Bacon's Rebellion erupted in Virginia in 1676 as the result of a power struggle between established planters, newer planters, free men (former indentured servants), slaves, and others over tensions about available land and the role of Indians in the colony. Historians, scholars, politicians, and others often point to Bacon's Rebellion as the first “populist moment” in American history. However, they interpret the nature of this populism differently, making Bacon's Rebellion an event that embodies the contradictions inherent in the “usable past.”
In the seventeenth century, Virginia's tobacco plantations and settlements were ringed with Native peoples who, through treaty or warfare, had ceded their lands to the English and created new towns on the outskirts of the colony. These local Indians consisted of diverse groups, all of whom had different trading and political relationships with the Chesapeake colonists. Some of these relationships were friendlier than others, causing Indians and whites to live in varying states of tension. Moreover, the internal social structure of the Virginia colony complicated these relationships. Before slavery became widespread, tobacco planters looked to indentured servants to meet their labor needs. A servant signed a contract with a master promising to work for a period of years, perhaps five or seven, depending on the terms of the contract. In return, the master would pay the servant's passage to America and provide all his or her food or clothes for the term of the indenture. Once the period of servitude had ended, the newly freed servant would be able to claim land of his own and take his place as a full member of society, a free man. This meant that while they were indentured, servants were neither technically “free,” because their servitude had an end date, nor were they slaves. As time passed, it became harder and harder for newly freed men to find available land. Good lands had already been claimed by the big tobacco planters. Moreover, it became harder to be free. According to historian Edmund S. Morgan, planters did everything in their power to extend servitude contracts through legal means, such as punishment for stealing and running away, which could add years to an existing contract. Morgan asserts that the big planters thus exploited their servants to the fullest extent and made it difficult for them to gain the land and other benefits of free life in Virginia that they had been promised. Thus, the land that was available for free men was often on the fringes of colonial settlement—land that was often already occupied by Indians. This competition for resources among free men and Indians, and between free men and established planters, contributed to Bacon's Rebellion.
The trouble began in 1675 when a party of Doeg Indians helped themselves to some of Thomas Matthew's hogs in exchange for a debt on which they claimed he had reneged. Virginia planters Giles Brent and George Mason, long known as Indian-haters, chased the Doegs down and killed or wounded several of them. They then killed 14 friendly Susquehannahs, who had had nothing to do with the hog theft and were in the neighborhood because they were taking shelter with their allies, the Piscataways, after an attack by Senecas. The English murdered five Susquehannah chiefs after tricking them into a parley. The Susquehannahs then retaliated in several bloody raids against the Virginians. Terror gripped those whites living on the fringes of colonial settlement.
The governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, was reluctant to go to war against the Indians. He had, in fact, authorized a force to chase the Susquehannahs, but he then called it back. Instead, he proposed the building of a series of forts along the frontier. This enraged the English living on the fringe, who felt that the forts would be expensive and ineffectual.
Nathaniel Bacon, age 29, had recently settled in Virginia with his wife, who was a friend of Governor Berkeley's wife. Although young and a fresh arrival, Bacon had money, a seat on the Virginia council, and more than one plantation on the James River. He, like other farmers, had had conflicts with the Indians, and in the spring of 1676 he agreed to head a war party to move against them in defiance of Berkeley's orders. According to Morgan, Bacon was also attempting to diffuse the anger of newly freed men on the frontier by giving them a target for their rage: “The Indians would be the scapegoats. Discontent with upper-class leadership would be vented in racial hatred, in a pattern that statesmen and politicians of a later age would have found familiar” (Morgan 257 ).
Berkeley still preferred to avoid an Indian war and removed Bacon from the council. Bacon did not seem to care. Instead, he attacked friendly Occaneechees, whom he had tricked into capturing a group of Susquehannahs. He killed the prisoners and then the Occaneechees themselves. Berkeley declared Bacon and his followers to be traitors and rebels. He called for new elections, in which Bacon won his seat back. When he arrived in Jamestown, Berkeley arrested him, “presented him to the House of Burgesses on his knees,” then pardoned him after a written confession and apology (Morgan 262 ). Bacon went home, still without his commission to fight the Indians.
He returned to Jamestown with 500 men and demanded his commission from Berkeley, which he received “at gunpoint” (Morgan 264 ). Bacon raised even more men and arms and went marching off to kill Indians and loot their wealth. In his absence, Berkeley voided his commission and raised his own army against Bacon's men. Bacon, again an outlaw, marched back into Jamestown on September 19 and burned it down. Then he looted those who were loyal the crown and distributed their possessions. When Bacon died on October 26 from “bloody flux,” the rebellion petered out. England had sent warships to Virginia. The rebels pledged anew their allegiance to the governor and the crown, and everyone went home, including the Indians.
Morgan asserts that after Bacon's Rebellion, Virginia returned to a status quo where large planters controlled the colony and newly free white men struggled to gain both land and rights. Yet in the years following, racism in the colony grew as slavery became more profitable and widespread. Whereas Bacon's Rebellion had united whites, blacks, and servants against a common enemy, Indians, its aftermath hardened racial lines against both blacks and Native peoples.
Historian Stephen Saunders Webb takes a somewhat different approach to the meaning of Bacon's Rebellion, which he calls Bacon's Revolution. For Webb, Bacon's Revolution was part of a larger independence movement in colonial America, rooted in ideas of republicanism and local control:
The institutional expressions of political revolution and American independence in 1676—the association of taxation with representation; the introduction of general elections and popular participation at every level of the extant government; revolutionary rule by committees of associations, bound by oath to resist oligarchy, monarchy, and empire—were 1676's inheritance from the English Revolution and its legacy to the American Revolution of 1776. So too was the public activity of otherwise repressed classes. Women, servants, and slaves organized and fought the revolution, which was excited by Indian attaches and made articulate by educated English emigrants. (Webb 414 )
For Webb and Morgan, Bacon's Rebellion—an event that seemingly had little effect on its own society—foreshadowed the spirit of liberty and the populist impulse that culminated in the founding of the American state. Disparate elements of society join together to free themselves from a perceived threat—ostensibly Indians, but also from tyranny and the concentration of power as represented by Berkeley and Virginia's Big Men. Each historian identifies the seeds of racism and repression that followed these events, naming the roots of the some of the primary conflicts in American history.
Yet the racism against Indians inherent in Bacon's Rebellion has caused it to become a standard bearer for “right-wing populism,” akin to the Regulator movement in colonial North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan, the Paxton Boys, the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century, Father Coughlin, the John Birch Society, red-baiting, conspiracy theories, and vigilante-style violence against Mormons, Germans, Chinese, and other suspect Americans. Thus, Bacon's Rebellion stands at the beginning of a thread of bigotry, repression, intolerance, and violence that has shot through American life since the colonial era. In short, it is both the harbinger of liberty and the oracle of hate.
Elizabeth S Demers
See also: “The Elite” ; Ku Klux Klan (KKK) ; McCarthy, Joseph (1908–1957) ; Poverty Campaigns ; Proposition 13 (1978) ; Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787) ; Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794) ; Wounded Knee (1890, 1973)
Berlet, Chip, and Matthew N. Lyons. Right-Wing Populism: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press, 2000.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.
Stock, Catherine McNicol. Rural Radicals: From Bacon's Rebellion to the Oklahoma City Bombing. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.