The Magazine

Virginia Inflamed

Bacon’s Rebellion: power grab or principled uprising?

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By MARK TOOLEY
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A century before the Declaration of Independence, Virginia colonists, mostly from the frontier backcountry, rebelled against their imperious royal governor and his privileged Tidewater elites, forcing him into exile and burning the capital of Jamestown. Their revolution collapsed when their young, charismatic chieftain, Nathaniel Bacon, himself a Cambridge-educated member of the gentry, was consumed by the body lice that had compelled the daily burning of his shirts.

His gloating foe, Governor William Berkeley, turned to poetry:

Bacon is Dead I am sorry at my hart

that Lice and Flux should take the hangmans part.

Berkeley still had plenty of work for the hangman, quickly executing about 23 of Bacon’s lieutenants before royal commissioners arrived. “That old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than I did for the murder of my father,” Charles II said of Berkeley, whom his father had appointed more than 35 years earlier.

With such violent, impetuous characters, no history of Bacon’s Rebellion is likely to bore, and Tales from a Revolution doesn’t disappoint. But it ambitiously aims to connect Virginia’s brief civil war to a larger transatlantic narrative of Protestant fears that Roman Catholics were plotting to retake England, culminating with the 1688 overthrow of Charles II’s Catholic brother, James II. This interpretation intrigues but probably overreaches for this brief volume, which has Bacon’s death at midstory.

The duel between the elderly but robust Berkeley, older than Virginia itself, and the precocious Bacon, born after Berkeley had become governor, is sufficient unto itself. Its high point was their 1676 confrontation outside the state house in Jamestown. 

“God damne my blood, I came for a Commission and a Commission I will have,” Bacon demanded, with hundreds of armed supporters wanting their chief ordained Virginia’s warlord against the Indians. Berkeley, with Virginia’s legislators behind him, was an even greater dramatist: “Here! Shoot me!” he exclaimed, ripping open his shirt. “Foregod, fair Mark, shoot!” A frightened legislator, lacking the governor’s resolve, dropped his handkerchief in surrender, compelling Berkeley to accede, temporarily.

Having ruled Virginia during the last great Indian uprising of 1644, which killed 20 percent of the colony, and defeated the ancient uncle of the long-since-departed Pocahontas, Berkeley was no softie. Bacon, to him, must have initially seemed a trifle. But the youthful rebel, soaring across Virginia history like a comet, in only a few months upended Great Britain’s largest and wealthiest colony with his audacity and mystical appeal to aggrieved backwoodsmen.

Berkeley, purportedly indifferent to those backwoodsmen, had maintained an approximate peace with the neighboring tribes, from which he and other Tidewater grandees profited, especially as a result of the Indian slaves that were sold to them by rival tribes. Occasional violence was managed. The ancestors of George Washington and George Mason, leading militia, provoked a larger conflict by mistakenly killing friendly tribesmen in reprisal for killings likely by others. The frontier was aflame.

Unlike most wealthy planters, Nathaniel Bacon, who served on the governor’s privy council, lived near the frontier, near present-day Richmond. Indians killed his overseer, stirring his indignation and bonding him to his commoner neighbors, who acclaimed him their general. They, like many Virginians, resented Berkeley’s perceived strategic passivity, which preferred forts to aggressive warfare. Bacon led his new army into the wilds, persuading a friendly tribe to destroy an enemy tribe, his men watching as tribesmen tortured their tribal captives by “running fyer brands up their bodys and the like.” An apparent dispute over spoils then erupted, with Bacon destroying his putative allies.

Bacon believed that all Indians, even purported allies, had to be expunged from Virginia if the colonists, especially his vulnerable frontier followers, were to be safe. Berkeley was appalled by what he viewed as Bacon’s insolence and insanity. Bacon’s initial appearance in Jamestown included a faux reconciliation, with Bacon pledging allegiance and Berkeley exclaiming before his government, “If there be joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth, there is joy now, for we have a penitent sinner come before us.” As Bacon knelt before him, Berkeley repeated three times, ceremonially: “God forgive you, I forgive you .  .  .”