Bacon’s Rebellion ‘hastened end of executive tyranny’
It would be another century before the English colonies erupted into war with the Motherland. But in the mid-1670s, Virginia was already seething with restlessness and discontent.
Thanks to declining tobacco prices and growing competition from Maryland and the Carolinas, Virginia’s one-crop economy – already slammed by a series of hailstorms, floods, droughts and hurricanes – was foundering. Colonists were resentful over what they perceived to be excessive taxes, and displeased with trade restrictions under England’s Navigation Acts.
“It was a complex chain of oppression in Virginia,” writes Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States. “The Indians were plundered by white frontiersmen, who were taxed and controlled by the Jamestown elite. And the whole colony was being exploited by England, which bought the colonists’ tobacco at prices it dictated and made 100,000 pounds a year for the King.”
Native Americans, free and enslaved blacks, and colonists (many of them indentured servants) had long been struggling to coexist; but in the uncertain economic climate, tensions were approaching the boiling point.
In 1675, skirmishes between frontier settlers and Indians in the Potomac River valley escalated into violence and led to widespread fear of organized Indian raids. But Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley – who presided over what historian Virginius Dabney called “a virtual dictatorship” in the colony – continued to plead for restraint and a peaceful resolution.
Accused of protecting the fur trade with which he was personally involved, Berkeley advocated for a containment policy and proposed to erect forts at strategic points along the frontier. The settlers regarded his plan as both ineffective and expensive– nothing but a flimsy excuse to raise tax rates.
By the spring of 1676, nearly 500 settlers had been killed, and a group of citizens approached the governor for permission to march against the Indians. When the governor refused, the citizens turned to a 28-year-old Henrico planter and recent immigrant named Nathaniel Bacon for leadership.
What began as an external conflict and a dispute over Indian policy was soon to ignite into a civil war, pitting anti-Indian settlers (including many servants and slaves) against the governor and his conciliatory policies. At its height, the rebellion so threatened the governor that he was forced to flee the burning capital city of Jamestown, prompting the King to dispatch soldiers across the Atlantic.
As the first uprising against English authority in the North American colonies, Bacon’s Rebellion is considered a precursor to the American Revolution, and ranks No. 7 on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant events in Henrico’s 400-year history.
‘Commission or no commission!’
Born into a wealthy and prominent family in England, Nathaniel Bacon (a cousin of Francis Bacon) had been in the colony only a few months when the governor – no doubt influenced by Bacon’s powerful connections – had appointed him to the Virginia Council of State.
Described as “young, bold,active, of an inviting Aspect, and powerful Elocution,” Bacon was not only well-connected but well-educated, eloquent and intelligent. His critics, however, considered him unpleasantly arrogant; one sneered at him as “an indulged only son.”
But after Bacon’s defiance of the unpopular governor – who announced that anyone who proceeded against the Indians without authorization would be hanged as a rebel – he became a hero.
“If the redskins meddle with me,” said Bacon – who had lost the overseer of his Curles Neck property to an Indian raid – “damn my blood but I’ll harry them, commission or no commission!’
Raising his own militia, Bacon led a force that incited attack against some local, relatively friendly Indians. Berkeley denounced Bacon and his men as traitors, and expelled Bacon from the Council.
Bacon’s followers responded by unanimously electing him to the House of Burgesses from Henrico County, and on June 5, the assembly gathered for what is historically refereed to as Bacon’s Assembly. But when Bacon attempted to take his seat, Berkeley had him arrested.
After Bacon apologized for his offenses, Berkeley pardoned him and reinstated him on the council. He later changed his mind, but by now Bacon’s supporters controlled much of the colony. In Henrico County, the Baconians even prevented the sheriff from reading the governor’s proclamation of condemnation.
Laws and declarations
Later that month, Bacon returned to the statehouse in Jamestown with 500 men and arms drawn, demanding that the governor commission him as a general to lead the settlers against the Indians. An ugly standoff ensued in which Berkeley famously responded by baring his chest and daring Bacon to shoot him; but the governor eventually yielded to
Bacon’s demands and retreated to the Eastern Shore.
