About the Author:Johnny Roy, PhD has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 9 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has actively been involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 4 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam. Dr. Roy has recently worked with the Ohio Department of Education to help revise the states Model Curriculum for American History.
Bacon’s Rebellion was a brief yet meaningful uprising of western farmers against the government of Virginia culminating in the burning of Jamestown on September 19, 1676. Nathaniel Bacon led an armed revolt against the government of Governor William Berkeley because of:
- A lack of retaliatory action against Indian attacks on western farmers
- Declining tobacco prices coupled with excessive taxation policies that favored the wealthy,
- Accusations of government corruption and favoritism towards the emerging planter elite in Virginia.
While significant as the first popular uprising in America, the rebellion was short-lived due to Bacon’s sudden death in October 1676 and subsequently ended with the seizure of the estates and eventual hanging of 23 of Bacon’s most prominent supporters.
Seeds of Dissent
Nathaniel Bacon was born in 1647 in England to wealthy merchant parents who, in order to avoid a brewing social controversy over an unapproved marriage and fraud accusations, set sail for the city of Jamestown. Upon arriving in the Virginia colony, the well-financed and politically connected Bacon quickly navigated his way up the political hierarchy and was appointed to Governor William Berkeley’s “Governor’s Council” which helped oversee local politics.
Upon arriving in the Virginia colony, the well-financed and politically connected Bacon quickly navigated his way up the political hierarchy
Sir William Berkeley served as the governor of Virginia from 1641-1652 and then served a second term from 1660-1677. As Governor of Virginia, Berkeley favored diversification of crops, not wanting the colony to be solely dependent on tobacco. Berkeley himself experimented with corn, wheat, barley, rye, various fruits, and vegetables hoping that others would follow his example, yet few did due to the popularity and profit possibilities of tobacco. Berkeley also favored tolerant and almost passive policies towards Indians by limiting armed retaliation against natives in the western territories along with enacting restrictive expansion policies on land-thirsty colonists to curtail westward expansion. These constricting policies ultimately became a catalyst for Bacon’s Rebellion against Governor Berkeley and the government of Virginia.
Berkeley favored tolerant and almost passive policies towards Indians by limiting armed retaliation against natives.
Bacon and his followers leveled three major complaints at Governor Berkeley’s stewardship of the colony and used these to instigate the rebellion. These complaints were:
- Berkeley restricted how much land the western farmers could cultivate for crops
- Berkley had restrictive trade policies which hurt western farmers
- Berkley did not help defend western farmers against the Indian attacks.
Economic hardships due to declining tobacco prices motivated western farmers to try and expand their lands to produce more of the cash crop.
Economic hardships due to declining tobacco prices motivated western farmers to try and expand their lands to produce more of the cash crop. However, frequent conflicts with native tribes resulted in Berkeley passing restrictive land expansion policies on the farmers. Bacon saw this as favoritism to the established planter elite in Virginia along with the native Indian tribes, neither of which was satisfactory to Bacon and his growing contingent of followers.
Bacon saw this as favoritism to the established planter elite in Virginia.
Excessive taxation and competition from the tobacco-producing colonies in the Tidewater region of Maryland and the Carolinas further stressed the financial stabilities of the local farmers, as well as the wealthy landowners that did not find themselves in Berkeley’s inner circle and protected by his restrictive trade policies. Increasing prices of English manufactured goods due to the success of mercantilist policies further pushed the frustrated colonists to Bacon’s cause of rebellion. Restrictive trade policies like the Navigation Acts enacted by the English parliament made economic success even more difficult for the small farmers. By 1675, Virginia had become England’s most lucrative American colony, exporting more than 10 million pounds of tobacco annually. In order to protect this monopoly on tobacco, all tobacco products were to be shipped only to England, aboard English ships, and sold at a price established by English merchants.
Restrictive trade policies like the Navigation Acts enacted by the English parliament made economic success even more difficult for the small farmers.
More frequent conflicts with local Indian tribes due to the colonists’ efforts to push west in an attempt to acquire more land once again put Berkeley at odds with Bacon and his followers. Conflicts with local tribes were expensive and destructive and didn’t support the policies of the emerging planter elite who made up Berkeley’s base of power in Virginia. The established wealthy planters wanted to protect their interests by restricting access to land that would allow for the creation of forced labor camps to rival their own. Bacon and his followers saw these actions as corrupt because Berkeley did not allow them to pursue their own economic interests as others maintained a stranglehold on the tobacco profits.
The established wealthy planters wanted to protect their interests by restricting access to land that would allow for the creation of forced labor camps to rival their own.
Bacon and his followers saw these actions as corrupt.
