Patriarchy in Peril
William Byrd II and Slavery in Early Virginia
William Byrd II was a prominent eighteenth-century Virginian who at the time of his death owned over 180,000 acres and employed laborers and enslaved Africans to work his land. His letters, diaries, and surveying documents have become key texts in the study of American history, and he is one of the most quoted and discussed figures of his era.
Byrd himself was perhaps the early colonial epitome of a patriarch, and typically, when historians examine Byrd and the prominence of patriarchal thought in colonial Virginia, they examine his relationships with his immediate family. In this book, however, Dennis Todd examines the patriarchal relations between Byrd and the workers on his plantations—his apprentices, his wageworkers, his overseers, his white servants, and especially his slaves. In doing so, this book illuminates a neglected stage in the formation of slavery in Virginia. Todd argues that patriarchal principles, which are often assumed to have justified slavery and to have offered a template for slave management, in fact did neither. Byrd was not the only Virginian to wrestle with the contradictions between patriarchal values and the realities of slavery, but few were as articulate.
In examining Byrd through the twin lens of slavery and patriarchy, Patriarchy in Peril makes an important contribution to our understanding of the man and his place in Virginia society as well as the contentious formation of early America.
DENNIS TODD is emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University. He is the author of Defoe’s America and Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England.