Nathaniel Bacon

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Bacon, Nathaniel

January 2, 1647

London, England

October, 1676

Jamestown, Virginia

Colonial leader and landowner

"Gentlemen of your quality come very rarely into this country."

William Berkeley's comment to Nathaniel Bacon.

Nathaniel Bacon was a political leader and landowner in seventeenth-century Virginia who rose to prominence at a time when the colony was in turmoil. Wide divisions in social classes had produced a sense of unrest, especially among frontier farmers, who had little protection from Native Americans. The situation was brought to a crisis when the British governor, William Berkeley (see entry), adopted the Franchise Act of 1670. The law created an elite government by restricting the voting rights to a chosen few. Bacon became a popular leader when he supported farmers who felt left out of the governing process and needed protection from Native Americans who raided their farms. Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 began after Bacon raised a militia (citizens' army) and stormed the steps of the assembly building in Jamestown, Virginia. Throughout the uprising Bacon enjoyed the popular support of the people as he attempted to force Berkeley from office. Historians have debated Bacon's impact on colonial history, many linking his rebellion to the beginning of slavery in America.

Emigrates to the colony of Virginia

Nathaniel Bacon was born on January 2, 1647. According to some sources, his place of birth was London, England. His father was Thomas Bacon of Friston Hall, Suffolk, and his cousin was Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon. As a young man, Bacon attended Cambridge University and Gray's Inn, a school of law. After graduating he traveled throughout Europe. In 1673 he married Elizabeth Duke, daughter of Edward Duke. They emigrated (moved from another country) to the Virginia colony and settled at Curl's Neck in Henrico County, on the James River near the border of Native American territory. Because of Bacon's political abilities and social connections, he quickly gained influence in the colony. His uncle was a member of the government council, which led to the younger Bacon being appointed to a seat on the council. Being of a rebellious nature, Bacon set out to change the system as soon as he took office. He aligned himself with the common people and strove to solve their problems.

William Berkeley

William Berkeley was a controversial British colonial governor of Virginia. In 1642 he arrived in the colony to serve his first term. During his tenure (term of holding a position or office) he extended exploration of the New World (a European term for North America and South America), expanded agriculture, and defeated Native Americans and their Dutch allies. He also punished dissenters (those who question existing authority) in Virginia. In 1652 Berkeley was ousted by a group of Puritans from England. The former governor retreated to his Virginia plantation until he was reappointed by British monarchs King William III and Queen Mary II in 1660. Ten years later he established the Franchise Act, which restricted voting rights in the colony to wealthy landowners and businessmen. The Franchise Act, as well as his refusal to protect frontiersmen from Native Americans, led to an uprising known as Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, in which colonial rebel Nathaniel Bacon raised a militia against Berkeley.

Roots of rebellion

Colonial America was a land in turmoil during the late seventeenth century. Most of the trouble was centered in Virginia, England's most treasured colony. This unrest led directly to Bacon's Rebellion, which occurred in 1676. The roots of the insurrection (an act of revolt against civil authority or an established government) can be traced back sixteen years, to 1660, when William Berkeley was reappointed governor of Virginia. At first Berkeley was popular with the people, but this support began to fade. Historians point out that a major factor in his decline was his willingness to give power in Virginia to English merchants at the expense of other citizens. Evidence for this view was the Franchise Act of 1670, a law that gave voting rights only to landowners and people who owned houses. This enabled him to surround himself with a small elite government, the Green Spring faction, which he named for his Green Spring plantation. Meanwhile, the remainder of the population were indentured servants (people bound by signed documents to work as laborers or household help for a specified time) who could not afford land and thus could not obtain the right to vote. Soon there was widespread unrest in Virginia.

