The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 16. William Byrd
An equal appreciation of the fact that mileage and food are not the only things worth recording by those who go abroad gives permanent value to the diaries kept by the second William Byrd of Westover in 1732 and 1733, when he followed the course of Edward Bland in searching for the likeliest Virginian land-holdings. Byrd was a model for all who journey in company, for he “broke not the Laws of Travelling by uttering the least Complaint” at inopportune torrents or “an impertinent Tooth… that I cou’d not grind a Biscuit but with much deliberation and presence of mind.” He “contriv’d to get rid of this troublesome Companion by cutting a Caper,” with a stout cord connecting the tooth and the snag of a log. “This new way of Tooth-drawing, being so silently and deliberately perform’d, both surprized and delighted all that were present, who cou’d not guess what I was going about.”
Byrd has been made known for his “happy proficiency in polite and varied learning.” He was not peculiar, however, among the gentlemen of his generation for a style which shows an acquaintance with what is recognized as literature. Most of the people who possessed inherited wealth and established position were able to spell correctly, and they obeyed the laws of English grammar. Many of Byrd’s contemporaries in the New World could not do either of these things, and it has come to be the fashion among their descendants to excuse those eminently respectable and often brave and prosperous men and women, because of a belief that their short-comings were in accord with the practice, or lack thereof, of their own day. Byrd’s writings, and even more clearly those of the Maryland physician Alexander Hamilton, furnish the best of evidence that illiteracy was ignorance due to a lack of education as truly in 1700 as it is two centuries later.