Sexual relations between men and women tended to be less strictly regulated in the Chesapeake than in Puritan New England. They were also regulated in a different way. Rates of prenuptial pregnancy during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century were comparatively high in the Chesapeake region—higher than in the Puritan colonies, particularly among indentured servants. In Somerset County, Maryland, more than a third of immigrant brides were pregnant before they married. Overall, about a fifth of all women who married in that county, immigrants and natives together, were carrying a child on their wedding day.1
Despite this tendency, or perhaps because of it, fornication was not punished as frequently or as severely in the Chesapeake colonies as it had been in New England. In Maryland, the courts did not often hear cases of this sort, despite very high rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy. When they did so, the female was punished severely, usually by whipping. But the male either escaped with a token penalty such as a bond for good behavior, or in most cases was not punished at all. This pattern of discrimination against women in fornication cases was the reverse of New England customs, which penalized the male more harshly than the female during the early and mid-seventeenth century.2
Bastardy was punished with savage ferocity in the Chesapeake. When an unmarried woman gave birth outside of wedlock, a heavy fine was levied upon her. If the fine could not be paid (as often happened), she was trussed up like an animal, her dress was ripped open to the waist, and she was publicly whipped in the sight of a shouting mob until the blood flowed in rivulets down her naked back and breasts. Further, if she was a servant, she was also required to compensate her master for the time lost in her pregnancy by serving an additional term, even in some cases when he was the father of the child. Bastardy was regarded as an offense of the utmost seriousness in Virginia—not because it was a sexual transgression, but because it threatened to place a burden of support on the parish poor rolls, and to deprive a master of work that was thought due to him.3
Other sexual offenses were also punished in seventeenth-century Virginia, but not in the same way as in New England. Adultery was a case in point. In both New England and Virginia, adultery was defined as extramarital sex involving a married woman (not necessarily a married man). One study has found that in Massachusetts, men and women found guilty of adultery in most cases received similar punishments. In the Chesapeake, however, adulterous women were punished more harshly than adulterous men. For that offense, women were flogged severely or dragged through the water behind a boat until they nearly drowned. Men were treated leniently.4
This difference was not the result of mindless or instinctive sexism. It rested upon the assumption that the bloodline within a family was threatened by a wife’s adultery, but not by the husband’s. That way of thinking was more important in Anglican Virginia than in Puritan New England. Here again we find evidence that Virginians held themselves to different standards of behavior according to their rank, gender and standing in society.5
A multiple standard of sexual behavior (not merely a double standard) appeared not only in the laws of Virginia but also in its customs. Women, especially gentlewomen, were held to the strictest standards of sexual virtue. Men, especially gentlemen, were encouraged by the customs of the country to maintain a predatory attitude toward women. A famous example was the secret diary of William Byrd II, an exceptionally full and graphic record of one planter’s very active sex life. In its attitude toward sex, this work was very different from any diary that was kept in Puritan New England. William Byrd was a sexual predator. Promiscuous activity was a continuing part of his mature life, and in some periods an obsession. With very mixed success, he attempted to seduce relatives, neighbors, casual acquaintances, strangers, prostitutes, the wives of his best friends, and servants both black and white, on whom he often forced himself, much against their wishes.
In the period 1709 to 1712, for example, when Byrd was more or less happily married, he was frequently engaged in sexual adventures:
2 [November 1709] I played at [r-m] with Mrs. Chiswell and kissed her on the bed till she was angry and my wife also was uneasy about it, and cried as soon as the company was gone. I neglected to say my prayers, which I ought not to have done, because I ought to beg pardon for the lust I had for another man’s wife.
It is important to note that the remorse he felt on this occasion had to mainly to do with his sense of violating another gentleman’s property. More often, he felt no remorse at all.
Sometimes Byrd and his Virginia gentleman-friends went on collective woman hunts:
11 Mar. 1711. After church Mr. Goodwin invited us to dinner and I ate fish. Here we saw a fine widow Mrs. O-s-b-r-n who had been handsome in her time. From hence we went to Mr. B’s where we drank cider and saw Molly King, a pretty black girl.
20 [October 1711] Jenny, an Indian girl, had got drunk and made us good sport.
