| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Even three hundred years after his death, Nathaniel Bacon remains a
source of controversy. Some writers have called him the leader of the first
American movement against unrepresentative governmental authority. Bacon’s Rebellion (1675–1677), these
writers tell us, represents the first stirrings of the American urge for representative democracy that would
explode one hundred years later in the American Revolution. Others have painted
Bacon in a less flattering light. These writers have him as the key figure in the development of modern American
racial classifications and the racism that accompanies those classifications.
Still other writers have argued that the significance of the rebellion has been
overblown by later generations who have misread it as a precursor of the future
rather than a reflection of the past.
At his birth in 1647,
Bacon seemed an unlikely candidate for any of these roles. Born into an English
family of high social rank, Bacon was headed for the life of a gentleman squire
on a lavish estate, the same as generations of his family before him. He
married in 1670, but his father-in-law, Sir Edward Duke, saw something so
unacceptable in him that he disinherited his daughter Elizabeth. A few years
after his marriage, Bacon’s mishandling of financial matters led his own father
to send him to Virginia, where he settled upriver from the capital of Jamestown
in the hopes of profiting from the lucrative fur trade with local Indians.
However, colonial Virginia was not a place where newcomers, even newcomers of
social distinction, found life easy. By 1670, the colonial population had grown
to about thirty thousand, but fewer than about ten percent could be considered
successful planters. Most were tenants, foreman, laborers, indentured servants,
or slaves. Bacon, too, had a difficult time making his plantations a success,
even though he quickly began receiving favorable treatment from the colony’s
governor, William Berkeley, his cousin by marriage. Like the vast majority of
Virginia colonists at the time, Berkeley was born in England but spent
considerable time in the colonies, serving two terms as governor. Berkeley
enjoyed great popularity during his first term, from 1641 to 1652. Removed from
office in 1652 when he refused to side with the Puritan Commonwealth government
in the English Civil War, Berkeley returned to power in 1660 but without the
wide support he had earlier received. His refusal to call new elections of the
local assembly, which thus sat continuously for fourteen years, his taxation
policies, and his clear favoritism toward elite Virginians helped produce a
climate of unrest among the majority of colonial Virginians in the years
following the restoration of the English monarchy.
The events known as
Bacon’s Rebellion began soon after Bacon’s arrival in 1676, when a dispute
between a group of Doeg Indians and English colonists over livestock turned
deadly. Tensions among the colonists and between the colonists and the Indians
had been simmering for some time. After English settlers were killed, though, a
good number of the colonists wanted the Virginia authorities to organize a
force to attack the local Indians, regardless of their involvement in the
dispute, on the grounds that all Indians were alike in being enemies to the
English. Berkeley decided against launching a large-scale attack.
Instead, he proposed building a series of forts that would double as trading
posts. His attempt to prevent indiscriminate strikes against all Indians while making
a tidy profit for himself only served to provoke the colonists. Settlers on the
south side of the James River, who were most antagonistic to local Indians as
well as most abused by Berkeley’s trading policies, staged a rally to protest
Berkeley’s plan. Bacon had also suffered losses in the aftermath of the dispute
between Doegs and colonists, and he agreed to lead the colonists against the
local Indians. He no doubt believed his good relations with the governor and
his high social standing provided sufficient grounds for assuming leadership of
the colonial force, though whether he had overstepped his authority became the
subject of considerable dispute in the following months.
The forces led by Bacon
initially attacked only the local Indians, but the war soon turned into a civil
conflict when Berkeley issued a proclamation labeling as traitors all those
aligned with Bacon. Bacon’s forces were able to capture and burn the capital,
and they had control of most of the colony for at least three months. But Bacon
died suddenly of natural causes, and the rebellion ended soon afterward. In
all, the hostilities lasted only about one year. When troops from England
arrived, Berkeley was removed from office and taken to England to explain his
actions. While there, he, too, died of natural causes. The conflict was so
serious, according to the king’s agents, that the colonists were thought to be
willing to transfer their allegiance—and the profits to be had from the tobacco
trade—to a foreign monarch.
Whatever the historical
legacy of Bacon’s Rebellion—whether the birthplace of American freedom,
American racism, some combination of both, or an outcome unrelated to the
history of a nation not yet even imagined—the events spawned an outpouring of
plays, poems, novels, and histories. The English playwright Aphra Behn’s The
Widow Ranter (1689), for instance, used the rebellion to examine the
changing notions of nobility in English society, and the satiric poem “The
History of Colonial Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia” (1731) by the
so-called “poet Laurette” of Maryland, Ebenezer Cooke, cast Bacon and his
collaborators as a “Publick Evil” whose actions threatened to undermine royally
sanctioned authority. After the Revolutionary War, American novelists across
the political spectrum seized on the opportunity to use the rebellion of these
very English subjects as a stage for investigating where a distinctively
American culture could be said to begin and, in the process, helping re-imagine
what it meant to be American in the first place.
In the Heath Anthology
Manifesto Concerning the Present Troubles in Virginia
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Declaration against the Proceedings of Nathaniel Bacon
The transcripts of William Berkeley's declaration against "the rebel Bacon."
Plymouth Colony Wills
An eerie inventory of Bacon's posthumous assets.
Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, vol. 2, 1997
Charles M. Andrews, ed., Narratives of the Insurrections, New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1959
Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia, 1996
Edmund S. Morgan. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975
Stephen Webb, 1676: The End of Independence, 1985