Colonists seek revenge

Despite these problems, the colony began to grow. As a consequence of expansion, the borders of the settlement eventually reached Native American territory. The Virginia colonizers generally did not get along with the native peoples, whom they often accused of stealing from their farms. This tension between colonists and Native Americans led to violence. One of the first serious incidents occurred in 1675, when members of the Doeg tribe killed an overseer (one who supervises workers) on a plantation. The Virginia government responded by forming a militia led by Colonel George Mason and Captain John Brent. When the militia attacked two Native American cabins, they did not realize that members of the Susquehannock tribe were inside instead of Doegs. After killing fourteen Susquehannocks, the militia continued their advance. Five Susquehannock chiefs immediately protested that the colonists had been killed by a Seneca war party, not by Susquehannocks. The Virginians refused to believe them, claiming Susquehannocks had recently been seen in the area, wearing the clothes of the white victims. The Virginians then executed the chiefs.

When the Susquehannocks began to retaliate, the fighting escalated. At this point Berkeley tried to end the conflict by declining to launch another attack. Many Virginians protested, accusing him of trying to protect the fur trade with Native Americans. They contended that the fur trade was important to Berkeley because it made a lot of money for the economy and ensured his support among local, wealthy merchants. This conflict only served to distance Berkeley even more from the new Virginia colonizers, especially the citizens of Charles and Henrico counties. Frontiersmen in these outlying areas wanted to continue fighting to protect their property. Since they could get no leadership from Berkeley, they turned instead to Bacon. He rallied the frontiersmen to form their own militia, with reinforcements from the Ocaneechee tribe. The newly formed militia immediately tracked down a group of Susquehannocks and defeated them. Berkeley was furious with Bacon and declared him a traitor.

Bacon issues proclamation

During his famous rebellion, colonial leader Nathaniel Bacon stormed the steps of the assembly building in Jamestown, Virginia, to demand action for his followers. On July 30, 1676, he issued a declaration "In the Name of the People of Virginia." His goal was to rally popular support by undermining the British governor of the colony, William Berkeley. Bacon had initially come into power after raising a militia of frontier farmers who protested Berkeley's reluctance to retaliate against Native American border raids. In a manifesto known as "Bacon's Laws," Bacon attacked Berkeley for raising unfair taxes "for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends." He also accused Berkeley of selling out Virginia to the fur trade when he "wronged his Majesty's prerogative and interest by assuming monopoly [exclusive control] of the beaver trade." Bacon claimed that Berkeley even allowed Native Americans to murder Virginians by not "appointing any due or proper means of satisfaction for their many invasions, robberies, and murders committed upon us."

While Bacon received widespread support, many Virginians continued to align themselves with Berkeley. In 1676 the citizens of Gloucester County sent a letter to Berkeley pledging their continued support of his leadership. They praised the governor "for securing our neighbors [and] the frontiers of this country from the incursions of the barbarous Indians." Even though Bacon had also raised a militia to fight Native Americans, these citizens cited his lawlessness in requesting more resources from the county with orders "grounded, as he pretends, upon a commission from your Honor to be general of all the forces in Virginia against the Indians." They were mostly disturbed by the behavior of Bacon and his men who "did in many places behave themselves very rudely both in words and actions."

Berkeley tries to regain power

After witnessing Bacon's rise to power, Berkeley became aware of the decline in his own popularity. Therefore, in May 1676 he ordered new elections and issued a declaration. He defended himself as governor of Virginia and suggested several measures through which he hoped to redeem himself. The legislative assembly met in Jamestown on June 5 to act on Berkeley's proposals. Of all the actions he wanted to take, three are considered the most important. First, he planned to pardon Bacon and give him a commission to raise a militia against Native Americans. Second, Berkeley wanted to draft a measure that permitted Virginians to trade only with "friendly Indians." Third, he planned to abolish the Franchise Act of 1670, thus restoring the vote to all freemen (former indentured servants who had gained their freedom), not just landowners.