Bacon and his followers levied charges of political corruption against both Governor Berkeley and the House of Burgesses. These charges ultimately led to a battle for political control between the two strong-willed men. Bacon wanted swift and harsh action to be taken against the native tribes for their attacks on local settlements which Berkeley refused. Berkeley urged for a more cooperative relationship with the natives and a restriction of expansion plans by those in the west. Neither of those options was satisfactory to Bacon and simply furthered the divide between the two men.
By 1670, the Virginia House of Burgesses had restricted the vote of landless free white men who now made up more than half of the population in an effort to quell the growing voices of dissent.
“THE POVERTY OF THE COUNTRY IS SUCH THAT ALL THE POWER AND SWAY HAS GOTTEN INTO THE HANDS OF THE RICH…” – Nathaniel Bacon
Berkeley’s refusal to sanction retaliation against the local tribes led Bacon to organize his own raiding parties and defy Berkeley’s orders. Bacon’s Rebellion had begun. Bacon led a growing army in attacking local tribes in the spring and summer of 1676 and was quickly becoming extremely popular as the defender of the western farmer.
Bacon led a growing army in attacking local tribes in the spring and summer of 1676 and was quickly becoming extremely popular as the defender of the western farmer.
At the same time, a new House of Burgesses was being elected, many of whom were loyal to Bacon and his positions. The new electors to the House of Burgess enacted sweeping reforms. Strict limitations on the governor’s power and the restoration of voting rights to non-land holding yeoman farmers were two of the more prominent reforms. Sensing the time was right, Bacon returned to Jamestown with his army and demanded a military commission from Berkeley which was refused, angering Bacon and his supporters even further.
In July of 1676, Bacon issued the “Declaration of the People of Virginia” which soundly criticized Berkeley and his inability to protect the western farmers from Indian attacks and the perceived unfair taxes on yeoman farmers. It also accused Berkeley of corruption and mismanagement within his government. Over the next several months, Bacon and hundreds of his followers clashed with Berkeley’s forces until finally, Bacon took the city of Jamestown in September of 1676.
Not confident in their ability to hold the city for long, Bacon’s forces burned Jamestown on September 19, 1676. Bacon unexpectedly fell ill from typhus and dysentery and died shortly after the burning of Jamestown in October of 1676.
Following the death of Bacon, Governor Berkeley was able to seize the estates of some prominent supporters and eventually hung 23 of Bacon’s men. This resulted in his ability to quickly regain control and the rebellion was abandoned.
The Legacy of Bacon’s Rebellion
Bacon’s Rebellion, while short and ultimately unsuccessful, did signify a shift in Virginia and left several key legacies:
First, the rise of the western yeoman farmer against the coastal planter elite’s social and political power showed that an economic caste system was going to be challenged in America. European society was based on a land-holding aristocracy wielding tremendous power, however the western farmer was willing to display forceful resistance against the creation of such a system. Equal access to economic and political opportunity was seen as something to fight for by lower classes wishing to move up instead of having limited power and the planter elite wishing to stay on top. Culpeper’s Rebellion in 1677 in the Carolina colonies signified the continued resistance to restrictive English policies as the British Navigation Acts continued to limit economic opportunities in the colonies.
The rise of the western yeoman farmer against the coastal planter elite’s social and political power showed that an economic caste system was going to be challenged in America.
Second, while not directly a catalyst for the American Revolution, there are some parallels that can be drawn between the motivation behind Bacon’s Rebellion and the motivation of the colonists 100 years later. The oppressive legislation, taxation policy, restrictive voting and representation rights, and emerging social classes were all causes of Bacon’s Rebellion much like they were during the buildup to the American Revolution throughout the 1750s and 1770s. While similarities existed, historians are hesitant to draw a clear connection between Bacon’s Rebellion as a precursor to the American Revolution. Instead, historians see Bacon’s Rebellion more likely as a result of a power struggle between two men, Nathaniel Bacon and Governor William Berkeley.
A clear shift from a system of indentured servants (who were expensive and became resentful) to African slave labor (cheaper and controllable) in the South began shortly after Bacon’s Rebellion.
Third, a clear shift from a system of indentured servants (who were expensive and became resentful) to African slave labor (cheaper and controllable) in the South began shortly after Bacon’s Rebellion. This was significant because it united the rich and poor whites of the Tidewater region and the Carolina colonies in the formation and growth of the African slave trade in America. This unification of the social classes in the desire for wealth created a growing support for the slave system in America. Throughout the 1600’s, tobacco still was the most profitable crop in the south. However, crop diversification did begin to take place. Due to the institution and expansion of the slave system, rice and indigo became profitable for planters as well, and by the turn of the century they were main crops in the south eventually giving way to cotton in the early 1800’s in what would ultimately become King Cotton.