21 [October 1711] At night I asked a negro girl to kiss me.6
During this period in his life, Byrd’s sexual adventures were comparatively restrained. After his wife died, he sometimes engaged in this activity on a daily basis. An example comes from a visit to London in the month of September 1719:
7 September … went to see Mrs. S-t-r-d but she was from home …
8 September … saw two women, a mother and daughter who stayed about two hours and then came Mrs. Johnson with whom I supped and ate some fricasee of rabbit and about ten went to bed with her and lay all night and rogered her twice …
9 September … the two Misses Cornish called on us to go to Southwark Fair. We were no sooner there but Sally Cornish was so ill she was forced to go away to her sister and Colonel Cecil and I gallanted them to G-v-n [Covent] Garden
11 September … I wrote some English till nine and then came Mrs. S-t-r-d. I drank a glass of wine to our good rest and then went to bed and rogered her three times. However, I could not sleep and neglected my prayers. …
12 … went to the coffeehouse … after supper I was very sleepy and about nine went home in a chair. It rained hard.
14 … About eight I went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met Molly and had some oysters for supper and about eleven we went to bed and I rogered her twice …
17 … about seven I went to Mrs. FitzHerbert’s where I ate some boiled pork and drank some ale. About nine I walked away and picked up a girl whom I carried to the bagnio and rogered her twice very well. It rained abundance in the night.
October was a lean month.
1 October … we went to Will’s and from thence to the play, where was abundance of company and particularly Mrs. [Cambridge], as pretty as an angel. After the play I walked home and said my prayers.
2 October … went to meet Molly H-r-t-n at Mrs. Smith’s in Jermyn Street where I went to bed with her and lay till 9 o’clock but could do nothing. Then we had chicken for supper and I gave her two Guineas and about twelve walked home and neglected my prayers …
6 October. … endeavored to pick up a whore but could not. I neglected my prayers, for which God forgive me …
7 October … picked up a whore and carried her to a tavern where I gave her a supper and we ate a broiled fowl. We did nothing but fool and parted about 11 o’clock and I walked home and neglected my prayers …
Within a few weeks he was well again.
16 October picked up a woman and went to the tavern where we had a broiled fowl and afterwards I committed uncleanness for which God forgive me. About eleven I went home and neglected my prayers.
17 October … to the play where was but indifferent company …
20 October … to the play where I saw nobody I liked so went to Will’s and stayed about an hour and then went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met a very tall woman and rogered her three times …
In November, William Byrd and his English gentleman-friends were prowling in packs.
11 November, went with Lord Orrery to Mrs B-r-t-n where we found two chambermaids that my Lord had ordered to be got for us and I rogered one of them and about 9 o’clock returned again to Will’s where Betty S-t-r-d called on me in a coach and I went with her to a bagnio and rogered her twice, for which God forgive me …
12 … sat a little with Mrs. Perry …
13 … took my ways towards Mrs. Southwell’s but she was from home. Then I walked in the park and went to Ozinda’s … After we went to Will’s … then … to Mistress B-r-t and stayed about an hour
14 … went away to Will’s where a woman called on me … then went to a bagnio where I rogered my woman but once. Her name was Sally Cook. There was a terrible noise in the night like a woman crying. …
22 … walked home and by the way picked up a woman and committed uncleanness with her, for which God forgive me …
27 … We sat and talked till ten and then retired and I kissed the maid and neglected my prayers
28 … I ate some boiled milk for supper and romped with Molly F-r-s-y and about 9 o’clock retired and kissed the maid so that I committed uncleanness, for which God forgive me.