Bacon leads rebellion

The Virginia legislators approved all three of these proposals. Nevertheless, Bacon rejected the plan because they planned to draw militia members from the entire colony, whereas Bacon wanted to use men from the border territories because he thought they would be more effective and more likely to cooperate than men from other parts of the colony. Also, he demanded to begin immediately instead of waiting for three months until taxes had been raised for the militia. On June 23, 1676, he led 400 armed men up the steps of the Jamestown assembly hall. Bacon's Rebellion had begun. A confrontation ensued and Bacon threatened violence. After forcing the assembly to exempt (free or release from liability) him and his men from prosecution for causing a disturbance, Bacon eventually left with his followers. A humiliated Berkeley declared Bacon a traitor once again, then called up the colonial militia. When Bacon and his men returned on July 30, Berkeley fled to the eastern coast. This time Bacon carried with him a manifesto (statement) titled "In the Name of the People of Virginia," which accused Berkeley of committing numerous injustices. With Berkeley absent, Bacon now had control of Jamestown. When he led his men out into the country and attacked the Pawmunkey tribe, Berkeley returned. On September 18 Bacon launched a final assault on Jamestown, burning the settlement to the ground. By now lawlessness reigned and Berkeley escaped again as looters (robbers) ransacked his plantation at Green Spring.

Bacon's Rebellion might have lasted much longer if Bacon himself had not become ill and died the following October. After his death, the insurrection was put down by Berkeley, who executed twenty-three of Bacon's men—in spite of a royal order pardoning all participants except Bacon. Berkeley finally gave up his position as governor to Colonel Herbert Jeffreys, who appointed a commission to investigate the uprising. The commission members mostly blamed Bacon and his ability to influence the leaderless frontiersmen.

Significance of Bacon's Rebellion?

Historians have long debated the impact of Bacon's Rebellion on colonial American life. In the nineteenth century many thought the insurrection was a bid for American independence from England, and that Bacon was a heroic predecessor to George Washington, a revered leader in the American Revolution (1775–83; a conflict in which American colonists gained independence from British rule). Other scholars pointed out, however, that Bacon had no clear philosophy of liberation and he was not fighting the English. They also suggested that the rebellion was mainly a result of a personal grudge between Bacon and Berkeley. Therefore, because Bacon put his own interests ahead of those of the colony, he is less of a hero. Some historians have even linked Bacon's Rebellion to the beginning of slavery in America. They point out that after the insurrection, colonists decided that African slaves were easier to control than indentured servants.

For further reference

Bacon's Rebellion. Available July 13, 1999.

Harrah, Madge. My Brother, My Enemy. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1997. (Fiction)

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776, second edition. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1996, pp. 149–54.

Nathaniel Bacon, Manifesto. Available July 13, 1999.

Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984.

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Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon (1647-1676) was an American colonial leader in Virginia and the leader of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.

The period of American colonial history which followed the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England (1660) was an era of political and economic instability. Typical of the way converging problems could lead to civil conflict was Bacon's Rebellion. The youthful Nathaniel Bacon took charge of discontented frontiersmen and, during the course of an Indian war, virtually assumed control of the colony of Virginia. The results of Bacon's Rebellion were not lasting; most of the legislative reforms were repealed at its end, and 23 of its leaders met their death by hanging.

Nathaniel Bacon was born on Jan. 2, 1647, at Friston Hall, Suffolk, England. He was the only son of Thomas Bacon, a wealthy landowner. A contemporary remembered him as being tall and slender, "blackhair'd and of an ominous, pensive melancholy Aspect … not much given to talk, … of a most imperious and dangerous Pride of heart, despising the wiser of his neighbours for their Ignorance, and very ambitious and arrogant." These traits of character were evident in Bacon's withdrawal from Cambridge without completing a degree. Upon his marriage to Elizabeth Duke, the bride's father rejected the match and disinherited his daughter. Shortly thereafter, the impetuous Bacon became involved in a scheme to defraud an acquaintance. Disturbed by his errant son's behavior, Thomas Bacon helped Nathaniel and his wife leave England to settle in Virginia.

Arrival in Virginia

Nathaniel Bacon arrived in Virginia in 1674 with both money and influence to aid him. His father and brother-in-law had sent him off with £1,800 and with forewarning to influential relatives in Virginia. Hearing of Bacon's wish to settle on the frontier, Governor William Berkeley helped arrange the purchase of two estates; the governor also assisted Bacon by granting his application to engage in Indian trade. The governor later paid the new planter the honor of a seat on the Council. "Gentlemen of your quality come very rarely into this country," he explained, "and therefore when they do come are used by me with all respect."

