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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Nathaniel Bacon

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.

James Egan
Brown University

In the Heath Anthology
Manifesto Concerning the Present Troubles in Virginia (1670)

Other Works

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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.

Secondary Sources

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