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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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