, we haven’t left behind the gentry ruled government. It’s just further proof of the statement a former history teacher told me, “Times change, people don’t.”


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