A Raucous, Racy Diary - and Why We Still Read It 300 Years Later
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Would you believe that a secret diary written in shorthand code 300 years ago makes an impact on my own modern-day life?
Could an aristocratic man of colonial Virginia show me anything about living today?
Why am I fascinated by a man whose private writings were truly scandalous?
William Byrd's diaries were decoded and published in the 1940's, two centuries after they were written. The pages of his life story show a man who is both delightfully and decadently human. Passages that he wrote in a secret shorthand reveal his actions, his thoughts, his overwhelming faults.
He's arrogant, intolerant, and callously disciplines his slaves.
He notes that he argues with his wife over the plucking of her eyebrows and the fact that she climbed the garden fence when she was "with child."
Byrd journals about dealings with the law and the courts, current-day politics, punishments of his servants, and problems with the school master "for being so great a sot."
He records his menus, noting his intake of boiled beef, pears, milk, bacon and potatoes. He describes his daily dose of readings in classical literature and foreign languages.
But that's not all.
Byrd Wrote in Secret Code for a Reason
No wonder Byrd wrote the diary in secret code. His contemporaries would have been scandalized by his "real" life if they had only known about it. In his journal, Byrd details his lecherous actions toward several of his house servants as well as his sister-in-law.
He also chronicles his fights and his reconciliations with his wife, being so bold to claim,
"in the afternoon my wife and I had a little quarrel which I reconciled with a
flourish. It is to be observed that the flourish was on the billiard table."
Now what, you may be asking, have I gotten from Byrd's journal - other than a chuckle - that has enriched my life?
Byrd has a closing statement at the end of each day's entry. It is a line I adore. I have no idea whether Byrd was sincere when he penned those words or whether he was just using them as a rote sentiment.
Maybe he as being sarcastic. Perhaps he was, like Benjamin Franklin, trying to evaluate and improve his character.
On occasion, Byrd is honest enough to admit, "I had good health, but wicked thoughts."
Sometimes he stated, "I had good health, good thoughts, but I was a little out of humor for which God forgive me."
But most of the time, Byrd ends his diary entries with a report that I want to echo:
"I had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God."
William Byrd summed up his life - and his daily activities - so neatly. His tone is lost to modern readers, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate phrase and apply my own attitude to it.
Good Health - Appreciated On a Daily Basis
Good health. How wonderful it is to have; how easy it is to take it for granted. Every October, I remember the anniversary of the accident of my friend's son, an accident which left a strong, handsome, young man in a comatose state for years before he died.
I think of the thousands of people diagnosed with serious illnesses every day.
I remember my Aunt Carol who died in the blink of an eye from a brain aneurysm when she was just fifty-eight.
People in good health have attacks or strokes without warning, and a state of good health is not guaranteed forever.
How right Byrd was to be thankful for his well-being on a daily basis.
Good Thoughts: Something to Strive For
Good thoughts. Is it a talent to think positively? Is it a habit that we cultivate? Can the idea behind the old Beach Boys' song, "good, good, good, good vibrations" change the world?
Surely William Byrd was on the right track.
Attitude is everything.
Good Humor: The Need to Smile At the World
Good humor. If laughter is truly the best medicine, would the world be cured of its ills after a good guffaw? If we learned to laugh at our own foibles, would the country be more tolerant of those who are different from us? Would our loved ones be happier if we smiled more often?
Even when Byrd behaved badly, he still recognized the importance of being in good spirits.
"... I was a little out of humor for which God forgive me."
Personally, I think he was "spot on."
Why Do Byrd's Words Matter Today?
Like William Byrd, we have our faults. We blunder through the daily activities of life making mistakes and having arguments and doing our jobs.
And like William Byrd, we would do well to contemplate daily "good health, good thoughts and good humor."
They still matter - even 300 years later.