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 .  .  .”

The farce collapsed when Bacon extorted his commission from Berkeley at gunpoint. For months the rebel, who purportedly wanted to safeguard the frontier, had been battling friendly Indians, the governor, and any Virginian hesitant to support him. Many were browbeaten into signing an oath to Bacon, making them complicit in rebellion. Berkeley escaped to the Eastern Shore, where he awaited British regulars and gradually gained control of Virginia’s waterways with his ships.  

Bacon issued stirring, grandiose proclamations, some faintly foreshadowing the revolutionary documents of a hundred years later. And although he had claimed loyalty to the crown in defying an ostensibly corrupt governor, he privately pondered an independent republic supported by the Dutch. He burned Jamestown to deprive Berkeley and British troops of a base.  

After months of military campaigning, Bacon was plagued by “swarms of Vermine .  .  . bred in his body” and a bloody flux from his bowels. A clergyman whom Bacon had previously warned to “preach in the Church, not in the Camp” unsuccessfully tried to comfort him as he died. He was not yet 30.

Berkeley defeated Bacon’s followers and expected acclaim from the visiting royal commissioners. Instead, they faulted the governor for misrule and were further enraged when they recognized the carriage driver Berkeley had assigned them as the hangman who executed Bacon’s associates. Now in his mid-70s, Berkeley returned to London to argue his case but died before he had his royal audience. His successor moved Virginia’s capital to Williamsburg, named for the Protestant monarch who overthrew the Catholic James II.

Author James Rice highlights an anonymous colonial appeal to Britain that described Bacon’s revolt as the first act against a plot by Berkeley and Lord Baltimore, neighboring Maryland’s Catholic proprietor, to “drive us Protestants to Purgatory.” This “Complaint from Heaven” claimed that the papists wished to betray America, with Indian help, to French Canada’s Jesuits: “Are wee Rebels because wee will not submit to their arbitrary government and entangle our innocent posterity under their tyrannical yoke of papacy?”  

Proto-Bacons in Maryland overthrew Lord Baltimore in 1688, hailing England’s new Protestant regime, whose victory vindicated Bacon, since he had fought the Stuart royal governor. So maybe Bacon was an early Whig, or Oliver Cromwell lite. Or maybe Bacon foreshadowed Southern white populism, which opposed white elites and established a racial hierarchy that privileged poor whites at the expense of Indians and blacks. After Bacon, Virginia’s tribes were vanquished, and black slaves replaced Indian slaves and white indentured servants.

So was Nathaniel Bacon a Protestant triumphalist, a white populist, or an early forerunner of American independence? Actually, he was mostly an adept opportunist who briefly but fantastically exploited his time and place. Governor Berkeley recalled that Bacon had burned Jamestown’s church with “his owne irreligious hands.” Consequently, the Almighty, recalling Bacon’s oath of “God damme my Blood,” had “so infected his blood that it bred lice in incredible number that for twenty dayes he never washt his shirts but burned them.”

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century