When one lists the iconic images of Colonial America, top items include the "first Thanksgiving," a backwoods farmer's cabin, Benjamin Franklin with his spectacles—and a Virginia gentleman-planter posing in full regalia, his wealth and self-assurance on display. William Byrd and Landon Carter, whose portraits are at right, lived almost identical lives as Virginia gentry—born into wealth, educated in England, influential in colonial affairs, and manager of multiple plantations and enslaved workers. Yet their diaries are as different as night and day. Byrd's routinized diary lists each day's events, including arguments with his wife, games with his friends, and whether he said his evening prayers or not. He almost never discusses plantation business, the planting and harvesting of crops, or experimenting with new seeds and tools. For that, one reads Carter's diary, as he struggles
to save his tobacco, corn and wheat during the severe droughts of the 1750s. About all the men's diaries share is their descriptions of herbal treatments for ill slaves and family members, and whether they worked or not.
Why is there no section titled "Farmers" in this Theme, ECONOMIES? More than three out of four colonists were farmers or worked on farms as hired help or indentured servants.1 While their lives are documented in official records like a census or tax list, their personal experiences are not as accessible to us. The time to write diaries, travel journals, and letters was a luxury of the well-to-do. The few documents in this Toolbox that represent the yeoman or "middle-class" farmer include Mary Cooper's diary (Connecticut) and the Moravians' "Bethabara Diary" (North Carolina). What aspects of life do the wealthy planter and yeoman farmer share? (16 pages, excluding portraits.)
Diary of William Byrd II. Born in 1674, Byrd ranks as the most well-known gentleman-planter of pre-Revolutionary America, partly for his achievements and status, and partly for his witty and irreverent "secret diary" of the years 1709-1712. Written in shorthand, the diary was not translated and published until the 1940s. Byrd's day-to-day entries seem formulaic, yet in commenting on the day's events he reveals much about himself, his times, and the perspective of the landed gentry. Occasionally he engages in self-reflection: "Bless God for granting me so many years," he writes on his 36th birthday. "I wish I had spent them better."
Diary of Landon Carter. Born in 1710—soon after Byrd began his secret diary—Landon Carter forged a life very similar to Byrd's. When he was twenty-two his father died, leaving him eight plantations, and he married the first of his three wives (all of whom died before 1758). Like Byrd, he kept a diary. The selections included here span five months in 1758 when Carter was forty-seven years old. They present a close look at his life as a wealthy planter, herbalist doctor to his family and slaves, three-time widower, father mourning his daughter's death—and hardworking distressed farmer in a season of drought.
- Overall, what do you learn about the life of the Virginia gentleman-planter from the diaries of Byrd and Carter?
- What are the most striking similarities and differences in their diaries (form, tone, and content)?
- What are the most significant similarities and differences in their lives? families? plantations?
- What most concerns Byrd? Carter? What makes them feel happy or successful?
- How do they relate to their children? slaves? and, in Byrd's case, to his wife?
- How do they analyze and judge others? their society? themselves?
- What forms the basis of their analyses and judgments?
- Choose one statement from each diary that defines the man, in your opinion. Why did you select the phrases?
- What do you learn from the diaries about the production and trade of tobacco and other crops?
- Why, do you think, does Carter write so much about crop production, and Byrd does not?
- Compare the lives of gentlemen-planters and common farmers. How can one learn about the lives of the non-wealthy colonists who did not keep journals and write numerous letters?
- In the mid 1700s, other members of the Virginia planter elite were coming into their adulthood (and inheritances)—Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and George Mason. From reading the diaries of Byrd and Carter, what world view and social-political attitudes might you expect in the Virginia "Founding Fathers"?
|Diary of William Byrd: || 9
|Diary of Landon Carter: || 7
|View portraits online. ||
|TOTAL ||16 pages
1 Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 51.
- Hans Hysing (attributed to), William Byrd II, oil on canvas, ca. 1724. Virginia Historical Society. Reproduced by permission.
- Charles Bridges (attributed to), Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, oil on canvas, ca. 1790. Private collection. Permission pending.
|*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.|