In the final three days of the legislative session, the colonial assembly enacted several statutes known as “Bacon’s Laws,” limiting the powers of the governor and restoring suffrage rights to all freemen whether they owned land or not.
In late July, Bacon issued the first in a series of declarations of grievance and complaint against Berkeley. In his “Declaration of the People” he accused Berkeley of raising unjust taxes, elevating his cronies to high office, monopolizing the beaver trade and interfering with his campaigns against the Indians. He signed the declaration,
“General, by the consent of the people,” and followed the announcement by marching to the lower Rappahannock River to attack the Pamunkey Indians.
While Bacon was fighting the Pamunkeys, Berkeley temporarily regained control of Jamestown. But Bacon’s forces returned, and on September 19, after Berkeley abandoned the capitol, Bacon’s men occupied and torched Jamestown, burning it to the ground.
Word of the uprising reached King Charles II of England in late October, and he signed a proclamation to put down the rebellion -- unaware that Nathaniel Bacon had died suddenly the day before of dysentery. Although Bacon’s burial site is unknown, some speculate that his body ended up in the York River, since he died near its banks.
Without its leader, the rebellion collapsed. Governor Berkeley briefly returned to power, until the king relieved him of his
governorship and recalled him to England.
Bacon’s rebellion remains one of the more controversial events in Virginia history, and even now, scholars continue to debate its causes and significance.
For years, historians considered the 1676 event to represent the first stirring of the revolutionary sentiment that would culminate in the American Revolution. In later decades, however, some historians viewed Bacon’s Rebellion as more of a power struggle between two stubborn personalities, rather than as a fight against tyranny.
In A New Look at the Old Dominion, Marshall Fishwick noted at least 17 novels had been written about the rebellion and that early writers tended to glorify Bacon’s memory, portraying him as a reformer and Berkley as an oppressor. “In them,” wrote Fishwick, “Bacon appears as a Virginia Robin Hood, defending the weak against the strong and
the poor against the rich.”
But other sources contradict that view, casting Bacon’s men as “highhanded with Indian affairs.” In addition, said Fishwick, “The notion that the Rebellion was an attempt at political reform cannot be documented. . . The only laws in which [Bacon’s followers] were interested were those authorizing attacks on the redmen who blocked their expansion.”
Nevertheless, the rebellion led to significant changes in Virginia.
While the farmers did not succeed in their goal of driving Native Americans from Virginia, they did succeed in wiping out several of the remaining tribes. As for the surviving rebels, many of them headed for the frontier, thus boosting the wave of westward expansion.
Seeing black and white indentured servants joining the rebellion alarmed the ruling class, and some historians have argued that it prompted tobacco planters to replace servants with African slaves – thus hastening the colonists’ embrace of an economy based on slave labor.
In his history of Virginia, Virginius Dabney points out that while Bacon’s Laws were repealed a few months after his death, some of them were then partially reenacted. What’s more, Bacon’s “Declaration of the People” was the first expression of popular sovereignty in the English colonies.
“The revolt,” said Dabney, “also had the salutary effect of warning the British Crown against future excesses.” Bacon’s Rebellion was the first – and, until the American Revolution, the largest -- of what would be 18 popular uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments.
In addition to the rebellion’s impact on political and social conditions in the colony, Dabney notes that it was also the subject of what has been called the first notable poem written in America.
Presumably penned by Virginia planter John Cotton, “Bacon’s Epitaph, Made By His Man” centers around the refrain:
“While none shall dare his obsequies to sing
In deserved measure, until time shall bring
Truth crowned with freedom, and from danger free,
To sound his praises to posterity.”
As Matthew Page Andrews writes in Virginia, the Old Dominion, “[Bacon’s] rebellion did not, indeed, become a revolution.
Physically, it failed, but its principles, its cause and its memories constituted a spiritual heritage.
“It hastened the end of an era of executive tyranny, and future generations were to profit by its lessons.”
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