Bacon's Rebellion

A variety of causes contributed to Bacon's Rebellion. The immediate cause was the resumption of violent clashes with frontier Indians, including the killing of Bacon's overseer. Vigilante groups sprang up to protect the colonial settlements, and Bacon accepted command of the hastily organized forces. The underlying factors giving rise to the rebellion are variously described by contemporaries. Doubtless, the depressed price of tobacco exports (Virginia's main crop) and unhappiness with English mercantile laws laid bases for discontent. Other causes for dissatisfaction were the vast land grants in northern Virginia made arbitrarily by Charles II to his courtiers. Complaints also arose about the arbitrary governing system of Virginia, especially at the local level, and the inequities of heavy tax assessments. There can be little question, however, that the Indian troubles and Governor Berkeley's failure to react vigorously to demands for action by frontier settlers gave cohesion to Bacon's movement.

Bacon wrote to Governor Berkeley seeking permission to attack the Indians and then, without waiting for a reply, moved his vigilantes against the tribes. But instead of supporting this effort, the governor was furious, believing Bacon's actions would further antagonize the Indians. Hoping to marshal popular support, Berkeley proclaimed Bacon a rebel and dissolved the General Assembly, which had sat for 16 years, calling for new elections. Meanwhile, Bacon had returned a hero from an apparently successful foray against the Indians and was elected to the House of Burgesses.

When the General Assembly met in June 1676, Governor Berkeley decided to try to patch up his quarrel with Bacon. An elaborate public reconciliation was arranged, and Bacon was restored to a seat on the Council. But shortly afterward, the struggle was renewed. Probably, Bacon had expected to receive a formal commission from the governor and to return to his Indian campaign without delay. When this appointment was not forthcoming, he fled Jamestown, regrouped his men, and captured the city. Under duress, Berkeley issued the commission and also signed into law the series of legislative acts known as "Bacon's Laws." It is doubtful that Bacon had much influence over this legislation, but the new laws did indicate some of the issues which had contributed to the controversies of the past months. The most important bill established universal manhood suffrage, while other acts provided for the popular election of church vestries, eliminated tax privileges for councilors, abolished plural office holding, and instituted rules to make the local county government more responsive. This action completed, Berkeley again tried to raise troops to reassert his authority. Failing in an open confrontation with Bacon's superior forces, Berkeley fled Jamestown and a civil war ensued.

Then Bacon's Rebellion collapsed. The immediate cause was Bacon's death, from disease and exposure, on Oct. 26, 1676. Important too was the English government's continuing support of Governor Berkeley: desperate reports of the "uproars" in Virginia had induced Charles II to send 1,130 troops to support the constituted government. Yet even before the troops landed, the rebellion had collapsed, and Governor Berkeley, gathering strength as the rebel forces disintegrated, was able to disperse the remaining rebels and execute their leaders. Berkeley's vindictiveness, however, led to conflicts with the King's representatives and his eventual recall to England in disgrace.

Further Reading

Two opposing views of Bacon are Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon's Rebellion and Its Leader (1940), and Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia (1957). An excellent short appraisal is in Wesley Frank Craven, The Colonies in Transition: 1660-1713 (1967). A good general account of the Southern colonies during this period is Craven's The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century: 1607-1689 (1949). For a penetrating comparison of Bacon's Rebellion with other colonial conflicts see Clarence L. Ver Steeg, The Formative Years: 1607-1763 (1964). □

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Nathaniel Bacon, 1647–76, leader of Bacon's Rebellion in colonial Virginia. An aristocrat (he was kin to Francis Bacon, had been educated at Cambridge and Gray's Inn, and was a member of the governor's council), Bacon nevertheless became the champion of the discontented frontiersmen after only two years' residence in the colony. When he died suddenly from the effects of malaria, the revolt collapsed.