Life in colonial Virginia was full of contradictions—dependent on slavery but committed to freedom, genteel and refined but also violently cruel. One challenge lying before you in teaching this unit is exploring these contradictions without simply chalking them up to hypocrisy. How could a society engender such conflicting values? How could a people engage in such contradictory practices?
One of our activities encourages you to confront these contradictions head on. William Byrd II was a genteel man of letters but also a vicious slave owner. His secret diary, decoded and published in 1941, revealed that this highly educated and respected man could be shockingly nonchalant in dishing out sexual and physical abuse to his slaves.