29 … After dinner it rained, that I could not walk so was content to romp with Molly F-r-s-y. In the evening we drank tea, and then sat and talked till seven, when I ate some boiled milk for supper. After supper we sat and talked and romped a little. About ten I retired and kissed the maid and said my prayers …7
Sexual predators such as William Byrd have existed in every society. But some cultures more than others have tended to encourage their activities, and even to condone them. This was the case in tidewater Virginia, with its strong ideas of male supremacy and masculine assertiveness. William Byrd’s behavior differed only in degree from Thomas Jefferson’s relentless pursuit of Mrs. Walker, or George Washington’s clumsy flirtation with Mrs. Fairfax. These men represented the best of their culture; the sexual activities of other planters made even William Byrd appear a model of restraint. An old tidewater folk saying in Prince George’s County, Maryland, defined a virgin as a girl who could run faster than her uncle.8
The sexual predators of Virginia found many opportunities among indentured servant girls during the seventeenth century. The journal of John Harrower described free and easy fornication with female servants in Virginia. Exceptionally high rates of prenuptial pregnancy and illegitimacy among English female immigrants to Virginia was in part due to this cause. There is evidence in the records that some masters deliberately impregnated their servants as a way of extending their indentures.9
In the eighteenth century, race slavery created other opportunities for planter predators, some of whom started at an early age to exercise a droit du seigneur over women in the slave quarters. Philip Fithian noted that the master’s son, Bob Carter, one Sunday morning took “a likely Negro girl” into the stable and was for a “considerable time lock’d … together.” Bob was sixteen years old.10
The abolitionist indictment of slavery for its association with predatory sex had a solid foundation in historical fact. One thinks of Mary Boykin Chesnut’s response to the antislavery movement in the nineteeenth century:
Like the patriarchs of old our men live in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds. … You see, Mrs. Stowe did not hit on the sorest spot. She makes Legree a bachelor.11
Mrs. Chesnut knew whereof she spoke, and was haunted by her knowledge of sexual predators within her own family. But she (and the abolitionists, and many historians too) were very much mistaken in thinking that the “peculiar institution” of race slavery itself was the first cause of this behavior. The same pattern had appeared in Virginia before slavery was widespread. It had also existed in rural England.
The cultural idea of the predatory male was carried very far in early Virginia—even to the point of condoning rape. The diaries and commonplace books of Anglo-American gentlemen often recorded a complaisant and even jocular attitude toward rape that differed very much from prevailing mores in Puritan New England. The founders of New England made rape a hanging crime. In the courts of the Chesapeake colonies, it was sometimes punished less severely than petty theft—a different attitude from the Puritan colonies.12
The sex ways of the southern colonies differed from New England in other ways as well. Virginians had a way of thinking about fertility which set them apart from New England Puritans. The people of Virginia thought less of the biblical commandment to increase and multiply and replenish the earth which so obsessed the Puritans, and more of breeding stocks and bloodlines. Children of the elite were bred to one another in a manner not unlike dogs and horses. Much interest was shown in blood lines. The gentry of Virginia studied one another’s genealogies as closely as a stockman would scrutinize his stud books.
Gentlemen took pride in the fertility of their women and their animals—sometimes in the same breath. A seventeenth-century gentleman named William Blundell expressed delight in his ménage, when within 24 hours his wife was delivered of a son, his prize cow produced a calf, a sow dropped fifteen piglets, a bitch gave birth to sixteen puppies, a cat had four kittens, and his hens laid fifteen eggs.13
Women in the Chesapeake were called “breeders,” a word not unknown in New England, but decidedly uncommon.14 A great planter, Landon Carter, complained of Virginia ladies, “I do believe women have nothing general in view, but the breeding contests at home. It began with poor Eve and ever since then has been so much of the devil in woman.”15
Little girls were encouraged to think of themselves in these terms. The Presbyterian tutor at Nomini Hall, Philip Vickers Fithian, was shocked to discover Fanny Carter (aged ten) and Harriet (aged six) playing at pregnancy. “Among the many womanish Fribbles which our little Misses daily practise,” he wrote in his diary, “I discovered one today no less merry than natural; Fanny and Harriet by stuffing rags and other Lumber under their Gowns just below their Apron-Strings, were prodigiously charmed at their resemblance to Pregnant Women! They blushed, however, pretty deeply on discovering that I saw them.”16
There was little prudery in this society—less than in New England. A visitor to Virginia was startled to see ladies buying naked male slaves after carefully examining their genitals.17 The earthiness of this culture appeared in a case of adultery heard by the court of Accomack and Northampton counties in 1643. Two witnesses, John Tully and Susanna Kennett, heard a “great snoring” on a house. John Tully testified that “there was a hogshead of tobacco in the entrie directly agynst the door, so this deponent and the said Susanna stood upon the said hogshead,” and peered inside. They saw Goodwife Mary West and Richard Jones lying abed, “both arm in arm,” Jones asleep and snoring lustily into
Mary West’s plackett. Susanna Kennett testified that she saw Mary West
put her hand in his codpiece and shake him by the member, whereupon this deponent could not forbear from laughing. And then this deponent and the said Tully did run away from the place where they stood.18
What was striking about this episode was not merely the event itself, but the spirit in which it was described, which was far removed from the tone (if not the substance) of prevailing sexual attitudes in Puritan New England.